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.

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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.

 

 

Hopes and concerns: Canada’s involvement in Haiti

By Rebekah Sears, MCC Ottawa Office policy analyst.

I love watching our Canadian political processes unfold: elections, tracking the promises, critiquing the results, the whole game of politics. In a time of transition – a change in Prime Minister and also a change in the governing party – there are endless things to watch and monitor: who is in charge of what file, what are the governing party’s plans and promises, when can we expect results?

For us at MCC’s Ottawa Office, some of the files in which we are especially interested include those relating to Canada’s role in the world.  All the work related to foreign affairs, international development and trade is now grouped in the newly-christened Global Affairs Canada (GAC), formally the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

The new Liberal government has promised to “refocus our development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable” (Liberal Party Platform). The platform goes on to accuse the outgoing government of focusing too much on economics and not enough on development. “The [previous] government has shifted its aid priorities to reflect political and commercial interests to the detriment of the needs of the poorest and most fragile countries.”

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In Mombin Crochu, Haiti, cashew nuts are cooked to be processed into a product that can be transported and sold in larger markets. (MCC photo/José Magloire-van der Vossen)

But the question remains: what will a shift like this really look like on the ground in countries and regions that have been identified as the “most vulnerable” – countries like Haiti?

Haiti has long been a priority for Canada. Successive governments have provided support for rapid onset crisis situations but also for long-term development. Haiti is the least developed country in the Americas, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, and on the global stage ranks 167 out of 187 countries. Haiti continues to be one of the biggest recipients of Canadian humanitarian and development assistance, and Canada is one of its biggest donors.

In the mid-2000s, Canada focused its development assistance on a list of 25 priority countries – selected because of poverty and the possibilities for effective development. Haiti was a prominent member of this list. Strong support for Haiti continued under the Conservative government, even as much of the focus, particularly in the Latin America Caribbean region, shifted to countries that could offer Canada significant opportunities for  free trade and other economic benefits, as opposed to focusing primarily on development.

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Students practice embroidery in the courtyard of House of Hope, a remedial education program run by MCC partner Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Justice (FOPJ) in Carrefour Feuilles, Haiti. MCC photo by Lowell Brown.

Some development specialists have referred to Haiti as a bit of an anomaly in terms of Canada’s involvement in the region over the last decade (as it has no free trade agreement with Canada). Nevertheless, given Haiti’s ongoing need, they regard this involvement positively.

Earlier in 2015 the Canadian government committed to at least five more years of in-depth engagement in Haiti. Given the ongoing poverty, under-development and corruption, and the new Liberal government’s development priorities, Haiti will no doubt remain a priority.

However, aside from sweeping general commitments to re-focus Canada’s development work on poverty, there are few specifics to the new government’s plan. What form will this development take? Who will be involved? And who will benefit — specifically in Haiti?

It should be noted that Canada’s involvement in Haiti from the early days to the present has not always been welcome. Accusations are still floating around about Canada’s alleged interference within the Haitian state for our own self-interest (especially in terms of rising wages in the textile industries which would cut into Canadian profits), its involvement in the 2004 coup, as well as its participation in the highly criticized UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH.

In the current context, another significant concern is the role of the mining industry in Haitian development. Both before and after the devastating earthquake of 2010, mining companies, including at least two major Canadian companies (Eurasian Minerals and Newmont Mining), have been seeking contracts for exploration and operations in Haiti.

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Ted and Katharine Oswald, MCC workers in Haiti, visited the Ottawa Office in July 2015.  They are shown here with Bernard Sejour (R), Ottawa Catalyst for Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. MCC photo.

Proponents of mining look to the possibilities for development and job creation. However, opponents, including many civil society organizations, fear the consequences on Haiti in general and the areas around the mines in particular. Their concerns include: an already corrupt state; degradation of water, land and other resources; increased violence and persecution of dissidents and human rights defenders; growing inequality and more.

Mining operations in Haiti have been suspended since early 2013 as a new mining law is being drafted. However, as an election process in Haiti slowly unfolds, the Haitian parliament has been suspended for months, causing opponents of mining to worry that a new mining law could be brought in without public debate.

At the same time, the future for Canadian mining operations remains unclear with our new government. Some people speculate the new government will come down harder on Canadian mining companies, enforcing more regulations to ensure as little damage as possible to the local contexts in which they operate. However, trade and economic interests abroad continue to be a major priority for the new government – and mineral imports and trade from Canadian mining operations fall under this overall trade spectrum. Although Canada and Haiti do not share a free trade agreement, general trade priorities are to increase economic opportunities for Canadians. Obviously trade and a focus on economics are important in our globalized world, but context matters in terms of the potential impacts, both positive and negative. As Prime Minister Trudeau noted during the Canadian election campaign,

The Liberal Party of Canada strongly supports free trade, as this is how we open markets to Canadian goods and services, grow Canadian businesses, create good-paying jobs, and provide choice and lower prices to Canadian consumers.

For now, we at MCC’s Ottawa Office — together with our partners in Haiti — are closely watching and waiting to see what Canadian development assistance and economic priorities and actions will look like for countries like Haiti, and beyond.