Stephen Harper’s Canada II:  Contempt for International Law, Indifference to Civilian Deaths, and Destruction of a Peacekeeping Heritage

Dear Virtual Editor,

This is the second post in my plea to Canadians to oust the current government. I am aware that the state of Canada’s place in the world is not the primary concern of voters.  But when the policies of one government are so destructive of what Canada was, and could be, it is worth taking notice.  That is especially true when the Canada that Harper wants casts aside a record that could be very helpful in world affairs today and breeds violent opposition.  Before this election, it is time to pay attention to foreign policy.


Moudakis March 24 2015Most recent headlines have noted Harper’s expansion of the activities of Canada’s pitiful little fleet of fighter-bombers, to include bombing Syria. Beyond killing a few people- combatants and civilians- the air strikes will have little impact in the war.  They will have a much greater symbolic impact on the world’s halting, imperfect attempts over the last 70 years to emerge from violence and chaos and construct a peaceful international order.  The impact is wholly negative. The airstrikes formally align Canada with two other international scofflaws, the United States and Israel, who have little but disdain for the United Nations and claim the right to attack anyone, anywhere they see fit, with the flimsiest of justifications.

Set aside the fact that none of the members of the bombing coalition have the slightest idea of what they hope to achieve by it, beyond “degrading” ISIS, whatever that means. Set aside they fact that the bombing helps the brutal Syrian regime. Set aside the fact that we are fighting on the same side as Iran, which is supposed to be an enemy, except in Yemen where the West is supporting the Saudi dictatorship in a sectarian proxy war against forces supported by Iran.   Set aside the fact that a uniting factor among the myriad of warring factions in the Middle East is a rejection of the western claim of exceptionalism.  Instead, take a moment to consider law and its potential.

Law, of course, is the last thing this government wants to discuss.  Harper, when asked whether he had sought the consent of Syria, a UN member state, to bomb its territory, joked that he was not worried about a lawsuit launched by ISIS lawyers.  I trust it is not too much to ask that we go beyond Harper’s facile rhetoric.

The  “good guys can decide” theory of self-defence

For some reason, the U.S., Israel, and now Canada do not simply admit that they act on the assumption they are always the good guys, exceptional, and therefore entitled to rain violence where and when they see fit. Instead, they construct tortured legal arguments that can barely pass the straight face test.  I am hard pressed to recall any of my thousands of law students who would have seriously asserted such porous pronouncements.

I can flyThe same government that hopes you will not think through Bill C-51 also hopes you will not think through Article 51 of the UN Charter.   The UN, with great help from Canadians, was brought into being with the hope and assumption that it would be the first option for resolution of international disputes. So it is not surprising that Article 51 provides that nothing abrogates the inherent right of self-defence of a member state, until the UN acts.  Ignoring the plain intent of the section, the U.S. and its “coalition partners” have decided that if they say they are acting in self-defence, that makes it so.  Please note that this argument does not wiclaim legal authority to simply retaliate for the horrible things the guys they are bombing have undeniably done. No, the half billion dollars Canada is spending to bomb in Syria is supposed to be for self-defence. One argument is that it is the self-defence of Iraq, that mess of a U.S. client state bequeathed to the world by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. After treating its Sunni minority badly for years, Iraq is apparently shocked to find so many of them joining groups like ISIS and would appreciate some help. They would especially like help because, thanks to their own policies and US genius, the Iraqi army is inept. For good measure, your government argues that bombing the Middle East is somehow necessary to defend Canada— all in accordance with Article 51!  Please.Until

The U.S. and Canada may have learned this novel theory of self-defence from Israel, the country that apparently dictates Middle East policy to both. (See 29 Jan 2014 post)  The response of that nation to rhetoric condemning its existence is to assume the right to invade and bomb other countries pre-emptively, as Israel has already done more than once.  Most recently, while doing its best to undermine the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Israel, itself a nuclear state, has threatened to bomb Iran.  In such a case, unless we all buy western exceptionalism, Iran would be perfectly justified under Article 51 to attack Israel tomorrow.  For many reasons, let us hope that sane voices in both countries prevail and this does not happen. Yet this is the theory of self-defence to which Canada has now signed on.

20140119_pg_09If indeed the perversion of the United Nations vision of self-defence has roots in Israeli policy, there is a special irony at work. Israel was the formal creation of the United Nations, an understandable reaction of the world to the horror of the holocaust. Since that time, the child has had little use for its parent.

One of the clearest pieces of evidence to that effect is the building of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, in plain defiance of international law.  The biggest flaw in the UN structure is the veto power given a handful of WWII victors as permanent members of the Security Council.  Sadly, the major powers, east and west, use the Security Council only when it suits them and ignore it as they see fit, often reverting to the old practice of assembling military coalitions and alliances of the sort that brought the world two horrific wars.  Yet even the Security Council is united in condemning Israeli settlements.

For example, consider UN Security Council Resolution 465 from 1980:

After setting out other instances of Israel flouting international law, the resolution continues:all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem and any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

color-west-bnksettle1-webThe resolution goes on to call upon the government and people to dismantle the settlements and calls upon UN member states not to provide any assistance for construction of the settlements.

To all of which, Israel’s response can be summarized as “Up yours. We have the right to self-defence and security as we and we alone interpret it.”  The number of settlements today dwarfs the number of those condemned by the international community in 1980.

The other side of the settlement coin is demolition.  Israel permits virtually no Palestinian home building and has demolished 48,000 Palestine homes since 1967, literally leaving families sitting in the dirt.  It would be bad enough if these demolitions had been reprisals, but less than 1% had anything to with even Israel’s exaggerated view of “security,”

The Harper government has always been a blind uncritical supporter of anything Israel chooses to do, for reasons we will explore in later posts.  But until that little contingent of jets went into Syria, it had never explicitly adopted the Dick Cheney, Benjamin Netanyahu theory of  “we will decide” self-defence. Do you care?

Perverting Responsibility to Protect

In truth, the world community should not be required to ask permission of brutal Syrian ruler Bashar Assad before intervening in the massive humanitarian crisis that exists there.

Where-R2P-Goes-From-HereThere is another justification in international law, an emerging doctrine for which Canadians, including former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, can take much credit. It is the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. (RTP)  That doctrine has already been undermined by the U.S. and Canada in Libya and claiming it as a basis for bombing Syria  simply does further damage.  Let’s hope the harm is not irreparable.

The doctrine abrogates a notion of national sovereignty that has existed since at least 1648. That was the idea that as long as a state was not attacking another state, which Syria is not doing, what it did within its own borders was its own business. Responsibility to Protect incorporates the view that the human rights of all people include at a minimum the right not to be murdered, starved, raped, or tortured.  When a nation state is unable or unwilling to protect the basic human rights of its people, the international community may step in—for the sole purpose of protecting the people from loss of these basic human rights.  The Syrian government has surely been more than unwilling to protect the basic human rights of its people.

1107314_0Syria is a good candidate for intervention under the auspices of Responsibility to Protect and the Canadian government is indeed making that argument in addition to its convoluted interpretation of self-defence.  The problem is that the U.S., with Canada’s help, has already perverted the doctrine in Libya and is taking the same course in Syria. Here is what is wrong.

State sovereignty is a serious principle, not to be cast away lightly in pursuit of geopolitical advantage.  If that principle is not honoured, it is very difficult to criticize Vladimir Putin’s intervention to “protect” ethnic Russians in Ukraine, not to mention his own interpretation of self-defence.  Responsibility to Protect is about protecting human rights. It is not about “regime change” or influencing regional conflicts.  The western coalition in Libya did not honour that limiting principle and the people of Libya are suffering the consequences.

It should also go without saying that one does not bomb to protect civilian human rights. If Canada and its allies really want to implement Responsibility to Protect, they would have to get out of their airplanes, and go into Syria with the sole objective of protecting people, instead of killing some of them and writing it off as collateral damage, and trying to replace Assad with a government of their choice. Additionally, perhaps the greatest flaw in purporting to act under the authority of RTP is that western military coalitions are the wrong actors.  It is the presence of those forces that allow entities like ISIS to portray themselves as defenders against foreign invaders.  One would have thought that this lesson might have been learned by the failed war in Afghanistan. The involvement of the United Nations is essential to any attempt to counter that image.  There have been calls for a standing UN peacekeeping force for decades. Had they been heeded, there could be a 30,000 person force available for RTP in Syria.  Unfortunately, for now even real peacekeeping must be done by ad hoc coalitions. So be it. But any RTP intervention should have the smallest possible western nation component.

There is a role for the military in RTP, and some role for western nations, who have the greatest resources and training.  The sad fact being ignored is that Canada’s experience when it was actually involved in peacekeeping could provide valuable lessons and expertise to a true RTP humanitarian mission.  You will never hear this story from the Harper government’s war drum beaters who have reduced Canadian peacekeepers around the world to fewer than 100.

In the early hours of November 4th 1956, the General Assembly overwhelming supports Pearson’s proposal for the world’s first peacekeeping forces.

In the early hours of November 4th 1956, the General Assembly overwhelming supports Pearson’s proposal for the world’s first peacekeeping forces.

The historic contribution of Canadian peacekeeping, which the Harper government campaigns to erase from our national memory, is a credit to diplomats, civilian workers, and soldiers.  From the Suez mission of Lester Pearson, though Cyprus, the Balkans and elsewhere, Canadians were instrumental in at the very least affording the warring parties sufficient time to resolve their conflicts without further violence. Some did. Some did not. Canadians accomplished this in spite of the fact that their country denied them, and the UN, anything near the resources required. Remarkably, they also did so without a clear mandate or instructions for this new venture.  Canadians on the ground made up their own rules about when to declare a UN protected area and defend it with armed force, when to back off, when and how to negotiate will all parties, and how to get humanitarian aid through.  They compiled a storehouse of knowledge and lessons learned that is directly applicable today.

And, even in failed missions like Rwanda, they engaged in humanitarian work that saved thousands of innocent lives.  It is that experience that should not only be drawn upon but also celebrated today.

These missions were carried out before the development of RTP.  The delicate balance of intervention required operating under what is known as “the trinity”:  consent of the belligerents, impartiality, and minimal use of force. RTP obviates the requirement of consent, but only that. And let’s be honest. A true RTP intervention in Syria would require real bravery, real heroes.  Using bombs and drones is not only counterproductive, it is also cowardly.

You will, of course, never hear of this positive humanitarian option from the Tory government. But voting this government out might help preserve the potential of a valuable international peace option before the great powers co-opt and destroy it.


yarmouk-refugee-camp-palestinian-boyEight kilometers from Damascus there is an ironic example of where Canada’s priorities lie; of what your government is doing and not doing in your name.  There is a Palestinian refugee area, a neighbourhood really, called Yarmouk, where 18,000 civilians, including 3500 children, are starving.  The irony is that Palestinians who were expelled from their land by Israel in 1948 were the founders of the community.

UNRWABoth ISIS and the Syrian government are brutalizing the population of Yarmouk. The neighbourhood has been under siege for more than 750 days.  There has been no water since 2013.  The population exists on an average of 400 calories per day.  Ask Jenny Craig about that. More than 200 starved to death in 2014 alone.

Until 2013, members of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) delivered food, water and medicine. It was not enough, but now there is no money, even though Yarmouk is technically a UN protected area.  There is currently no international plan to stop this humanitarian disaster.

Untitled1Canada, somehow able to find half a billion dollars to drop bombs, has cut $30 million from its contribution to UNRWA.

Did you know about Yarmouk?  About the UNRWA cut… done in your name?  Can you at all picture your own family members being attacked from the air by one force with anti-personnel bombs and attacked on the ground by another, while they try to exist on 400 calories a day?  In truth, none of us can really imagine what that is like.  But we can abandon our indifference about international humanitarian affairs, and the damage being done to our once proud record. Ten dollars a month to the Christian Children’s Fund will not help much. Getting rid of this government might.

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