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.


How does Canada “walk the talk” on women, peace, and security?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Canada has a self-professed feminist prime minister.

Right out of the post-election gate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced Cabinet (“Because it’s 2015,” he explained. End of story.). Then there is his snapchat video on how men can be better feminists, his statements on gender parity at the World Economic Forum, his comments pushing for gender equality while in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women, and the list goes on…

“I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug,” he said recently in New York (to enthusiastic applause, I might add).

The prime minister is promoting himself globally as a defender and promoter of women’s rights. And, the (decidedly un-feminist) Saudi arms deal aside, there is hope that this perspective will shape Canada’s foreign policy in positive directions.

Indeed, there is already an energetic wind blowing through the women, peace, and security (WPS for short!) agenda.

On International Women’s Day, several ministers announceddownload Canada’s “commitment to gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls” (a rhetorical shift, as “gender equality” previously had been scrubbed clean from programs and policies, replaced by a focus on “mothers and children”). This commitment included the renewal of Canada’s National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325a historic resolution calling for women’s meaningful and active participation in peacebuilding.

It’s an important agenda for any feminist prime minister.


As even a cursory glance at media headlines tells us, armed conflicts continue around the world. And while women and children are the minority of combatants, they are disproportionately impacted by war—targeted by armed actors, facing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, and having fewer resources than men to protect themselves.

And yet they are regularly excluded from peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

UNSCR 1325—unanimously adopted in 2000, and followed over the years by interconnected resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242—recognized the important role women play in every stage of peacebuilding.

These resolutions highlight the need for the prevention of violence and the protection of women in peace operations, and the participation of women in peace negotiations, political decision-making, and institution-building in post-conflict societies.

Doreen Ruto

Doreen Ruto, director of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development of Kenya, leads a retreat for first responders on trauma healing. She died in January 2016.  (MCC Photo/Katie Mansfield)

They embody a monumental shift in how the international community grapples with the rights and security of women leading up to, during, and after conflict.

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General called on member states to give legs to these resolutions by developing national action plans that implement concrete initiatives, monitor progress, and strengthen policy coherence across government departments.

In 2010, Canada responded with its own five-year National Action Plan. And, since Ottawa loves its acronyms, we call it C-NAP for short.

Led by foreign affairs (and collaborating with defence, development, public safety, justice, and other departments), C-NAP made broad and ambitious commitments to the WPS agenda through 28 different actions and 24 indicators.

Women Peace and Security Network-Canada has done thorough analysis on C-NAP’s successes and shortcomings (check out their 2015 and 2014 reports), and there was an external review that offered 6 recommendations (the need for high-level champions, better monitoring/evaluation, stronger consultation with civil society, etc).

While C-NAP expired at the end of March, efforts to renew it are now underway. And the great news is, interest in the WPS agenda can be heard in other quarters as well.

On March 9th, the Liberal Senate Forum Open Caucus—a space for non-partisan exploration on issues of interest to parliamentarians, media, and the public—held an expert discussion on women, peace and security.

In the Lower Chamber, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development—at the urging of its sole female member (!), Hélène Laverdière—conducted a study on WPS. Alongside other civil society witnesses, MCC’s partner KAIROS testified before the committee, drawing on its grassroots partnerships in DR Congo to highlight the need for ambitious funding for women peacebuilders around the world. The Chief of Defence Staff also testified about a policy directive for integrating UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions into Canadian military planning and operations.

So, the wheels of government are turning. Global Affairs representatives, present a few weeks ago at a conference put on by Women Peace and Security Network-Canada, are also in active listening mode, looking for ways to make progress on a renewed agenda.


Chea Muoy Kry (front), executive director of Women Peacemakers in Cambodia, trains young people on domestic and sexual violence and gender issues. (MCC photo/Amanda Talstra)

And there are ways to improve. As some conference participants aptly noted, we shouldn’t reduce the WPS agenda to sexual violence. We should also be actively considering the ways in which trade regimes, property laws, natural resource extraction, and so on, also impact women’s rights and lives in post-conflict situations.

And we need to find ways to bring the agenda from the margins to the center of policy conversations. As a (rather hefty) 2015 UN-commissioned Global Study illustrated, while there has been a normative shift on the global importance of the WPS agenda, implementation remains weak, and funding levels have been shameful.

In other words, while a rhetorical shift is welcome, we need to walk the talk.

As Canada makes its bid for a Security Council seat (Trudeau was busy recently doing as much), the prime minister could be a real champion for feminist foreign policy by putting women peacebuilders at the heart of the international security agenda. 

It’s an obvious win. And an obvious extension of his values. As Prime Minister Trudeau said himself (rather cheekily) to the UN crowd, “It’s just really, really obvious. We should be standing up for women’s rights and trying to create more equal societies? Like duh.”

My thoughts exactly.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director

What’s the 411 on the Arms Trade Treaty?

During the marathon (by Canadian standards!) election campaign, the Liberal Party claimed its vision for “a more compassionate Canada”—a “sunnier” Canada that would re-engage multilateral institutions, re-invest in public diplomacy, and reverse the decline in foreign aid.

Three months after their win, the Liberals have moved into Langevin Block. Political staffers are slowly (but surely) taking their positions. And everyone in Ottawa has hit the ground running, trying to give legs to the many promises made on the campaign trail.

The slogan around town is, “Canada’s back.” 


All photos courtesy

As the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion has a role to play in rebooting Canada’s image (with his renamed department). His mandate letter, while containing a dash of politics-as-usual, also signals some decisive foreign policy shifts—even a re-commitment to peace operations, mediation, and conflict prevention.

To what extent any security paradigm-shift will be implemented remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one encouraging step is the promise to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Given the widespread accessibility of cheap weapons has been a key factor in exacerbating conflict and fueling displacement around the world, MCC welcomes this promise. The illicit flow of small arms and light weapons (even a steady trickle across porous borders) can wreak havoc, destabilizing communities, negatively impacting development, supporting the emergence of extremist movements, and even sustaining the power of autocratic regimes. Weapons diversion is, according to the UN Secretary-General, a “colossal problem around the world.”

Massive injections of arms from the outside can have a destabilizing effect across entire regions. After the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that were poured into Libya by the international community—which was arming various actors within the conflict—began feeding terrorist movements in Mali, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. It’s also no secret that so-called Islamic State militants are well-armed because they’ve laid claim to Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons seized from over-run (U.S.-backed) Iraqi military bases.

In other words, the international community—with its $1.76 trillion annual arms trade—has a role to play in ensuring volatile contexts don’t get flooded with weapons that provide corrupt governments or armed groups with the primary means of perpetuating violence and intimidation.

Bullet Proof treatyEnter the Arms Trade Treaty. Coming into force just in time for Christmas of 2014, the ATT is the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional (non-nuclear) arms, ranging from light weapons to fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, and warships, as well as their related ammunition, parts, and components. The treaty imposes strict conditions on arms transfers (export, import, transit, transshipment, and brokering), requiring states to assess the potential for weapons to be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

All said, it’s a crucially important convention. But, of course, it ain’t perfect.

Critics will note (quite rightly) a central weakness of the ATT—that the assessment and authorization of whether an arms transfer risks undermining peace and security is undertaken solely by the exporting state. In other words, the treaty doesn’t really challenge the political interests of arms exporters (not a huge shocker; after all, what did we expect?). And while there are transparency measures, there is no enforcement regime.

Yet the creation of the ATT acknowledges the enormous costs of not regulating the arms trade. Besides, what other instrument puts states on the hot seat, forcing them to justify their arms sales to gross human rights violators?

So, whither Canada?

Well, to date, Canada is the only member of the G7 and the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark treaty.

The rationale of the previous government? That Canada already has a strong export-control system for weapons.

Canada’s track record, however, tells a different story. Recent deals to countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, Libya, and, most notably, Saudi Arabia, raise troubling questions about how the government determines who it sells weapons to.

Federal export controls require that when selling arms to countries with persistent records of serious human rights abuses, Canada must first obtain assurances that there is no reasonable risk the weapons could be used against civilian populations.

Stop the violenceGiven that Saudi Arabia annually tops the charts as being among the worst human rights violators in the world, how could Canada’s (largest-ever) $15 billion contract to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudi National Guard pass muster? Far from being merely “jeeps” (as Trudeau called them on the campaign trail), these vehicles—some of which will be weaponized with turrets and cannons supplied by a European subcontractor—are surely capable of mass destruction.

Still, the foreign affairs minister is standing by this contract for its economic value (though taking some flak for this position). Yet acceding to the ATT is in his mandate. It’s right there in his letter.

Yes, I recognize that foreign policy is, as one columnist recently put it, “more about dark arts than sunny ways.” State interests rule. But I’m still holding out hope. Effective arms control is possible when there is political will (and public support).

Sure, the ATT is flawed, and it isn’t a panacea. Conflicts won’t simply end tomorrow because of it (though they will be harder to carry out and sustain!). Yet it is a tool that outlines how governments can, and should, exercise greater restraint in the weapons trade—a tool that can help shift norms and behaviour over the long-term.

That is a critical achievement indeed.

Jenn Wiebe is MCC Ottawa Office Director

  • Listen to Project Ploughshares Executive Director, Cesar Jaramillo, interviewed on CBC Radio’s Day 6: “Is Canada failing to live up to its human rights commitments with its arms deals?”
  • Read Ernie Regehr’s Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot be Won on the Battlefield (2015): Chapter 7, A Treaty to Control the Arms Trade.
  • Check out a joint letter (by partners such as Project Ploughshares) to Minister Dion, calling for Canada’s rapid accession to the Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Take a look at the Ploughshares Monitor from summer of 2015, featuring an article on the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.


From a bunker to a ban: the new push to abolish nuclear weapons

If you’ve never had a chance to wander the eerie, underground halls of the once top-secret Diefenbunker, you should put this on your bucket list.

Built in 1959 during the height of the Cold War, this four-story bomb shelter—located evacuation-distance from downtown Ottawa and made to withstand a 5-megaton blast—was intended to serve as emergency government headquarters for 535 Canadian political and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack.

The bunker, colloquially named after former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, was never used for its intended purpose. Thankfully, it never needed to be.

Walking through the bunker is like being in a time-warp. The iconic blast tunnel leads to 300 rooms filled with vintDiefenbunkerage typewriters and telephones, cryptographic areas, a shower room to wash off nuclear contamination, and a war Cabinet room—all hearkening back to a time when the fear of nuclear catastrophe gripped politicians and citizens alike.

Today, public angst has diminished. School children aren’t receiving lessons on how to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear war. There is a virtual media blackout on the topic. And the bunker, a fascinating relic of our Cold War past, is now a public museum.

And yet when it comes to nuclear weapons, unfortunately there is still plenty to be worried about.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, there are still over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals—nearly 5,000 of which are launch ready, and almost 2,000 of which are on high-alert status.

A few weeks ago, I attended Rendezvous-Ottawa 2014—a two-day conference on nuclear abolition hosted by various organizations such as the International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Project Ploughshares, and Mines Action Canada.

For two, chock-full days, we heard about the impacts of nuclear weapons, exploottawa-clear1ring the inability of any city to respond with effective emergency relief after a detonation, and learning about the long-term and far-reaching devastation to ecosystems and human health (a.k.a. nuclear famine) in the nasty wake of an explosion.

I must admit that by noon on the first day, my spirits were a little dampened.

The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons—utterly indiscriminate in effect—are catastrophic.

The world is rapidly changing, and the incremental reduction of nuclear weapons is not working. The principle of Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer a viable argument—if, indeed, it ever was—for keeping these (insane) weapons in the world’s arsenals. The possibilities for nuclear Armageddon due to system malfunction, human error, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by extremist non-state actors mean we continue to walk the razor’s edge.

Yet power politics, state intransigence, the profit-driven military industrial complex, and lack of public awareness create obstacles to getting rid of these weapons once and for all.

So, how do we revive the conversation? Well, there was also good news at this conference.

Disarmament efforts continue in earnest, with the humanitarian imperative becoming the rallying cry for renewed attention. When you leave discussions to technical experts in our state capitals, it is easy to get stuck in the weeds. But when the need to abolish nuclear weapons is framed as a humanitarian issue, we all become experts.

Given that nuclear weapons states are in violation of their commitments under Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—they are required to eliminate their nuclear weapons, not spend obscene amounts of money modernizing their arsenals!—many civil society groups are pushing for a global ban on the weapon.

And when civil society gets behind something, magic can happen.

Ottawa is the site of the historic landmine ban treaty. When it was negotiated in 1997, civil society groups successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the international ban on cluster bombs roughly ten years later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. A robust treaty calling for an unequivocal ban on landmines ultimately helped stigmatize this indiscriminate weapon, leading even non-party states (like the U.S.) to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Can a ban on nuclear weapons do the same?


Courtesy of ICAN

The International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believes it could. They suggest a “ban treaty“—a legally binding instrument to prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of nucs—could be important even without the participation of the permanent members of the Security Council.

Such a treaty could not, of course, force nuclear weapons states to do anything. But it would lift up a global norm to project into the public and, in doing so, give a boost to other ongoing disarmament efforts (after all, it’s a lot easier to prevent the proliferation of weapons when they are considered illegal!). A ban treaty could stand alongside ongoing efforts to achieve a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Where is Canada in all of this?

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a historic motion made by the House and the Senate “to engage in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention as proposed by the United Nations Secretary-General” and “to deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.”

Canada has never taken concrete steps to implement this motion. It is not a foreign policy priority. In fact, Canada has been increasingly out of step with international efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Can the humanitarian angle be a catalyst for dusting the cobwebs off of this conversation and generate the momentum we need?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director

**See the fall special issue of the Ploughshares Monitor on nuclear disarmament for further reading!


Is this the way to deter human smuggling?

This week’s blog post is by Julia Tallmeister, Advocacy Research Intern at the Ottawa Office, in anticipation of Refugee Rights Day on April 4, 2014.

When people fear for their lives and safety, they may be forced to do all they possibly can to ensure their survival. Often, the prospect of security in a ‘safe’ country overpowers the possibility of detention for entering a country illegally.

MV Sun SeaNational hysteria ensued in 2010 when a group of around 500 Tamil migrants arrived in BC on the ship the MV Sun Sea to claim asylum. Despite the fact that the total number of migrants who entered Canada by boat over the 25 year period between 1986 and 2011 (1,500) amounts to merely 0.2 per cent of the total number of refugees accepted into Canada over the same time, the perceived “boat problem” prompted the Canadian government to propose a number of measures aimed at preventing the smuggling of immigrants into Canada.

Much has already been said about Bill C-31, or Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which came into effect in 2012. To mention only a few of the many changes this bill brought forth, it authorized the automatic and arbitrary detention of “irregular arrivals” (or “designated foreign nationals”) over the age of 16, without review, for up to one year. Migrants are now subjectively designated as “irregular arrivals” by the Minister of Public Safety when the identity of a person needs to be established, when investigations concerning the person or group cannot be done in a timely fashion, or when there is a suspicion of human smuggling.

As explained by Dr. Stephanie Silverman at a recent lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, detained immigrants now face a multitude of challenges. These include the overpopulation of detention centres, exposure to violence, and the lack of statutory rights to legal counsel and translation services, all of which can lead to deterioration in mental health and higher susceptibility to suicidal tendencies. Immigration detention not only has high financial costs – $70,000 per person, per year – but detrimental social effects, as it criminalizes and securitizes vulnerable groups of people, and immigration in general.

Further, “irregular arrivals” who are granted refugee status are still denied access to permanent resident status for a minimum of five years, making them unable to sponsor children, spouses, or other close family members.

All of this is meant to deter human smuggling.

proud2protectenbuttonWhat is paradoxical, however, is that while the federal government tries to “crack down” on human smuggling, it has also been creating incentives for illegal immigration and human smuggling. Illegal entry from the US into Canada has been on the rise since the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) came into effect in December of 2004. The STCA prevents individuals from claiming asylum in Canada if they arrive in the US first, and vice versa. With certain exceptions, asylum seekers must make their claim in the first country they enter. This has led to a drastic decline in asylum claims made at the Canadian border and has forced many refugees to make their claim in the United States, despite the several ways in which the American asylum system falls below international standards.

While the STCA is meant to make the border more secure, it has, in reality, encouraged illegal border crossing and human smuggling into Canada. In 2012 the Integrated Border Enforcement Team reported that human smuggling attempts into Canada had increased by 58 per cent from 2010 to 2011. A recent study by Harvard Law School highlights the human toll of tightening the border, finding that some asylum seekers have drowned in desperate attempts to swim across the Niagara River, and others have been killed or lost limbs while trying to cross railway bridges into Canada.

This is just one illustration highlighting the fact that there will always be tensions between the supposed intentions of a policy or law, and the actual impact. It seems to me that if Canada truly wants to decrease the rate of human smuggling, tightening the border and preventing refugees from entering the country safely and legally is not the solution.

April 4th is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Click here to read about some ways you can reach out to your community and take action to protect refugee rights.

Demolished six times: Beit Arabiya to be resurrected in a new form

This week’s guest blog is by Ryan Rodrick Beiler, a service worker with MCC in Palestine and Israel. This article originally appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

In a panic, Arabiya Shawamreh locked the door to protect her seven children. Israeli soldiers surrounding the house were beating and handcuffing her husband Salim. When the soldiers threw a tear gas grenade through the window and broke down the door, they found Arabiya unconscious. The children fled in all directions as their house was demolished.

“In that demolition, I lost everything. I lost all the memories of my life … pictures, documents, belongings from my childhood. Everything that meant something to me personally,” says Arabiya. “People tried to comfort me, but I couldn’t hear them. It was like mourning. I was sunk into myself, disconnected, preoccupied with what would happen to us, the kids, worried about our future.”

On Nov. 5, Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh stand among the ruins of their family's house, demolished for the sixth time four days earlier in the West Bank town of Anata. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

On Nov. 5, Salim and Arabiya Shawamreh stand among the ruins of their family’s house, demolished for the sixth time four days earlier in the West Bank town of Anata. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

True, Salim had built their house without a permit. Most countries have building codes to maintain sustainable communities, so demolishing “illegal” buildings may seem justifiable. But Salim had limited options. When he was nine, the 1967 war forced his family to flee their 3-story Jerusalem home for a 3×6 meter room in Shu’fat Refugee Camp. After his studies, Salim worked abroad, saved money for nine years, married Arabiya, and returning home, bought land in nearby Anata.

Salim applied for a building permit, but after several years and thousands of dollars in fees, surveyors, and lawyers—without success—he decided to build anyway in 1994. “The ‘peace process’ had by then begun,” he recalls, “And everyone was sure that house demolitions would stop.”

As the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem reports, “Israel has created a situation in which thousands of Palestinians are unable to obtain permits to build on their land, and are compelled to build without a permit because they have no other way to provide shelter for their families.” At the same time, “Thousands of houses were built in [Israeli] settlements without permits. Israel refrained from demolishing these houses, and instead issued retroactive building permits.”

As an act of resistance against such discrimination, the Shawamreh homestead became the first house rebuilt by MCC partner the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in 1998.

“I supported the idea of rebuilding the house, even though I was scared about going through the trauma of logodemolition again,” says Arabiya. “When the Israeli peace people came and we started to rebuild I was there, rebuilding, with Israelis.”

But three more demolitions took their toll. “I have lost the role of protector of my children,” Salim says tearfully. “I said to them: ‘Don’t worry, I am here. I’ll protect you.’ Do you know what my 9-year-old daughter Wafa said to me? ‘You can’t protect us. We saw what the soldiers did to you when they handcuffed you and threw you outside when they demolished our home.’”

After the fourth demolition in 2003, ICHAD helped the family rent elsewhere while rebuilding their house as a peace center. Named “Beit Arabiya”, meaning “Arabiya’s House”, it became a place where Palestinian and Israeli activists could meet, housed volunteers rebuilding other demolished homes, and hosted hundreds of groups who came to hear its story, including many MCC learning tours.

After nine years, Israeli forces demolished Beit Arabiya yet again in January 2012. And at last year‘s ICAHD summer camp, Palestinian, Israeli, and international volunteers once again celebrated its rebuilding, dancing arm in arm under the banner, “Resisting Occupation, Constructing Peace”.

Four months later, authorities demolished Beit Arabiya for the sixth time.

But like Jesus’ persistent widow in Luke 18, ICAHD remains committed to demanding justice for the Shawamreh family, declaring that their August summer camp (volunteers needed—learn more at will once again “resurrect Beit Arabiya”, in a new and different form, ever a focal point of cooperative peacemaking.

Street round ups and check points: Military recruitment in Colombia

As the proud owner of a brand new office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Dr. Andrew Bennett has a hefty job to do.

Appointed in February as Canada’s very first Ambassador of Religious Freedom, he now has the rather sizeable (and, might I say, unenviable?) task of operationalizing the Conservative government’s 2011 election promise.

With a modest annual budget of $5 million and a mandate to respond to issues of religious discrimination and persecution around the world, Ambassador Bennett is now coordinating the work of the recently-opened Office of Religious Freedom (ORF).

Perhaps it’s the Mennonite roots talking, but I hope that when he is prioritizing his lengthy to-do list—protecting religious minorities under threat, opposing religious hatred and intolerance, and promoting pluralism abroad—conscientious objection doesn’t get stuck at the bottom. It is, after all, one of the internationally-recognized elements of freedom of religion or belief.

My hope for such a focus comes not only from the fact that conscientious objection has been a significant chapter in Mennonite history, but that struggling for these rights is a current reality for some of MCC’s global partners.

Mandatory military service in Colombia

For two weeks in March, I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia along with seven Mennonite Brethren (MB) church leaders from across Canada. As part of Menno Colombia 2013—a learning tour jointly organized by MCC’s teams in Colombia and Ottawa—we had the privilege of meeting with local Colombian MB leaders, learning about the work of MCCimg_9609 partners Mencoldes and Justapaz, and experiencing the warmth of Colombian hospitality.

Our journey took us through the geographical diversity of Bogotá and Chocó, and along the winding streets of Colombia’s complex socio-economic, political, and religious realities.

In a country scarred by a nearly 50-year long civil war—a context still rife with tensions between multiple insurgent groups (some with socialist-orientations and others defending large economic interests), paramilitaries, and government forces—military service is not voluntary, but obligatory.

From the age of 18, all Colombian males are required to serve in the national army. While there are, technically-speaking, exemptions for indigenous peoples (very narrowly defined), victims of displacement, young men with dependents, and those with severe physical disabilities, such exemptions are, in practice, routinely ignored.

In fact, as our delegation heard first-hand from MCC’s partner Justapaz—the justice and peace organization of the Mennonite church in Colombia—not only do Colombian youth face recruitment by the country’s various armed groups, but they are victimized by the illegal and irregular enlistment practices of the Colombian military.

Justapaz works tirelessly to tackle such problems. With a focus on transformative advocacy, staff njustapaz-tableot only diligently document individual stories of Colombians victimized by violence and human rights abuses, and fight for land illegally seized by armed groups, but they help conscientious objectors navigate their obligatory military service requirements.

Given the widespread and serious human rights violations that have resulted from forcible military recruitment, this advocacy work is critical.

Justapaz staff told us mind-boggling stories of what have become all-too-familiar scenes: young males rounded up by the military at bus stations or on public streets. In these moments, those who cannot show proper “military service” cards are hauled away on trucks, taken to an army base, and put in uniform.

It all happens so quickly. Most don’t even have the chance to tell their families where they’ve gone.

Some brave individuals might choose to protest, risking fines or even jail time. Others, attempting to avoid this scenario altogether, might purchase forged military service documents (a tactic available only to those who can afford them). Understandably, this seems less risky than standing up to authorities during these illegal street round ups (or “batidas”), and certainly easier than doing time.

Conscientious objectors are also “sentenced” in other ways, saddled with layers of legal discrimination. According to Colombian law, those who cannot prove they have fulfilled their obligatory military service cannot be formally employed, graduate from university, or assume any public office.

While a 2009 Constitutional Court ruling recognized conscientious objection to military service as a fundamental right (according to Article 18 of the Colombian Constitution), this has not been codified into law. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much political appetite for making this happen.

As such, conscientious objectors remain unprotected—unrecognized by military and civilian authorities—and the risk of forcible recruitment or arrest continues on as a dark cloud looming overhead.

In the face of these gritty realities, Justapaz staff are pushing Congress to legislatejustapaz-staff-2 the right to resist mandatory military service while also providing Colombian churches and communities with the tools to help them exercise their rights against illegal recruitment practices.

This, of course, is neither safe nor simple work. Break-ins at the Justapaz office and theft of computers containing sensitive documentation on human rights abuses have been a reality. Even when we were visiting last month, staff suspected their offices were being monitored because of this highly-charged work.

Over to you, Ambassador Bennett

Surely, there are many challenges (and potential minefields) Ambassador Bennett will face as the work of Canada’s ORF takes shape. Many in the ecumenical community—and well beyond!—have already cautioned that for this work to be done effectively, it will require intensive diplomacy (actions beyond merely naming and shaming the violators of religious freedom), solid engagement with international civil society actors, even-handedness, and sensitivity in dealing with the complex intersection between religious freedom and other human rights.

But this office may also offer significant opportunities for our partners in Colombia, and, indeed, in other parts of the world, who must navigate their deepest moral, political, or religious convictions in the face of such issues as obligatory military service.

Here’s to hoping…

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst