Everybody’s wrong in Canadian politics

The Conservatives got C-51 wrong. In fact, they got it wrong twice. They had a chance to climb down after the committee stage, when it had become clear that a general mobilization of opposition was under way, including not just among the typical partisan voices but a much more apolitical set of experts on the issue. The bill’s opponents constitute a diverse group. It includes active lawyers and senior public servants whose professional incentives actually push against participation in partisan politics in favour of more neutral policy advice. It also features an array of strong voices within the country’s conservative movement, who obviously must have strong reasons to criticize a government with which they normally identify. That groups see fit to oppose the bill so openly and rigorously speaks to the alarm with which they view it. The latest opinion polls bear this out, with support for the bill slipping even among Conservative voters, and the party may yet rue the day they doubled down on it.

They’re wrong on Iraq and Syria as well, though not totally so. ISIS is not a significant threat to Canada, and it is unsavoury politics, to say the least, to present it as such in what for all the world seems to be an effort to make Canadians fearful in order to gain electoral advantage. That said, human suffering and massive instability in the Middle East is not in Canada’s interests either; had the Conservatives made stabilization of that region its priority, rather than the neutralization of what is (for Canadians) a trumped up security threat, they would arguably be credibly serving the nation’s interests. As it is, a degraded ISIS will either re-emerge the moment Canada and its allies withdraw from the region, or be replaced by something else just as unpleasant. War without the prospect for a political solution is war without end.

The Liberals, meanwhile, managed to get their stances on C-51 and military action in Iraq and Syria exactly backwards. They should be opposing the former to the hilt, and actually calling for a more muscular, but differently constructed intervention in the case of the latter. The “Syraq” mission in fact represented an opportunity to retake the high ground in Canadian foreign policy, to rediscover the liberal principles embodied in the Responsibility to Protect to which the Minister of Defence recently (and in my view incorrectly) invoked. Canada’s current mission is effectively a kind of preventive conflict, designed to degrade what the government views as a serious threat to Canadian security, namely ISIS. Any protection of civilians is at best temporary without a commitment to stay and work with Canada’s allies to return stability to that most unstable of global regions. Given the ongoing commitment to work in an even-handed manner to return stability to that region would constitute a genuine contribution to the security of Canada and the world.

To its credit, the NDP is on the mark in its strong stance against C-51. It errs, however, in focusing solely on humanitarian measures such as refugees support in Syria and Iraq, however, failing to provide a coherent (and easily communicated) view on how it would keep Canadians safe at home, and work to enhance stability abroad. Providing care and comfort for those lucky enough to escape is not enough. Canada can do better, and do so in a manner consistent with international law, rebuilding respect for rule-based international order in the process. The world has become more dangerous in the last decade. Canada can and should be a strong actor working to re-establish rule-governed relations among nations through support of initiatives such as the US-Iran nuclear negotiations, and putting forward some idea of how Canada can contribute to stability in the most unstable regions of the world, helping vulnerable populations in the process. Those are values and goals consistent with an NDP worldview as well.

The Green Party is wrong too. Oh, they’re right about climate change, for sure. It’s the single most pressing issue facing the world to be, and almost certainly remain so throughout my lifetime and beyond. It’s the mother of all collective action problems.  No, they’re wrong about the Westminster system under first past the post. I’ve written previously at some length about how the presence of an environmental option on the ballot may actually have impeded the progress of the environmental movement in Canada. Our system rewards “identity” or “answer” parties, not “issue” or “question” parties. Unless and until Canada shifts to a proportional representation model, we should be pushing all parties all to take climate change seriously, and offering them the chance to win environmental voters as a result. As it stands, parties that actually stand a chance at winning know that they’ll never capture the most green-conscious voters, so they spend no capital trying. (All that said, I hope Elizabeth May stays on as an MP. She’s a hugely important voice in contemporary Canadian politics.)

The media, meanwhile, gets the Duffy trial wrong. While corruption within the governing party is certainly newsworthy, there is little to learn from the trial that we don’t already know. It’s a sideshow, one whose effects on public opinion and our view of government have largely played out already. The ongoing exhaustive focus on it tends to take attention away from less exciting but more significant issues such as the ones discussed above, to say nothing of the significant economic changes under way, both internationally with the continuing rise of Asia, and domestically with the at least temporary stalling of the petroleum industry.

Have I alienated everyone? If so, then my work here is done.

photo credit: Wrong Way via photopin (license)

R2P, Canada, and Syria

Minister Kenney recently described Canada’s mission to degrade ISIS in terms of Responsibility to Protect. He suggests that Canada’s mission there may be considered an example of the emerging international norm, an interesting turn of events considering the norm did not previously matter all that much for this government :

If the responsibility to protect means anything … does it not mean in an instance such as this, preventing genocide, preventing ethnic cleansing, preventing sexual slavery of women and preventing the execution of gay men by throwing them off towers?

To paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that emerging norm means what he thinks it means. Here is the basic premise of R2P, taken from the UN R2P webpage:

The three pillars of the responsibility to protect…are:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Two quick points, along with an implication for Canadian policy.   First, R2P focuses explicitly (and quite deliberately) on the state as holder of the primary responsibility for the protection of resident populations. The expectation is that sovereignty implies responsibilities, and not just rights, for states.

It is only if the state is unable or unwilling to protect its own populations—and obviously, if the state is the one doing the attacking that qualifies—that the international community has a moral obligation to intervene to “take collective action” to “protect populations.”

Protect populations. That is explicitly and deliberately an expression of human security. To be considered a legitimate instance of R2P, Canada’s mission would need to be conceived and implemented completely differently, with an aim to protecting Syrians and Iraqis not only, or even primarily from ISIS/ISIL, but from the state which currently threatens so many. That is, Canada would need to be protecting the region’s populations from all who threaten them, including Assad.

Of course, Canada’s mission is designed and justified to do something completely different. Here is how the Prime Minister justifies the recent extension of Canada’s military mission to Iraq (and now Syria):

The highest priority of any government must be protecting its citizens from harm. I believe that Canadians realize that we cannot stand on the sidelines while ISIL commits atrocities in the Middle East and promotes terrorism in Canada and against our allies. We are therefore seeking the support of Canadian parliamentarians for our decision to extend and expand Canada’s military mission, with our allies, to fight Islamic jihadism which threatens national and global security. We intend to continue to degrade and disrupt ISIL as well as provide humanitarian and stabilization support to help alleviate the suffering this terrorist group is inflicting.

This sounds much more like a mission of preventive conflict, one not designed to protect Syrians and Iraqis at all, but rather to protect Canadians. We are fighting ISIS over there, because they are said to pose a threat us over here. Such a mission may be called many things, but it is not an example of R2P in action.

There are many other ironies points worth noting—such as the prominence of international law in the form of the UN charter—in the above pillars, but that’s all I have time for for now.

Canada Takes Note of the Central African Republic

There will be a “take note” debate on the subject of the situation in the Central African Republic, and Canada’s potential response to it, in the House of Commons this Wednesday 14 February. If you think Canada should get more involved in the international response to this crisis in particular, or indeed in global responses to challenges to human security in general, now is the perfect time to contact your MP and let them know.

For background on the situation in the CAR from various UN affiliated agencies, click here. For my opinion on the subject (spoiler alert: I think we should be more involved!), click here. For background on just what a take note debate is, click here. (Long story short, it’s a relatively open debate designed to allow consultation with the House before the government forms policy on a given issue.)

And above all, if you think this is an important issue, please share this message widely.

photo credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via photopin cc