News Roundup: Canada’s military mission in Iraq

by Rebekah Sears

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.

For our first round-up of 2019 we wanted to raise the profile of the context in Iraq, particularly when it comes to Canada’s foreign policy: a continuing military mission, humanitarian and development assistance, and how these fit with the complexities of the region.

Canada has had a military presence in Iraq since late 2014 and starting in 2017 through 2018 there were significant geopolitical shifts in Iraq, forcing Canada to shift strategies in the region. This round-up looks back at the history of Canada’s military mission in Iraq – including MCC’s main critiques; how Canada’s mission was completely upended by key geopolitical dynamics in the region; Canada’s revised mission, as it stands; and all considering the context and politics of Iraq.

Getting us up to speed on Canada’s military Mission in Iraq and MCC’s engagement, from 2014-2017

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria, MCC Ottawa Office Notebook, March 2017

This is MCC Ottawa’s own take on Canada’s military mission in Iraq as or early 2017, including analysis on Canada’s strategy in Iraq from 2014-2017. In consultation with our staff and partners in Iraq, MCC has consistently raised concerns around Canada’s involvement in this foreign military intervention and what it means for peace for the long-run. Until 2017, Canada had been supporting Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, despite these groups having their own very different goals and visions for the future of Iraq.

(CBC) Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years

Originally from CBC article, June 29, 2017: Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years. “A Canadian special forces soldier, left, speaks with Peshmerga Capt. Omar Mohammed Dhyab, second left, and other fighters at an observation post in February in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)”

In almost every renewal or reshaping of Canada’s military mission, MCC has raised these concerns with the Canadian government, both under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: October 2014, April 2015, February 2016, February 2017, and July 2017.

The Uncounted, New York Time Magazine, November 2017

There are so many pieces that illustrate the complexities of foreign military interventions, but few are as compelling as this must-read account regarding the civilians and communities, the “collateral damage.” This barely scratched the surface of impacts on civilians, physically and psychologically, not to mention the social fabric. Though this piece highlights U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, it is imperative to note that Canada has also actively participated in airstrikes, directly from 2014-to early 2016, and indirectly through refueling and aerial reconnaissance missions since 2016.

Canada’s military mission in Iraq was arguably ill-prepared for significant shifting geo-political dynamics in 2017-2018

Globe editorial: After IS is defeated, what comes next? Globe and Mail, July 2017

From the beginning of Canada’s military participation in the Global Coalition Against [ISIS] the government has claimed its goal has been to “defeat ISIS” through partnering with local forces, among other strategies. But in mid- 2017, even as ISIS forces lost more and more influence in Iraq, Canada extended its military mission for another two years. With the significant changing regional dynamics, Canada’s overall goals for the region, including partnerships with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, became even more unclear.

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting, Globe and Mail, October 2017

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting

Originally from Globe and Mail article, Oct 27, 2017: Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting “Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga take part in routine military exercises in Koya, northern Iraq, on Oct. 22, 2017. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images”

The fall of 2017 saw major changes in Iraqi politics. In September, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region held a highly controversial independence referendum. Canada had long supported the Kurdish Peshmerga, putting our mission in an awkward spot, as Canada had also been outwardly supporting a unified federal Iraq, and supporting Iraqi government forces in Mosul. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government reacted swiftly to the referendum, deploying troops to some of the contested regions, confronting Kurdish forces. As a result, Canada suspending all military actions in Iraq. To many critics this conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces came as little surprise, Canada looking unprepared and not fully understanding the complexities of the region.

The Underground Caliphate: ISIS Has Not Vanished. It Is Fighting a Guerrilla War Against the Iraqi State, The Intercept, September 2018

Looking at the Iraqi context as a whole, this in-depth piece is a warning against the overcomplication of conflicts such as that in Iraq and explores the complexities and roots behind insurgent groups like ISIS – political grievances, sectarian tensions and power vacuums, among others.

Canada’s new mission: more directed actions, but complexities and significant concerns remain

Canada is right to shift focus toward Baghdad and away from the Kurds, Globe and Mail, June 2018

By the end, in June 2018, Canada finally announced its new directional focus in Iraq. This included an additional component: a leadership role in a NATO mission aimed at general stabilization in Baghdad and beyond. But the main focus was a shift to supporting solely the Iraqi government forces, specifically in the further stabilization and reconstruction on Mosul, a region arguably at the centre of the conflict in Iraq. But shift also raises significant concerns.

Canada is essentially switching sides in the middle of a mission, whereas Canada began its mission primarily supporting Kurdish forces.

Mosul: One year on After ISIL, a city still in ruins.

Originally from Al Jazeera article, 6 July, 2018: Mosul: One year on. After ISIL, a city still in ruins. “Vehicles navigate a street in Mosul’s old city. Cars and inhabitants circulate with difficulty in this apocalyptic scene, as small adjacent streets are not safe yet. Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC”

Also, Mosul is an incredibly complex context. There are dozens of analyses focusing on the slow progress, if any, on reconstruction. But behind a lot of this waiting and uncertainty, tensions, be they political or sectarian, simmer just below the surface. The Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) dives deep into the complexities and challenges of Mosul recovery in a recent podcast – both in the physical reconstruction of neighbourhoods and the reconstruction of social fabric.

Finally, since 2017 disturbing reports from human rights groups have been coming out of Mosul and other former ISIS strongholds, whereas divisions of Iraqi government forces and officials are allegedly carrying out a campaign of revenge – with 10-minute trials and torture of suspected former ISIS combatants and their families. One such recent piece from the New Yorker looks at this disturbing trend in depth.

Iraq in 2019 and going forward

What does 2019 hold for Iraq? All bets are off, Middle East Eye, January 2019

From the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to the rise of ISIS, federal elections in 2018 and continuing tensions, the people of Iraq have witnessed many changes and uncertainties. Yet hope abounds with the rising up of a new generation and with the continuing work and dedication of local organizations, seeking to build long-lasting peace from the ground up. As Canadians we want to urge our government to support such efforts, making decisions based on in-depth analysis of the situation, and in the interests of peace for the long haul.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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Peace is not simply words

by Anna Vogt

In November, the Ottawa Office was pleased to host Syrian peacemaker S. Laham, (full name withheld for security purposes) formerly with MCC partner Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), for meetings with Canadian policymakers about Syria. Director Anna Vogt spoke with Laham about MECC’s work and his message for Canada. Here is a condensed and edited version of Laham’s reflections.   

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(MCC Photo/Anna Vogt)

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) has been involved in humanitarian work since its establishment in 1974 as a communion of churches in the Middle East. MECC started by supporting Palestinian refugees, then those impacted by civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as aiding refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and then again Iraqis fleeing invasions in 2003. MECC currently supports Syrian IDPs and Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East. When local churches have strength and capacity to respond where they are, we can maintain the sustainability of this work and the witness of the church in the context it serves.

We believe that all refugees should enjoy a dignified and safe return to their countries, wherever applicable. To live in dignity means that we must care about the wellbeing of every single person, regardless of background. Each person should enjoy equal life, opportunities, and social and economic justice. MECC works to enable each person to retain their resiliency.

My wish for the Canadian government is that it would look at the reality of the entirety of Syria and the many stories present in the region. Canada must play a role in peacebuilding and stability in the region, instead of involvement in military action. Military interests will not generate peace. Rather, this will generate more conflict. It will generate more sensitivities, more hatred and increased destruction of the social fabric. This will not help in the rebuilding of the social fabric or lead to civil governments.

When Canadians look at Syria, they need to see the whole reality of the story. The media may only be reflecting one perspective, but there are lots of different sides of the story. There are many people who are working and serving in a very courageous way, who don’t have the media means to share their work. We have witnessed a lot of fragmentation and destruction in our history – we need to come together again to show that Christians, whose mission and vision is based on love, can really translate that mission and vision into practice by working together.

Peace is not simply words. Peace within the Christian context is first to live in peace with God, because we understand peace from the context of our faith and theology. Peace cannot be achieved if we do not live in love. Peace goes beyond providing food and shelter rather by living according to God’s will. When we love our neighbours, especially those who are different from us, we are reflecting the peace of God.

It is also important for us to live out peace with each other as members of different churches. There are many theological differences among us and we have inherited historical differences. We should be more aware and mature, to put differences aside and work to overcome historical difficulties. We are living as minorities within an Islamic context. By living in peace and love with each other, we can give a lesson. This is how our Lord taught us, by his example, that the entire world may see that we belong to Christ, that we are disciples of Christ.

Hospitality is not a privilege that we are providing for others. We must recognize that we are all brothers and sisters in humanity. We are all created in the image of God and we are all living under the hospitality and generosity of God. If I am not a refugee today, I may be one tomorrow. Many people who provided service, hosting refugees in Syria, have become displaced. Jesus Christ was a refugee in Egypt. He was also hosted by welcoming communities who provided him with security and peace at that time.

It is the duty of the church to advocate and educate our people on how to practice our faith and turn it into action. How do we develop the concept of sharing? To what extent can we become unselfish, opening our pockets to give to others, even if we are also in need?

In the book of Acts, we read the stories of how, among the early church, everything was shared.  What we have is not our own, it is a gift of God. If we have resources, they are not for ourselves but to be shared with others. It is very important for us to train ourselves to share, not just what we don’t need, but also the precious things that we have, with others.

When beautiful comforters from MCC arrive in Syria, they are high quality. We believe that anything that is given to people should be high quality. We must respect the people whom we serve. We should support people in the way we want to live. If I want to feed someone, I should feed that person with the same quality of food I eat. If I want to clothe someone, I should clothe them with the same quality of clothes that I buy.”

 We’re thankful to Laham for sharing his work and a fuller understanding of Syria with us. To learn more about MCC’s work in the Middle East and see how you can join in, visit the MCC website.

Anna Vogt is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office

From despair to hope on the shepherd’s field: listening to stories of child detention

In October I joined an MCC-led learning tour travelling through Palestine and Israel to learn about the conflict and to see the realities on the ground first hand. Our schedule was composed of an interesting mix of visiting MCC partners, travelling through the region to see the differences between occupation and relative freedom, and tourist spots including the holy sites.

During one of the mornings, we made our way from Bethlehem to visit the YMCA, an MCC partner, in neighbouring Beit Sahour. The YMCA is fortunate to have offices on one of the shepherd’s fields, a site where the shepherds may have heard the angels proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Photo of YMCA Beit Sahour

The front entrance of the YMCA in Beit Sahour. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

We arrived at the YMCA office early and strolled over the shepherd’s field and briefly climbed into an old cave, which shepherds may have used for their sheep at night. While the shepherd’s field was charming, our visit to the YMCA had a very different tone: one of a hard and somber reality. The YMCA offers rehabilitation programs to former child detainees. Every year hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested by the Israeli army, detained, and often serve a prison sentence at an adult detention center or military prison.

Part of our visit to the YMCA was to meet some individuals who had gone through the rehabilitation program. As we finished our introductory session with one of the psychological counselors who works with children, youth and young adults in the program, we all looked at the doors as seven young men walked in.

In that moment I was struck by the reality of the concept of child detention. Before going on this trip, I had been working with MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign for about four months. I had read testimonies and reports, but meeting people who had experienced arrest and detention as a child humbled me. I wondered, how hard it was for them to come and talk to us about their experience and I felt myself cringing, as the first person started to share.

I listened to each heartbreaking story about arrest, mistreatment by military personnel, torture, and physical, emotional, and mental injuries. Detentions and prison sentences ranged from three to eighteen months. While each experience was different, many commonalities appeared.

Each person spoke of an emptiness, hopelessness, and the loss of seeing a future past the experience of the detention. One young man, who is now 17 years old, shared how he was in a vulnerable psychological state when he was released. When he was arrested by the Israeli military, his arm was already in a cast and during the ensuing interrogation the cast was taken off and under torture, his arm was broken for a second time. To this day, he has not regained full mobility. To make matters worse, after his three-month detention and release, military personnel continued to show up at his house, disrupting his reentry into normal life and retraumatizing him. He shared, “When I closed my eyes, I saw them coming to arrest me… I thought I would always see that.”

Another young man shared how he was arrested and detained for two days when he was thirteen years old. At fourteen he was shot in the leg right before he was arrested again. At the beginning of his eighteen-months prison sentence, he spent 6 weeks handcuffed to a hospital bed while recovering from that major injury. When he came to the YMCA, he remembered being completely disillusioned. He could not imagine a future after what he had been through.

While these young men briefly described their detention experience, some not going into much detail, they each made a point of telling us about how far they had come since then. Every-day-life seemed impossible after their release, but they now shared with pride that they were in university, employed, in a trade apprenticeship, or working toward having their own business venture.

Photo of the Young Men

A photo of the seven young men accompanied by a YMCA staff member. Identity of the persons in this picture is not shared publicly. (Photo/Craig Neufeld)

These young men underwent significant psychological counselling, and some received vocational training. The pride of accomplishment and hope for a good future was shining in their eyes. However, overcoming trauma in one way or another is not where the story ended for them. These young men are part of a leadership program, designed to allow them to give back to their communities, focusing on matters such as capacity building, communications tools, and teaching others about positive leadership.

After all of the young man had shared parts of their story, one of them raised his hand, signaling that he wished to add something. He looked around the room and said: “The children of the past are the leaders of the future!”

_________

Later, when my group debriefed about the experience at the YMCA, we reflected on the hardship of what these young men had gone through, and marveled at their resilience, positive outlook, and motivation to help others. But we also wondered what their lives would have been like without occupation, without conflict, without the trauma of arrest, interrogation and detention.

We also remembered all of the children and youth who either have not had access to psychological care, or those who have not receive help in time. Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and detained by the Israeli military, 500-700 each year.

Photo of Shepherd's field

The shepherd’s field behind the YMCA building. (MCC Photo/Leona Lortie)

In this advent season, as the YMCA possibly stands on the very ground where the angels appeared to the shepherds in Beit Sahour, let us remember their message of hope and comfort, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (KJV, Luke 2:10, 14).

At this moment in time, peace with justice has not yet come to Palestine and Israel as the conflict persists, but there is hope and the young men we met at the YMCA are determined to not only be part of a better, peaceful future, but they are actively working toward it.

Let us join them.

ACT Today: Sign this petition to urge the Canadian federal government to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and hold Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systematic ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees.

 

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

 

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa 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

Out of step on nuclear disarmament

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was abuzz with a celebratory spirit. It’s not hard to imagine why.

After all, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN for short) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the result of years of hard work by millions of global campaigners—had opened for signature at the UN merely a few weeks earlier.

In the world of humanitarian disarmament, history had been made yet again.

On October 14-15, I had the privilege of joining coalition colleagues from Mines Action Canada (MAC) and Project Ploughshares at the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Forum in New York. For two, chock-full days, representatives from global coalitions working to protect civilians from the catastrophic effects of small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, fully autonomous weapons systems (aka “killer robots”), and nukes came together to share insights from their advocacy efforts.

Coming on the heels of the ground-breaking nuclear ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, the joy at the forum was palpable.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads are still in the world’s arsenals, many of them launch ready and on high-alert status. This means that the possibilities for nuclear catastrophe due to global tensions, human error, system malfunction, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by non-state actors are far too close for comfort.

The international community has already stepped up to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008). Finally, more than 70 years after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons—have also been banned.

Front row: Setsuko Thurlow and Ray Acheson. Back row: Allison Pytlak, Cesar Jaramillo (Ploughshares), and Erin Hunt (MAC). Photo courtesy of Erin Hunt

Adopted in the heat of July, the 10-page treaty (backed by 122 nations) outlines a categorical prohibition on the development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nukes or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Global campaigners like ICAN as well as Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada worked tirelessly, attending ban treaty negotiations as civil society delegates. Atomic bomb survivors (the Hibakusha) and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world were also critical players, providing, in the words of ICAN, “searing testimony and unstinting advocacy” on the humanitarian imperative for a ban.

As the shadow of nuclear conflict looms ever-larger in our current political reality, the new treaty fills a huge gap in international law.

Yes, there was strong opposition from nuclear-armed states (i.e. the P5 on the UN Security Council) and their allies. And, no, these states are not expected to sign-on to the treaty any time soon.

But other UN treaties have been effective even when key nations failed to sign up to them.

When the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1997 in Ottawa, civil society successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the Treaty to ban cluster bombs roughly a decade later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. Implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Now, the prohibition on nuclear weapons marks a shift in the nuclear abolition debate.

Whither Canada in this global conversation?

According to his speech last year during Disarmament Week, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a utopian dream. It was impractical, impossible, and divisive.

October 13th at First Committee, 72nd Session, Thematic Discussion on Nuclear Weapons

Since then, Canada’s actions have continued to be out-of-step with this global movement. Despite claiming its support for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Canadian government not only boycotted the treaty negotiations but (rather than simply abstain) voted against the historic UN resolution that launched the process—a position influenced, in part, by U.S. pressure on its NATO allies.

Instead, Canada backs a “step-by-step,” incrementalist (and completely broken) approach to reducing nuclear arsenals, including, among other things, the proposal for a fissile material cut-off treaty, a “step” that has faced deadlock for years. I heard this support reiterated by the Canadian delegate’s remarks as I sat in on a First Committee meeting at the UN a few weeks back.

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. What happened?

Far from “being back,” Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.

Encourage your Member of Parliament to sign ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge and send a message to Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, urging support for the treaty!


By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

New policies galore

By Ottawa Office staff

In 2016 the Canadian government launched public consultations as part of a process for policy reviews of multiple government departments, including those dealing with foreign policy, International Assistance, and National Defence. Almost a year after closing these various consultations, the government released its general foreign policy direction via a speech made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Chrystia Freeland, in the House of Commons on June 6, 2017.  In the days that followed Minister Freeland’s speech, Defence Minister Hon. Harjit Sajjin released Canada’s new defence policy on June 7, and International Development Minister Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau held an event On June 9 where she released more specific details on Canada’s international assistance policy.

Chrystia FreelandMinister Freeland’s speech promised Canada will be a global leader in a time of uncertainty by working with partners and allies through multilateral institutions such as the UN and focusing on three priorities.

  • First, Canadian foreign policy will be shaped by Canadian values such as feminism, diversity and pluralism.
  • Second, Canadian foreign policy will be characterized by significant investments in the military in order that Canada can play a leadership role and provide assistance around the world.
  • Third, Canada is a trading nation and trade is crucial for supporting the Canadian private sector and building up the economy of other countries as one way to development.

Though highlighting Canadian global successes of the past Freeland offered few, if any, concrete details of how Canada would move forward, leading the world with Canadian values. Canada’s declared commitment to the Paris Climate Accord is one way to distinguish it from the current U.S. administration, but how does Canada’s commitment to building new pipelines line up with this stance? If Canada is indeed going to reach out through trade relationships, how does Canada uphold human rights in all of our relationships with China and Saudi Arabia? Freeland declared more funding and investment in the military as a way to lead. But what are the factors that would justify the involvement of the Canadian military overseas?

defence_minister_apology_20170429 photo by Justin Tang for Canadian Press

The Defence Minister Sajjin’s 113-page defence review was entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy”. It included a promise that over the next twenty years the Canadian government will pour billions of dollars it did not budget for into defence spending. By shifting military spending policy, and promising to increase NATO contributions, the Liberal defence plan appears to be in-line with one of the loudest demands of the current U.S. administration. Indeed, in their speeches, the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers contended that given the apparent shifts happening in U.S. policies, Canada is only doing what it must in order to step up and be a leader on the global stage.

It is worth recognizing that the defence policy does acknowledge the multifaceted, changing nature of conflict; the importance of regulating small-arms; the impacts of climate change and economic inequality on conflict; the importance of women’s participation in peacebuilding; and the need to address the root causes of conflict. But despite acknowledging the range of potential mandates for our military, overall the policy seems to pivot further towards combat than towards humanitarian, disaster relief, or even peacekeeping missions.

web-po-foreign-aid-0609 by Chris Waittie for Reuters (2)

The 3rd policy – “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy” – was highly anticipated by Canadian civil society and development organizations since the close of public consultations almost a year ago. Overall, there are few surprises, if any, in Canada’s new international assistance policy. Buzzwords and phrases like feminist, women and girls, reproductive health, grassroots organizations, climate change, SDGs, supporting the most vulnerable, and evidence-based policy showed up frequently in Bibeau’s presentation and within the policy itself. For now, what civil society groups will be watching in the coming months and years is how this policy will be implemented – i.e. what is the roadmap and where is the money?! No new budget money was allocated for international assistance in the 2017-18 Federal Budget, which means organizations like MCC and our coalition partners will continue to call for increases in ODA to reach Canada’s assistance and development goals, especially as we approach Budget 2018-19.

The Ottawa Office will continue to monitor announcements and watch the government’s actions as plans unfold. In particular, MCC will watch developments in foreign policy, defence and international assistance as they relate to areas where MCC has programming.

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

By Rebekah Sears

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.