Ottawa Office Roundup: Spotlight on Gaza

The MCC Ottawa Office blog is trying something new, with a semi-regular News Roundup! We want to take the opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

Globe and Mail photo

A Palestinian child plays in an impoverished area of the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 29, 2018. MAHMUD HAMS/GETTY IMAGES

For this first Roundup we want to highlight the deteriorating situation in Gaza, primarily because our partners have reached out, speaking to the growing urgency and desperation of the situation and the people of Gaza. More than one million people in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs. The blockade that Israel imposed in 2007 has devastated the economy and brought unspeakable hardship for Palestinians. Now, as recent funding cuts from UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestine, take hold—life for many is going from bad to worse.

A broad look at the everyday realities

Israel-Palestinian conflict: Life in the Gaza Strip, BBC, May 2018

In May 2018 the world was watching as numbers of causalities and deaths in Gaza peaked – this BBC article took the opportunity to outline the significant daily challenges within Gaza, most directly connected to the blockade, including: freedom of movement, the economy, schools on the verge of closure, insufficient access to essential medicines, food and water, and extremely limited electricity.

Israel tightens Gaza blockade, civilians bear the brunt, Oxfam, July 2018

In mid-2018, Israel tightened the blockade on Gaza even further, exacerbating the above-mentioned concerns, and it is the civilians of Gaza that are bearing the biggest brunt. In this report, Oxfam and others outline the realities and impacts for the people of Gaza, it provides a list of recommended actions for the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority, as well as the international community, of which most seek to address root causes of the situation, with a long-term view.

Long-Lasting impacts and the youth of Gaza

Gaza economy in crisis: World Bank report warns that it’s in ‘free fall’, Middle East Eye, via World Bank, September 2018

The recent report from the World Bank talks about a crippling and unsustainable economy in ‘free fall’, stifled by a more than 10-year blockade, as well as the impacts for Gaza’s youth, where the unemployment rate has risen to 70% despite high levels of post-secondary education.

Generation of children in Gaza on the brink of a mental health crisis, new research shows, Save the Children, June 2018

In Gaza, a generation of children is growing up knowing little else but conflict: a blockade, regular drone attacks and air strikes, the loss of home, or worse, the loss of family and friends. As the humanitarian situation worsens, reports like this one continue to draw attention to the long-lasting impacts of trauma and violence on children.

How to move forward: Addressing structural issues, and not just humanitarian issues

Cash-Strapped Gaza and an Economy in Collapse Put Palestinian Basic Needs at Risk, World Bank, September 2018

Although humanitarian and development support for Gaza is helping to meet urgent immediate needs, there is a need to address some of the root causes and structural factors. This report from the World Bank outlines the limits of humanitarian aid to bring real and sustainable change and growth to Gaza and outlines the push to move beyond merely sustaining life and the conditions as they exist today, to see long-lasting impacts and movement for the better.

Canada’s role and responsibilities, and moving forward

Canada pledges $50-million for vulnerable Palestinians, Globe and Mail, July 2018

In July, the Canadian government pledged $50-million to support vulnerable Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. This announcement followed the Minister of International Development visiting the region, earlier in the month.

Canada gives $50-million to UN Palestinian refugee agency that U.S. calls flawed, Globe and Mail, October 2018

In order to help fill the urgent funding gap as a result of cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which represents Palestinian refugees, Canada and other countries have pledged significant additional support for the situation. Of the $50-million pledged, $38-million will support programs in Gaza.

Why Canadian aid won’t really help Palestinian entrepreneurs, The Conversation, August 2018

As the previous section highlighted, aid is not enough. Humanitarian and development support will help sustain life, while continuing to uphold the current structures, which are stifling growth and long-term improvements in the lives and living conditions of the people of Gaza. While the increases in Canadian humanitarian aid are a positive step, they fall short of addressing the structures that sustain the humanitarian crisis.

MCC invites you to take action: Contact your Member of Parliament!

End the suffering of Gaza, MCC Ottawa Campaign, updated, Oct 2018

We, alongside our partners are calling for continued humanitarian support. But beyond this support, in order to build a peaceful and sustainable future for Gaza, we are calling for the end to the Israeli over a decade-long blockade, which is at the root of so much of the situation in Gaza. In 2018, as the blockade tightens, the humanitarian situation deteriorates.

ACT Today: Urge your MP to show compassion for Gaza! Ask him or her to:

  • Insist to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister on continued humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, but, more critically, that Canada support an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
  • Support policies in keeping with Canada’s official commitment to promote the human rights of all people, including Palestinians and Israelis.

For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work on MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office’s Policy Analyst

Advertisements

Eyes, ears – and a voice – in Washington

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

MCC’s Washington Office is turning 50 this month. This week Ottawa Notebook shares reflections on those 50 years. This story was originally published on June 26, 2018 by Mennonite World Review

In the Feb. 27, 1968, Gospel Herald, Mennonite leader Guy F. Hershberger reflected on why there should be a “Mennonite office” in Washington. He noted the “emergency” in May 1967, when Congress nearly passed legislation that would have placed conscientious objectors under the purview of the military.

“We discovered that many congressmen did not know us as well as we — and they — thought they did,” he wrote.

This incident, along with the work of Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam during the war, helped to persuade Mennonites that they should have “eyes and ears” in Washington. And so, 50 years ago this July, MCC’s Peace Section opened its Washington Office, led by Delton Franz.

Some Anabaptists were not sure MCC should have an office in Washington, preferring to remain “quiet in the land.” But in reality, Mennonite leaders had been meeting regularly with U.S. government officials on the issue of conscientious objection. From 1940 to 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees on the issue.

“Our traditional willingness to testify when our own interests were involved,” observed the executive committee of MCC’s Peace Section in 1966, “has led to suggestions that we should also be willing to testify when the rights of others are involved. Constituent groups have expressed a growing concern that witness to the state should be a dimension of our service of Christian compassion.”

In its early years, the MCC office focused on the draft, military spending vs. human needs, global economic justice, domestic poverty, racial justice and religious liberty. While we still work on some of these topics, there have been shifts. The office’s current priorities reflect MCC’s domestic and international work, including immigration, mass incarceration, North Korea, Nigeria and the Syria crisis. In each of these areas, there is still a great need for “Christian compassion” in the political sphere.

When the office opened, many saw it as representing “the” Mennonite voice in Washington. Of course, Mennonites have never been of one mind on political issues. Mennonite agencies and individuals have increasingly advocated directly with the U.S. government on issues ranging from health care to education to peace and security.

Our office is no longer just a listening post but monitors and analyzes policies, facilitates meetings for MCC staff and constituents and encourages church members to be advocates themselves. As we carry out these activities, we listen to and learn from churches and partners in the U.S. and around the world.

In its earlier years, the office saw one of its main activities as sponsoring seminars for Mennonites in Washington. Some seminars drew more than 100 participants. Today, we have found there is not as much demand for MCC seminars, as many more conferences vie for people’s attention. So we partner with other Christian organizations to sponsor “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” each spring and meet with school and church groups who come to Washington.

mcc-washington-hur

Hyun Hur of ReconciliAsian, Samuel Resendez of Iglesia La Roca and Rhonda Dueck of North Fresno (Calif.) Mennonite Brethren Church speak with California Rep. Judy Chu’s aides, Krystal Ka’ai and Rricha Mathur, as part of an immigration delegation in February. — Danielle Gonzales/MCC

Have we changed?

One concern expressed when the office was opened was that Washington would change Mennonites more than Mennonites would change Washington. It is a valid concern. Our staff take regular retreat days to remind ourselves of our rootedness in Christ and the reason we do this work.

But there is also some hubris in assuming our voice is unique and should not change. In his Gospel Herald article, Hershberger argued Mennonites have a “more sound theological base” than other peace groups.

Anabaptists do have important contributions to make to the discussions in Washington. But these days, it is frequently our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues who push us to think about what peace looks like.

We also have much that we can continue to learn about advocacy by and with — not just on behalf of — people who are on the margins. These voices are within our churches and outside them. This past February, many of the church leaders who came to Washington to advocate for better immigration policies spoke from firsthand experience.

MCC’s connections to communities directly impacted by U.S. policies provide integrity to our advocacy. On a recent trip to Lebanon, one of MCC’s partners said, “We partner with you not only for your [financial] support, but for your advocacy.” In recent months, MCC staff who traveled to Syria and North Korea were able to share their experiences with congressional offices.

U.S. policymakers may not always follow our recommendations, but they know us better than they once did.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director for the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

$1.7 trillion

In 2016, global military spending amounted to a staggering $1.68 trillion.

Courtesy of SIPRI

It likely won’t be surprising which countries topped the military-spending charts—that year, the U.S. and China clocked in at $611 billion and $215 billion respectively.

While states like the U.S. are, of course, in a league of their own, Canada is not off the hook. Though not commonly known as a “military superpower,” Canada is still in the top 16 highest defence spenders worldwide (and 6th out of 28 NATO countries).

What’s more, last June the Canadian government unveiled a plan to further expand its “hard power” on the world stage.

Driven by everything from armed conflict to foreign policy objectives, geopolitical interests, and perceptions of security, the “necessity” of high military spending can be difficult to challenge in political circles.

But what are the implications of such excessive spending on global peace, security, and development? Are global defence expenditures—which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says tend to be weak in transparency and accountability—connected to genuine security needs?

And how do such bloated defence budgets square with international obligations under Article 26 of the UN Charter, which calls for peace and security “with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”?

As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “the world is over-armed—and peace is under-funded.”

Enter the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS, for short). Birthed in 2011 by the International Peace Bureau, this campaign—running from April 14th to May 3rd—calls for a reduction in worldwide defence budgets and the re-allocation of those funds for social spending.

This year’s slogan? “Reducing 10 percent of military assets will help save our planet!”

It goes without saying that the economic and human costs of war are overwhelming. Weapons—primarily small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, and other conventional weapons—have a devastating impact on people in conflict zones. And in the wake of war, rising health care and reconstruction costs take an incredible social and economic toll on communities.

Moreover, as Eisenhower warned back in 1953, excessive levels of defence spending also have an enormousopportunity cost.” While the world diverts a huge proportion of public resources to the defence sector, basic human needs such as food, health, education, housing, employment, and environmental security are chronically under-funded. Such under-funding only serves to create and exacerbate conditions of social, human, and economic insecurity.

But back to Canada…

The day after Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland delivered her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons last June (setting up the rationale for a bigger defence budget), Defence Minister Sajjan introduced his 113-page plan to hike Canada’s military spending by more than 70 percent over the next decade—from $18.9 billion today to $32.7 billion by 2026-7. Most of these funds are set to be delivered after 2021 (after the next election cycle!).

With big ticket items like fighter jets, military personnel, war ships, new capabilities for Special Forces, and so on, the defence plan was an unexpected pivot away from the Liberals’ election promise to “build a leaner military.”

Not surprisingly, National Defence is already the largest spender among Canadian government departments. And, of course, this prioritization of defence spending isn’t unique to Canada.

As SIPRI writes, globally there is “a gap between what countries are prepared to allocate for military means to provide security and maintain their global and regional power status, on the one hand, and to alleviate poverty and economic development, on the other.”

Just compare, for a moment, worldwide military spending against the entire budget of the UN. As Doug Roche—former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament—wrote in a recent book, “all told, the entire body of work of the UN, including peacekeeping and the sweeping economic and social development programs of forty specialized agencies and programs, costs $30 billion per year. This works out to about four dollars per person on the planet. It is only 1.76 percent of the $1.7 trillion that nations spend annually on arms” (p. 79).

Yet, for decades, the UN has faced financial difficulties and been forced to cut back on programs.

This spending imbalance—and its implications for peace and security—is precisely what the Global Days of Action on Military Spending tries to draw attention to.

During tax season, some groups, like Conscience Canada, even encourage Canadians to withhold the military portion of their taxes and call for the creation of a government-controlled Peace Fund where that money can be diverted for non-military peacebuilding purposes. 

What could be achieved if governments re-directed even ten percent of current defence spending towards social development needs? 

Indeed…what if?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Closing the accountability gap on business and human rights

On January 17th, the federal government unveiled a long-awaited policy reform.

7cdd7401-a7fa-4c9d-87d0-9d27e8f8f26d-768x535

Courtesy of KAIROS Canada.

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne—Minister of International Trade—announced that Canada will be establishing an independent human rights Ombudsperson to address allegations of abuse by Canadian corporations operating overseas.

For well over a year, rumours have swirled around Ottawa that this announcement was “imminent.” But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that more than a decade of advocacy by civil society groups finally bore fruit.

As an organization that has witnessed the negative impacts of Canadian mining overseas and has heard repeated calls from partners for mechanisms for redress, we at MCC are grateful for this new policy direction.

Called the “Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” this position will put the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (set up in 2009) out of commission. The Ombudsperson will, at least initially, continue to focus on mining, oil, and gas companies, while also adding the garment industry to the mix.

I doubt that many will be sad to see the CSR Counsellor’s office go. With no political independence (the Trade Minister is, after all, its boss) and no mandate to investigate complaints, make binding recommendations, or require companies to participate in proceedings, this position has been hamstrung by inherent flaws and limitations from the get-go.

Indeed, the CSR Counsellor was, from day one, an inadequate response to long-awaited calls for action.

Dating back to the 2007 National CSR Roundtables, experts from multiple sectors (including industry) have been advising the government to establish an independent human rights Ombudsperson “with teeth” (something other than the voluntary, non-binding, market-based CSR incentives the government usually prefers). Ever since those roundtables, civil society groups have been working hard to keep this “ask” alive-and-kicking on the political agenda.

In recent years, the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability and MCC partners like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation—has rallied Canadians to push for the establishment of an Ombudsperson as well as for legislated access to Canadian courts (the latter of which also has gained steam thanks to several civil cases winding their way through court on our own soil).

Now, this decade of sustained advocacy finally has paid off.

Touted as the “first of its kind in the world” and part of the government’s “progressive trade agenda,” the newly-announced human rights Ombudsperson—and its promised multi-stakeholder Advisory Body—will provide a fresh start for Canada to take leadership for responsible business conduct abroad.

Last week, MCC joined the voices of Canadian civil society in welcoming the Ombudsperson announcement in a letter to the Trade Minister. “If properly implemented,” the letter says, “this position will help hold Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations overseas, provide remedy for victims of abuse, and prevent future harm for local communities.”

If properly implemented…

Herein lies the crux of the matter.

As the government now begins the work of building the office and hiring its very first Ombudsperson, key questions still need to be firmly answered.

Will the office…

…be fully independent from business and government at all stages of the process?

…be properly funded and staffed, so as to undertake complex investigations?

…be entirely transparent, making its progress, findings, and final recommendations for remedy publicly available?

…be able to monitor progress on recommendations and settlement agreements?

and, most importantly…

…have the authority to summon witnesses and compel disclosure of corporate documents?

The Government of Canada has the opportunity to take a real, global leadership role here. And civil society partners like KAIROS are “cautiously optimistic.”

But the credibility of the office hinges on its implementation.

Lend your voice (with our easy email tool!) in thanking the Canadian government and expressing your support for an effective and fully independent Ombudsperson with strong investigative powers!

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

***Check out CNCA’s great infographic on criteria for an effective Ombudsperson

Peace for the long run in Syria

“We’re all fed up with these muscle-flexing exercises… [We need to try] to solve our problems with the mind or the heart, not the muscles”- Rev. Nadim Nassar, Syrian priest of the Church of England

For the past six years the Syrian people have been at the epicentre of multiple complex conflicts, which have drawn in powerful regional and international players.

While the western media focuses on the conflict between the Assad government and groups such as ISIS, the situation is far more complex, with intra-rebel fighting, battles between ISIS and the many other armed groups, regional Sunni-Shia divisions, the Kurdish struggle for a homeland, and so on.

The result: hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed since 2011, and millions of people – 65 percent of Syria’s population – have been forcefully displaced from their homes. This includes over 6 million internally displaced peoples and 5.5 million refugees.

In light of these tragic circumstances, how does one even start to think about the possibilities for long-term peace?

A dominant narrative among political decision makers, including in Canada, is that military intervention (or the threat of it) is essential to ending the Syrian crisis. This narrative is echoed by much of the Western media and the general public.

Canada, as part of the Global Coalition against [ISIS], has at certain points called for the removal of President Assad and promoted Canada’s commitment to the defeat of ISIS through the military component of its approach in Syria and Iraq. Like MCC partners,  Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest in the Church of England, claims that when it comes to Western-led military interventions in the Middle East, there is often little understanding of the complex context, the ripple effects of such actions on the ground, and what approaches might truly be needed to create long-term peace. Yet, as he laments in a radio interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition in April 2017, the dominant narrative often takes precedence, drowning out the voices that promote other approaches to building peace.

MCC has been supporting and walking alongside local partners in Syria for over 25 years. These local partners include churches and other organizations with strong roots in their communities and a deep understanding of the complexities of the ever-changing context. Despite the exodus of international NGOs and diplomats, these partners have chosen to remain in Syrai in the midst of conflict, deeply dedicated to long-term peace in their country.

doug_naomi_damascus_syria

In Damascus, Syria, former MCC representatives Doug and Naomi Enns stand on Straight Street (the street we read about in Acts where the Apostle Paul was staying after being blinded on the road to Damascus). Photo courtesy of Syrian Orthodox Church

In April 2017, former MCC representatives for Lebanon and Syria, Doug and Naomi Enns, entered Syria for the first time in five years, spending five days with partners in their home communities. They saw loss and destruction, but they also saw the work for peace and the rebuilding of hope.

They witnessed that life persists: “We saw acts of solidarity between people of various faiths and backgrounds. We saw hope, we saw resilience. We saw hardship and terrible loss. And we saw people really wanting to live.”

MCC and its partners in Syria and the surrounding region believe that the key to long-lasting peace lies in addressing the deep rooted political and socio-economic grievances.

syria_volunteer_staff_damascus

During their visit, Doug and Naomi Enns were thanked by many partners, including this group at the Damascus office of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Photo courtesy of FDCD

Such work involves things like building bridges between different faiths and ethnic groups; supporting those struggling with both physical and mental trauma so they aren’t drawn into cycles of violence; trying to create a sense of belonging for children and promote hope for the future generations; and providing emergency support while investing in long-term development.

MCC’s partners engage in these acts of peacebuilding and resistance even amidst the violence.

As part of their trip, Doug and Naomi visited the city of old Homs – a shell of the old city all but reduced to rubble in a brutal siege in 2012. Despite the destruction all around, they saw hope at a Syrian Orthodox Church – a church that can trace its roots back to 59 AD. Though sustaining significant damage in the conflict, somehow the church continues to thrive. Weekly services continue and the community programs persist, allowing the congregation to reach out and walk alongside the most vulnerable within the community.

oldhomsstreetscenes

Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns

MCC welcomes and supports some of the Government of Canada’s work in the region, including its long-term development and humanitarian relief, and its stated commitment to diplomacy. But the military mission against ISIS, which was recently renewed until spring 2019, is a great concern to MCC. Our faith commitments and our experience around the world over decades have taught us that war does not bring true and lasting peace.

Additionally, along with many Canadians, we note that there is little-to-no transparent direction or specific goals for Canada’s extended military mission. More importantly, MCC’s partners and staff in and around Syria see the military response as counterproductive, failing to address the roots of the conflict and leaving destruction in its wake.

MCC’s partners in the region know that working for long-term peace in Syria is neither easy, nor quick. Syrian peacebuilders do not pretend to know all of the answers. Yet they long to stay and to see the day when their children can live in peace.

Like the slow but steady rebuilding of the ancient church in Homs, peace comes slowly, one brick at a time.

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office

“Our land, our rights, our peace”

Nenita Conduz is small in stature and pregnant with her third child. She is also courageous and defiant.

This tiny mother is leading her Subanen people in the struggle to defend their ancestral land in the southern Philippines, where a Canadian owned mining company is harming their land, their community and their way of life.

Because of her commitment to speak truth, Nenita lives under constant threat.

Nenita Conduz

Nenita Conduz. Photo courtesy Antonio Nercua Ablon

Nenita recently visited Canada, as one member of a delegation of 5 leaders from the Philippines, bringing a message of how Canadian mining companies are harming their land and their communities. The delegation met with government officials on Parliament Hill and did a speaking tour of major cities, calling for respect of “our land, our rights, our peace.” I heard Nenita speak in Winnipeg.

The delegation’s visit was sponsored by KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition, of which MCC is a member. KAIROS has been advocating for years for accountability mechanisms for Canadian extractive companies overseas as part of a wider Open for Justice campaign. Canada is a global leader in international extractive industry; but has very weak mechanisms to hold mining companies to human rights and environmental standards.

The Subanen people – one of numerous Indigenous groups in the Philippines – lives on the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao Island in the southern part of the country. Zamboanga is rich in natural resources; it is also one of the most militarized regions in the country.

The Subanen have received certification of their ancestral domain, with the attending right of free, prior and informed consent to any extractive activities on their land. But this has not stopped foreign corporations from accessing the mineral resources or for using armed force to put down the resistance of the Subanen people.

Nenita focused her critique on Calgary-based TVI Pacific and its Philippine subsidiary TVIRD, which is extracting copper from Subanen land. According to her testimony, as well as the findings of a KAIROS delegation to the Philippines in 2014, the company began its operations without the due process of free, prior and informed consent.  Moreover, its arrival in the community coincided with the cancellation of business permits for small scale mining operations, the deployment of armed “security” personnel, and the escalation of widespread human rights violations.

Nenita 3

Philippine delegation with KAIROS hosts. Photo/KAIROS

The reported human rights violations include: extrajudicial killings, illegal detention, kidnappings, destruction of property, homes and livelihoods, forcible eviction, as well as threats, harassment and intimidation. Thousands of people have been affected.

Nenita herself is continually being watched and harassed and is currently not able to return to her home because of fears she could be assassinated.

But this courageous woman refuses to be silenced. “Defending our ancestral land is of prime importance to us,” she says. “We cannot live without our land.”

She notes that land is not just a place for the Subanen people to live. The land defines their life, their health, the social fabric of their community, and their very identity.

Nenita is aware that the struggle of the Subanen people is part of a global struggle by Indigenous peoples seeking to protect lands that are coveted by governments and corporations for their forests, waters and minerals.

“We are calling for respect for Indigenous peoples rights,” she insists. “We hope our efforts to expose what is happening in the Philippines will touch people’s hearts and minds and lead to support for the global struggle.”

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDThe Open for Justice campaign, which MCC supports, urges the Canadian federal government to take action in two specific ways:

  • to appoint an independent ombudsperson mandated to monitor Canadian extractive operations overseas, to investigate complaints and to take action where needed to uphold human rights (current mechanisms are voluntary and ineffectual); and
  • to allow access to Canadian courts for non-Canadians who have been harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The recently released federal budget failed to allocate funds for the creation of a human rights ombudsperson.

We owe it to people like courageous Nenita – and Indigenous peoples everywhere – to support their call for “our land, our rights, our peace.”

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

“Our new policy in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region reflects what Canada is all about: defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last.”

These words were spoken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2016. Flanked by the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, Trudeau sought to reshape Canada’s involvement in Syria and Iraq—or at least re-shape the messaging of Canadian foreign policy.

Iraq 3

Prime Minister Trudeau with Ministers of Defence, International Development and Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016. Photo credit/Government of Canada.

Canada’s current involvement in the Global Coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is set to expire on March 31, 2017. Speculation is abounding: Will Canada extend its mission? If so, what will the mission look like? What will the messaging be?

The current context of Iraq and Syria calls for urgent action. There are millions of internally displaced peoples, ongoing strikes including in Mosul; the continued targeting of Yezidis and other vulnerable minority groups; and destruction such as we have seen in Aleppo.

On February 8, 2016, when Trudeau launched Canada’s revised mission, he emphasized integrated government programming to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years. While the Canadian military would still have a significant role, the vast majority of funds was earmarked for humanitarian response and long term development, $840 million and $270 million respectively. The termination of direct participation in airstrikes was arguably the most significant shift.

Iraq 1

A woman and her granddaughter—internally displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014—receive food assistance through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

Military action, on the contrary, was the priority the previous government emphasized above all others. This included airstrikes, but also the arming and training of non-state actors like the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Of course, humanitarianism was also a significant part of the previous government’s mission; Iraq was named a partner country for long term development in 2014. But the need to protect Canadians and the world from “imminent” terrorist threats through military efforts took centre stage.

MCC Canada wrote twice to the Harper Government on Canada’s mission—at the beginning, in October of 2014, and during the first renewal in March of 2015.  Our most significant concern was Canada’s involvement in airstrikes. In 2015 we wrote:

“[N]ot only will air strikes in Iraq and Syria fail to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions underlying the present violence, but they will exacerbate existing—or create new—economic, social, and political grievances.”

But did things really change under Trudeau?

One glance at Operation Impact’s website, the official government website on the military part of Canada’s ongoing mission, shows the continuing flight missions, or sorties as they are called, of Canadian aircraft. Since February 2016 Canadian fighter jets have not conducted direct airstrikes, but they have continued to regularly participate in refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though not directly striking, Canadian aircraft are gathering intelligence and refueling other aircraft for the purpose of carrying out airstrikes.

Iraq 2

MCC supports this Kindergarten in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan for children displaced from their homes by the conflict with the Islamic State group. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

In other words, the impact of airstrikes has not lessened because Canada is not directly participating. In an MCC letter following the launch of the revised mission in February 2016, MCC again lamented the devastating impacts of airstrikes to destroy life, and vital health and education infrastructure, leaving cities “virtually uninhabitable and fueling massive displacement.”

A final point of contention is the arming of fighters in the region, particularly non-state actors, and the consequences and complexities of this. This question has come up time and time again—from Afghanistan to Libya and now Iraq, particularly with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Canada, under Trudeau, has continued to arm state and Kurdish forces.

What happens when the “official” fighting is over? What about the demands of these different groups—and what about the dynamics with other groups in the area? In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, how will arming these groups impact, for good or ill, a unified government in Iraq? A unified and functional government is essential for long term sustainable development. The question is, will providing arms to the Kurds help create this functionality? Or will it continue to destabilize the region? Will it lead to more bloodshed?

In addition, the arming of the Iraqi forces has also raised alarm bells, as both the government forces and minority armed groups have been implicated in violations of human rights.

MCC Canada raised this issue in the first letter to the Trudeau government on this mission and it was the main subject of the most recent letter, from February 2017:

“Training and weapons transfers from the international community are counterproductive to building a unified Iraq in that they are fueling sectarian divisions at the political level and amongst minority groups; contributing to human rights and laws-of-war violations; and further destabilizing the country.”

Where does this complicated situation leave us?

As the Canadian government considers possible renewal of its mission in Iraq and Syria, one lesson we can surely take is this: It is important to look far beyond the messaging of government.  We need to think critically about government actions and their impacts on the region. It may be cliché, but on this and any other government policy, despite what is said we need to adopt that all-critical perspective. Actions speak louder than words.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office.