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A 21st Century Military Doesn’t Start at Home

Steve Saideman | February 5, 2014
Canadian Leopard 2 tank

Today, the Ministers of National Defence and of Public Works announced a new approach to Canadian defence procurement.  Given the track record of the recent (and not so recent) past, it is clear that Canada desperately needs to reform how it buys equipment for the Canadian Forces.  The efforts to “re-capitalize” the CF have thus far produced more controversy than new planes, ships, vehicles, and other kit.  Since the Department of National Defence has not worked so well in this area, it does make some sense to move it to Public Works although it is not clear that Public Works has a stellar record.  Subsequently, more oversight from a team of Ministers makes a great deal of sense.  More …

To be clear, this is not just a Canadian problem.  Every advanced democracy is having problems buying arms and equipment for their militaries.  The decisions facing procurement officers are incredibly hard:

  • as inflation in this sector far out-paces every other;
  • given that competition is hard to generate within countries as there are few firms that can produce advanced weapons;
  • and that civilian expertise is not quite as strong as the military’s so the latter can sometimes “game” the former.

It would be fantastic if Canada tried to learn from other democracies what works and what does not work best both in terms of how to buy defence equipment and what equipment is best to buy.  Perhaps this will be part of the job of the new “Defence Analytics Institute, which will provide expert analysis to support the objectives of the Defence Procurement Strategy (DPS) and its evaluation.”

But I am a skeptic of this reform because it adds something that really has nothing to do with efficiency: “leverage our purchases of defence equipment to create jobs and economic growth in Canada.”  That sounds great as it makes defence purchases more appealing – we get some new equipment and it creates jobs in Canada.  But the reality is again the basic problem that insisting on purchasing at home means more expensive ships, planes, helicopters, and other necessary military equipment.  Efficiency means buying the best quality at the lowest price.  Insisting on buying Canadian-made material means that when Canada is not the most efficient producer, Canadian-based firms will still be chosen.  In the past, apparently acceptable ten percent markups became something closer to thirty percent increases in the costs of building domestically.

This is a real problem since Canada is often not the most efficient producer, given the economies of scale (that Canada does not buy as much as other countries so the costs cannot be averaged out over large production runs) and given that Canada simply has not been in some businesses for a long time so startup costs remain expensive (ship-building!), and so on.  This would be fine if DND had money to burn, but we are living during a period of defence cuts, so the added expenses of building within Canada logically means that Canada will have to buy fewer planes, ships, and other military equipment.

Obviously, domestic political imperatives are at work here – and that is to be expected.  The problem is that this move elevates playing to domestic audiences and providing jobs to key ridings, as a priority in the decision-making process.  Domestic politics will always matter unless we build a non-partisan institution to make the decisions. This is unlikely to happen with such a big chunk of the government’s money.  This “reform” is a mistake because it legitimates job creation as one of the key reasons for buying defense equipment.  Given how capital intensive this sector of the economy is, it is hardly an “efficient” or effective way to create new jobs.  A better way to do that would be (he says, self-servingly) to invest in higher education which has long proven to be a better job creator/economic multiplier than defence spending. 

Of course, there is a larger problem in Canadian defence procurement that is entirely unaddressed with this reform: the refusal to make choices.  Canada has not revised its defence strategy despite the fact that so many of the assumptions of the Canada First Defence Strategy have been overcome by events.  Canada cannot afford to “re-capitalize” all of its military at once, and has to prioritize which parts of the Canadian Forces most need new equipment, which parts will have to settle for being less advanced, and which parts might need to be cut entirely. 

Reforming the process of defence procurement is needed, but Canada’s understanding of what it needs to buy in the 21st century is in greater need of reform.  That would require some hard decisions and significant transparency – and unfortunately these are not the strengths of this government.

Why Peace Needs To Be On the Post-2015 Development Agenda


Diplomats, bureaucrats, and activists everywhere are energetically debating new global goals to drive future development. At least sixty United Nations (UN) agencies, most member states, and hundreds of private businesses and civil society groups are consulting on the form and content of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after they are renewed in 2015. As a champion of sustainable development since 1992 and host to the biggest development conference on earth in 2012, Brazil has a major stake in this global debate.

Brazil has set out its core priorities for what many now describe as future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For its part, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly underlines poverty reduction and environmental protection as a core focus. The emphasis on reducing global poverty echoes at least one half of the President’s popular domestic pro-poor agenda. Likewise, Foreign Affairs Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo is deeply invested in the SDGs. This is hardly surprising given that he was an architect of the Rio+20 Conference held last year. More …

Brazil’s endorsement of a traditional ‘development-first’ agenda is commendable, but also suffers from some drawbacks. For one, it implicitly excludes a host of other global priorities, not least peace and security. In Latin America and across the global south there is growing political consensus that insecurity – including armed conflict and homicidal violence – undermines development. There is also overwhelming evidence of the empirical relationships between fear and reduced economic growth. In fact, a UN Secretary General-appointed High Level Panel called for peace and security to be clearly included in future SDGs. Yet there is scarce mention of any of these issues in Brazilian debates on the subject.

So what explains Brazil’s determined silence on peace and security in the post-2015 development agenda? Brazil has historically supported the idea that security and development are interdependent. In 2011, for example, President Dilma stressed the importance of a “comprehensive and integrated approach that incorporates and strengthens coherence between political, security, development, human rights and rule of law activities that address underlying causes of each conflict.” But Brazilian diplomats have also signaled their discomfort with the risk of “securitizing” development – of aid being (mis)appropriated for military ends or diverted away from basic social welfare needs.

Whilst Brazil acknowledges that peace, security, and development are related, it parts company with other western countries in the specific direction of these relationships. On the one hand, Brazilian diplomats are not convinced that peace and security necessarily enables development. On the other, they adamantly believe that poverty and inequality reduction promotes peace. Although Brazilian officials concede that the peace and security agendas are central to maintaining international order and the multilateral architecture, they are nevertheless concerned that these issues are too sensitive and potentially distracting from the central priorities of the post-2015 agenda.

Is such a conservative conceptualization of development consistent with the realities of the 21st century? Most Brazilian diplomats privately acknowledge that the building of peaceful societies is fundamental for achieving sustainable development. Yet they also fear that a determined focus on peacebuilding in the context of the post-2015 debate is misplaced and could unintentionally interfere with the mandate of the UN Security Council. There are also worries that a peace-first approach could dangerously alter the mandates of UN agencies, diverting scarce resources away from developmental priorities. These anxieties are misplaced.

There are important precedents for Brazil adopting a more expansive approach to the SDGs. The country is one of the key supporters of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an agency it will chair throughout 2014. There is a real opportunity for Brazil to advance the greater cause of a stable global order: peacebuilding is the missing middle between security and development. Brazil also backs a robust conflict prevention agenda and early investments in lasting peace. The present administration should stay true to its instincts and back a sustainable development agenda that explicitly includes peacebuilding. The challenge for Brazilian diplomats will be maintaining the right balance of the so-called nexus: there are risks of tipping the scales too far in favour of security over development.  

Ultimately, the decision on what is included in the post-2015 agenda is still up for grabs. Brazil is deliberating over its formal position. But time is running out. UN member states need to start setting out their priorities before special sessions later this year. The UN will facilitate, but not define, the discussion – including through an open ended working group on SDGs and an intergovernmental committee of experts.

And civil society will continue playing a critical role in calling states to account. Brazil’s position could positively move the conversation forward, especially among lower- and middle-income countries. Brazil should consider brokering a broader conversation on development that includes peacebuilding at its heart. At the same time, its diplomats can constructively challenge the creeping securitization of development. Whatever the strategy, Brazil must bring peace back in and is especially well placed to do so.

This post was originally published on

Going to War with the Proxies You Have

Steve Saideman | January 29, 2014

Hamid Karzai is the gift that keeps on giving. He is now accusing the U.S. of being behind dozens of attacks, including the recent bombing of a Kabul restaurant that resulted in 21 fatalities, including two Canadians. “It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said on Monday. The Taliban seem to be in agreement with the U.S.: “Whatever claims we make, those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a phone interview. This comes hard on the heels of a decision to release more than 30 Afghans who had been arrested for attacking elements of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF].  The U.S. wanted these Afghans tried, and Karzai released them instead. How do we possibly make sense of Karzai? More …

There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is we cannot. The long answer, or an attempt at one, follows below. Yesterday, I was teaching my Contemporary International Security course on the topic of counter-insurgency. One of the key challenges in any counter-insurgency [COIN] effort is that the outsiders have to rely on the indigenous people to do much of the hard work.  The people who live in and govern the society have a far better understanding of who is an insurgent, who is not, and the various political dynamics. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) produced the basic wisdom that it is better for indigenous forces to do something adequately than outsiders to do it perfectly. That is good advice, but it ignores a larger problem whenever one intervenes: the interests of the outsiders and the interests of the people inside the country will not be identical.

Which leads to the big question: what are Karzai’s interests and why the hell did we pick him?  Let me address the second question first. Hamid Karzai seemed to be the best of the alternatives.  He was articulate in English, which mattered since much of his work did involve the international community. He is a Pashtun, which meant that he might be able to appeal to the part of Afghanistan that was least likely to support the government and had been the group most supportive of the Taliban. He also had his own powerbase, so he had both resources and experience.  And the Afghans chose him. In my conversations with those who worked with Karzai in 2003-2004, they say that Karzai was a willing and able partner. As he sought to build a government, he received help from Canada and others. 

However, over time, Karzai apparently became much more focused on what it took to stay in power than what was best for Afghanistan and building a sustainable government. This is not uncommon – my previous book, entitled “For Kin or For Country,” suggested that a basic tradeoff exists between doing what is best for oneself versus what is best for the country. Karzai took it to another level, since he could have pursued power in ways that were not so hostile to the international effort or to institution-building in Afghanistan.

The turning point was probably not the 2009 election but the campaign before it. During that campaign, it was as if the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] was the other candidate, as Karzai ran against ISAF, focusing attention on civilian casualties. To be certain, as President of Afghanistan, he has a responsibility to try to minimize the harm done to Afghans by “outsiders.” However, the Taliban then, and now, were doing far more harm to Afghans than the international community. Yet, for some reason, Karzai thought the best campaign strategy was to run against ISAF. And he has been doing so ever since. He has blamed corruption on NATO, and there is something to that since delivering lots of money to an underdeveloped country is a recipe for nepotism and fraud. On the other hand, Karzai benefited greatly from the very same corruption and blocked efforts to deal with it. He also blames the United States for the failure of negotiations with the Taliban, but much of that depends on the Taliban.

The statements are bad enough, but the real problem Karzai presents right now is as an impediment to the Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow American and other countries’ forces to remain after 2014. This is not just about foreign troops but also dollars as aid to the Afghan army would dry up if no agreement is reached.  Already, the U.S. Congress is seeking to cut aid to Afghanistan quite significantly. Karzai’s stance on the BSA is especially puzzling given that The Loya Jirgha that met to discuss the proposed agreement favoured it. If the money dries up, then the Afghan military may fall apart with deleterious consequences for the future of the Afghan state, and everyone knows this. 

So, what game is Karzai playing? Some suggest that Karzai is hoping for good treatment by the Taliban after the Americans leave. Well, that makes little sense since he would not have worry so much about appealing to the Taliban if the Americans stuck around. Is this position-taking just for domestic audiences? Again, who is this domestic audience who wants these stances?

If we cannot understand what Karzai is thinking, what are we to learn? Well, I think the international community has learned some key lessons that we are already applying in Syria: Namely, that if we cannot identify reliable local partners, then we should not intervene. We also need to be smarter about providing incentives and limiting mistakes. One of the big problems in Afghanistan is that we supported the building of a centralized political system that put much power in the hands of the Afghan president. Karzai has the ability to hire and fire officials throughout the country, so we have found governors and district leaders to be more responsive to Karzai and his whims. Next time, we might want to assess whether a centralized or decentralized set of structures makes more sense. The irony is that political scientists have been studying for years which kinds of institutions make sense for divided societies. Presidential systems with few checks have tended not to be on the top of their lists.

Anyhow, the “understanding Karzai” game is getting old. However, we may still be playing it after the Afghanistan elections this year if Karzai finds a way to stick around despite existing term limits. I guess we better figure it out.

The U.S. State of the Union: Moving On from War

Andrew Reddie | January 29, 2014

As expected, President Obama’s 5th State of the Union Address focused primarily upon a domestic agenda. As the executive continues to struggle against partisan opposition in Congress, Obama made clear that he would take steps to bolster the American economy, secure energy independence, reform immigration, and increase access to education. But after years of the State of the Union focusing upon issues of war and peace, foreign policy wonks had to wait until the last moments of the address to learn of President Obama’s vision of a more nuanced foreign policy. More …

The most important announcement of the address was President Obama’s confirmation that 2014 would be the final year of a sizable troop deployment in Afghanistan and limiting any future role in the country to, “carry[ing] out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda.” President Obama’s appetite for conflict has long been diminished as he has spent his presidency dealing with two wars alongside fears that these very same conflicts were inspiring the next generation of militants. And while President Obama made clear that terrorist threats have evolved and remain a prescient danger – listing threats posed by groups in Yemen, Mali, Iraq, and Somalia, respectively – he countered, “I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

This proposed drawdown of the United States’ decade-long war footing offers a new opportunity for diplomacy and American foreign policy in 2015 and explains Obama’s continued reluctance to get embroiled in the continuing Syrian civil war as well as his soft words concerning continuing unrest in the streets of Kiev: “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country’s future.” This softening was also reflected in renewed called for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison and his promise of hitherto unclear reforms of the U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance programs to protect privacy rights.

Reflecting a move toward diplomacy and engagement à la JFK or Ronald Reagan, President Obama made clear that he would veto a mooted congressional bill to increase sanctions on Iran while imploring Iranian leaders to take advantage of détente by continuing to take concrete action to drawdown its nuclear portfolio of uranium in the hope of re-engaging Iran into “the community of nations” eleven years after former President George W. Bush first categorized Iran as a member of “the axis of evil.” This willingness to engage in seemingly intractable international political dilemmas was also clear in Obama’s announcement of U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s recent attempts to secure a lasting agreement between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of providing “an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel.”

In dealing with these “sexy” topics of international affairs, President Obama more or less ignored a variety of immediate international challenges both across the oceans and much closer to home. The most glaring omission from the Address was his very own “pivot to Asia,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and the United States’ relationship with China. The Address contained only two barbs directed toward China concerning its threat as a competitor while Japan and South Korea both failed to get a mention at all. This is somewhat surprising given the real geopolitical challenges in East Asia and its importance to the U.S. and global economy. States undergoing political transformation were also given short shrift with Tunisia the only state mentioned by name and Egypt conspicuous by its absence despite obvious U.S. interests in Cairo. Meanwhile, Europe and its constituent states – with an alliance the “strongest the world has ever known” – were also largely ignored outside of the potential of the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership Agreement to bolster American exports. This omission is much less surprising given recent disagreement and the well-developed relationships between the U.S. government and European capitals but does not excuse the Address’s failure to comment on relations in its own neighbourhood.

Canada and Mexico failed to get a mention, despite a declining balance of trade between NAFTA countries. Indeed, this omission may justify Ottawa’s attempts to escape the gravitational pull of its neighbour and Mexico’s fears that “insourcing” will lead to its “outsourcing.” In facing the common challenges posed by transnational crime, drug cartels, and illegal immigration, there was not one word on this most obvious of stages. If nothing else, this was a missed opportunity.

Taken together, the focus of the address upon the end of a U.S. in war time and the omissions noted above paint the picture of a United States focused upon moving past the spectre of war and towards its own re-engagement with the international community on the world’s hardest challenges. More than any other, this State of the Union Address offered a glimmer of the future of a diplomatic foreign policy less reliant upon its military might. Come 2015, we will begin to have a sense of what tactics the Obama administration might employ and whether negotiations, sanctions, and limited military operations are enough to uphold both fundamental tenets of international law and America’s national interest.

Canada’s New Religious Obsession On Display in Ukraine

Kyle Matthews | January 28, 2014

This past Sunday I received an email from a former colleague who now works for the United Nations. They asked for advice (on behalf of a friend in Ukraine) on what to do with some shocking photographs of the escalating human rights abuses against protestors taking place in Kiev.

I responded with a list of email addresses for influential individuals working in key organizations and governments, and because social media has become an important tool for raising awareness and holding people to account for abuses they commit, I also suggested the photographs in question be shared with the world via Twitter. More …

After responding to my friend I logged into Twitter myself to get updates on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. I have been following the protests in Kiev for some time and knew things were escalating. One tweet that jumped out at me was posted by the Canadian government:


I shook my head and read it again. What was Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for Religious Freedom, doing in Ukraine? As far as I knew, the crisis had nothing to with religious freedom and everything to with establishing a true democracy, opposing Soviet-style authoritarianism, and the strong desire of many Ukrainians to break free from Russia’s orbit and develop closer ties with the European Union.

All was made clear the next day. Bennett, who – keep in mind – is not Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, told Canadian journalists that the Ukrainian government was trying to intimidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to prevent its bishops and clergy from joining the protests. While this is important and should not be dismissed, it reflected a desire of the federal government to portray this crisis in religious terms when the larger picture demonstrates that it is more about civil and political rights, not religious freedom.

There is no doubt that Ukraine is an important country for many Canadians, given the large number of our fellow citizens who are of Ukrainian origin. Unfortunately the optics of sending our Ambassador for Religious Freedom is not a positive one. Of all the countries in the world where his office’s official mandate would best serve religious groups at risk of persecution, very few experts would agree that Ukraine is a priority. Perhaps a few trips to current conflict hot spots might be in order. For example, the Central African Republic where Muslim and Christians are fighting each other, Myanmar (Burma) where the Muslim minority Rohingya are victims of atrocities and segregation, or in Pakistan where blasphemy charges are leveled against religious minorities on a frequent basis.

Keen observers of Canadian foreign policy have been critical of the Harper government for elevating religion as a key priority and cherry picking certain international crises to woo key diaspora groups at election time. Many have lamented how religious interests have permeated and transformed our diplomacy, international human rights priorities, and official development assistance.

One danger in all this, domestically speaking, is that it has alienated many people in Quebec. The humanitarian and development communities have grown frustrated that so many Quebec NGOs have had their funding agreements with the Canadian government slashed. Montreal-based academics have documented that an increase in funding towards faith-based groups has taken place in parallel to these budgetary cuts.

To make matters worse, the Parti Quebecois government has made several public pronouncements about Quebec NGOs being shortchanged under Harper’s watch. Both Quebec’s Minister for International Affairs Jean-François Lisée and Premier Pauline Marois have called for the province’s share of the official development assistance budget be given to Quebec so that it can set up its own international development agency. Add the religious undercurrents of Ambassador Bennett’s media blast from Ukraine to the current debate surrounding the charter of “values” and “secularism” raging in Quebec and you begin to realize the stars could align for more grievances.

It is far better (and more stable for Canada’s national unity) if Canada refocuses on promoting international norms like the Responsibility to Protect, which speak about equality and justice for all. This would be more productive than broadcasting a message that conveys foreign policy is simply an extension of domestic electoral politics and a tool to be used to mobilize key constituencies with simple rhetoric.

Where Canada Gets Energy Wrong

Canada’s environmental performance is harming its image as an energy superpower
Madelaine Drohan | January 22, 2014

It’s that time of year when the world’s business and political elite flock to Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

This year, they will be shown the forum’s latest report on which countries do the best job of providing an affordable, sustainable, and secure energy supply. It’s no surprise that Norway is in the top spot. Of the 124 countries assessed, they have done the best job of managing the trade-offs necessary to ensure that energy contributes to a country’s economic, social, and environmental well-being. But it is somewhat of a shock to find Canada down in 14th place, below countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Romania, and Latvia. Yes, we’ve been lapped by Latvia. More …

This isn’t a great result for a country that Prime Minister Stephen Harper once boasted was an emerging energy superpower and whose government has poured time and resources into trying to achieve that status. And it cannot be dismissed as an assessment put together by the “environmental and other radical groups” that have been the bane of Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s existence. The report is the result of a three-year research project by the World Economic Forum and Accenture, a global accounting firm. Only the most bull-headed of governments could ignore the message that Canada trails a wide range of countries in managing energy for the greater good.

The message is actually more pointed than that because Canada scored higher than any other country except Norway when it came to energy access and security, one of the three main factors the authors looked at. Even on economic growth and development its score exceeded some of the countries that were in the top 10. It is on environmental sustainability where Canada sank like a stone, not matching the score of any of the top 10 and even falling below some of its fellows in the second tier of the top 20.

Over and over again the report points to the environment as Canada’s weak spot, albeit in the carefully measured language of a global accountancy firm. “While the economically developed and resource-rich United States and Canada perform well across indicators for energy security, they face increasing pressure to improve the environmental sustainability of their energy systems,” say the authors. Further on in the report they give Canada high marks for the carbon-intensity of power generation, which is dominated by hydro, but go on to say that on methane and nitrous oxide emissions, Canada’s performance is not only among the lowest in the North American region, it is down in the lower quartile of global scores. Methane and nitrous oxide, along with carbon dioxide and fluorinated gases, are the four most important greenhouse gases.

Canada’s failure to address in any meaningful way its greenhouse gas emissions under the Conservatives and the Liberals before them won’t surprise Canadians who have followed this file. After signing the Kyoto Protocol and promising to bring emissions down to a level six percent below where they were in 1990, the Canadian government has since withdrawn from the protocol (the first country to do so) and made ineffective attempts to reduce emissions by regulations. Emissions have actually grown from 591 megatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent in 1990 to 702 megatonnes at the end of 2011 and the trajectory is upward. Moves such as the closure of the Nanticoke coal-generating plant by Ontario earlier this month will dampen future growth.

The federal government likes to focus on the reduction in carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) that has taken place since 1990 and to point out that Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions accounted for only 1.8 percent of global emissions in 2010, down from 2.1 percent in 2005. But the plain fact is that Canada is belching out more of the stuff than ever before and it is unlikely to meet even its revised target, agreed to under the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 of reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Long-promised regulations for the oil and gas sector have been repeatedly delayed. The prime minister appeared to put them off again when he said just before Christmas that he hoped they would be done in concert with the U.S. “over the next couple of years”.

The government does not lack for advice on what it could be doing to improve this lamentable record. Putting a national price on carbon would be a good start. But rather than reviewing the numerous reports that have pointed to a better way, it’s worth looking at what the report’s authors said was good about Norway. “The country’s success arises mainly from two factors: its vast natural resource endowment and its focus on developing renewable, sustainable energy,” they said.

The report went on to say “Norway has placed great emphasis on furthering its environmental sustainability, setting itself the ambitious target of reducing its 1990 levels of global greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020, and to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Through the roll-out of a number of sound policies, Norway has made great strides towards a low-carbon economy with virtually all its electricity supply coming from hydro, and efficiency measures in public and private buildings. The wealth accumulated from its petroleum revenue positions Norway well to invest in developing new solutions for a low carbon future.” Canada compares favourably on the first of these factors but trails dismally on the second.

Canadians know much, if not all, of this story. Some even dismiss environmental costs as the price of being a major energy producer. But the country’s poor record will now be laid out in black and white for the 2,500 business and political leaders in Davos. The facts cannot be easily countered with a government advertising campaign showing mountains and lakes and forests. When the forum has praised the stability of Canada’s banking system in the past, the government has made much of the finding in news releases and speeches. You can confidently predict the only thing that will accompany this report is silence.

Brazil’s Prison Dilemma


South America’s powerhouse faces tough dilemmas in 2014. On the one hand Brazil is hastily preparing to host two of the world´s premier mega-events – the World Cup starting in June and the Olympics just twenty-four months later. While the government is coming under heavy criticism for dragging its feet, they promise to be epic celebrations in a country that knows how to throw a party. Meanwhile, Brazilians are also gearing-up for a repeat of last year´s massive social protests. In the middle of 2013 more than a million people in 350 cities denounced poor quality services, the sky-rocketing cost of living, and the deterioration in public safety. It is hardly a secret that Brazil faces profound problems with violence, including more homicides than any other country on earth and an exploding prison population. More …

The way a society cares for its prison population in particular is a good index of its values and civility. A cursory inspection of Brazil’s penal justice system reveals a culture bordering on sadism. The country features the world’s fourth largest prison population, with roughly 550,000 inmates occupying cell space designed for less than 300,000. Almost half of them have yet to be tried and languish for years before seeing a judge. A study by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute found that one in five of all detainees were also jailed improperly. Severely over-populated and brutally violent, experts describe Brazil’s prisons as nothing short of barbaric. Almost a third of all inmate deaths are a result of murder – six times the homicide rate for the country as a whole.

Brazil’s prisons have been among the world’s most violent for decades. A 1992 prison riot in São Paulo’s infamous Carandiru jail left 111 members of rival gangs dead. It took more than two decades for riot police accused of killing them to finally be brought to justice. And it was to avenge the victims of the riot that the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), today the nation’s most powerful gang, was formed. Violence in Brazilian prisons amplifies violence on Brazilian streets. In 2006, the PCC launched a wave of attacks against law enforcement and penal personnel as a protest over prison conditions. At least 450 people were killed and riots were organized in more than 70 prisons.

Many of Brazil’s poorly managed prisons are lorded over by criminal gangs that serve as de facto judges, jurors and executioners. A recent government report describes crumbling facilities where torture, sexual violence, and beheading is rampant. In the notorious Pedrinhas penitentiary in Maranhão state, for example, some 60 inmates were brutally murdered in 2013. At least another 60 deaths were reported in the Pernambuco state prison system a few years earlier. Complicating matters, gangs recruit most of their rank and file from prisons and organize their business from within their walls. Even José Eduardo Cardozo, the Minister of Justice responsible for penal justice, described the prison system as “medieval”. He also recently announced that he’d rather die than be condemned to a Brazilian jail.

Brazil’s penitentiaries are filling-up faster than they can be built. Controversial privatization efforts are far from keeping pace with the ever-increasing numbers of detainees. Over-crowding and poor conditions have been repeatedly condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, including as recently as December 2013. But with a dizzying average of 3,000 new incarcerations each month, the situation is becoming more horrendous by the day. The Brazilian criminal justice and penal system has been repeatedly criticized for its failings, including by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Justiça Global, not least for violating the government’s legal responsibility to protect human rights.

Not all of Brazil’s incarcerated population suffers equally. The penal system is intrinsically elitist. The minority of detainees claiming a university diploma or public connections are often issued separate cells and better conditions. The poorer are seldom afforded such treatment. One study found that more than 80 percent of prisoners could not afford to hire a lawyer. Making matters worse, in over 70 percent of all judicial jurisdictions there are no public defenders. As a result, more defendants are sentenced to prison than are released. Predictably, those killed in custody tend to be poorer Brazilians, a sobering finding of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions.

Although Brazil’s prison dilemma is widely acknowledged, virtually nothing has changed apart from a relentless increase in prisoners. A rash of federal and state investigations has confirmed that the penal system is disastrously over-crowded, stacked against the poor, and rife with police brutality. So why do the deplorable conditions of Brazilian jails and penitentiaries persist? One reason may be that Brazilian society tolerates the status quo. Criminals, so the argument goes, are simply unworthy of public concern. Opinion polls confirm that many Brazilians support tough penalties, prefer punishment over rehabilitation, and accept that police abuses may occur. And Brazil’s politicians lack not the material resources, but the political and moral resolve to do the right thing.

Turning around Brazil’s backward penal system will require a dramatic shift in public attitudes. If popular pressure is applied on politicians, entrenched resistance can be overcome. But real change requires political leadership. President Dilma Rousseff, herself imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship era, pledged to improve prison conditions. Sadly, she has yet to move the agenda forward. If she does, reforms should focus on reducing over-crowding and improving conditions. At the federal level, much needed changes in drug legislation could drastically reduce the non-violent offender caseload. States should be encouraged to adopt alternatives to pre-trial detention and invest in non-custodial sentencing and rehabilitation programs. The justice system need not be re-invented. What is required is the implementation of key provisions of the Constitution, not least safeguarding basic rights that all Brazilians are entitled to.

The Impact of the Kabul Restaurant Attack

Roland Paris | January 20, 2014

Since news broke of Friday’s horrific suicide attack on the largely foreign clientele of a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, attention has understandably focused on the civilians who lost their lives, including two Canadians. But the event, which comes at a critical moment, could also have major implications for the international presence in Afghanistan. More …

For those of us who live in the national capital region, learning that the slain Canadians were residents of Ottawa and Gatineau was particularly jarring. For some, the news hit even closer. My friend and neighbour, Michael Von Herff, posted this tweet about one of the victims:


One of the most touching accounts came from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, a frequent visitor to Kabul over the past decade. She described the “ebullient spirit” of the Lebanese restaurant owner, Kamal Hamade, a man with a “warm and ready smile” who reportedly died trying to defend his restaurant and clients against armed assailants who followed the suicide bomber into the building.

More stories and reminiscences will undoubtedly emerge in the coming days. But beyond the terrible murder of these individuals, will this incident have any impact on the international presence in Afghanistan?

It certainly comes at a delicate moment. President Hamid Karzai – nearing the end of his second (and, according to the Afghan constitution, final) term in office – is under considerable pressure to conclude a bilateral security agreement with the United States. If an agreement is not reached, the Obama Administration may withdraw all its troops from the country by the end of this year. However, negotiations on the agreement have apparently stalled, in part because Karzai has added new demands that the U.S. won’t accept.

In this context, the restaurant attack might serve as a bracing reminder to Karzai that he and whoever succeeds him as president – indeed, the whole apparatus of Afghan government institutions established a decade ago – will be exposed to an emboldened insurgency if American forces leave Afghanistan entirely. In theory, this realization should push him towards an agreement. But in practice, all bets are off. Karzai’s behaviour has been so erratic in recent years, the incident could propel him either towards a deal with the U.S. or away from one – or it could have no effect at all.

The more immediate impact of Friday’s attack will likely be on the civilian international personnel in Afghanistan, as Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs of the Afghan Analysts Network point out. Unlike most Taliban assaults, which have targeted the offices of Afghan or foreign agencies, most of which are behind concrete blast walls and cordons of security, this one was launched against international civilians in a relatively unprotected location. As a precaution, the international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and national governments who employ these people may place additional restrictions on the movements of their employees and contractors in Afghanistan, keeping them away from locations that are not heavily protected.

If these new restrictions are more than temporary, however, they will be very bad news for the international aid effort in Afghanistan, which is still enormous. Long before last Friday, the steady withdrawal of international forces was already making it harder for international civilians to oversee development projects in many parts of country. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction underlined this problem in a letter last October, which included maps showing a dramatic decrease between 2009 and 2014 in the amount of Afghan territory accessible to civilians who oversee U.S.-funded projects and programs (see below).



The Lebanese restaurant incident can only worsen this problem, but much will depend on whether Friday’s attack is seen as a harbinger of new Taliban strategy. As Clark and Roehrs write:

Pressure from home countries is likely to rise, demanding more restrictions or the withdrawal of personnel. But more security regulations and less personnel means even more compromises on the quality of aid and policymaking. It will widen even further the separation of Afghans and internationals and will impact the already impaired ability of organisations to assess needs or monitor aid.

Indeed, this may have been precisely what the attackers wanted to achieve by striking the “soft target” of international civilians dining in Kabul.

This post originally appeared on the CIPS Blog.

A Serious Question

Was the Afghanistan mission worth it? It's a complex question, but one that needs to be asked
Steve Saideman | January 17, 2014

A debate about the worth of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has broken out in multiple media: Twitter, newspapers, Canadian military journals, and elsewhere.  The question at the heart of this debate is not whether the mission was worth it, but whether we should be asking that question at all.

Sean Maloney initiated the conversation with a piece for the Canadian Military Journal.  In it, he raises a very important issue – that we need to be careful about how we ask the question “was it worth it?”  Canada sent multiple missions to Afghanistan with varying goals, so asking whether it was worth it really depends on which of the things Canada was trying to accomplish in Afghanistan you want to consider. More …

So far, so good. The problem is that Maloney calls the question a “meme.”  Now, I don’t believe that the intent here was to trivialize the debate. In a footnote, Maloney’s editor helpfully defines a meme as “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”  But given that we now are most familiar with memes like the grumpy cat, the effect is to diminish the seriousness of the question.  It may be true that some people ask and answer the question poorly, but the question itself is a legitimate one.

The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders presented his take on the question, considering a variety of measures that might indicate whether progress was made in Afghan governance, development, and security.  Terry Glavin responded with a strident piece that adds more heat than light.  And Christie Blatchford thinks that we should not even be asking the question now, as it will take decades to know the answer.

To be clear, each of these writers has something to contribute, but the idea that we need to delay pondering whether the Canadian effort in Afghanistan was worth it is, well, irresponsible.  We can wait until all of the decision-makers are retired or dead, but anytime a country engages in a serious effort – and Afghanistan was about as serious as it can be – we should be considering whether the effort is worthwhile. 

Journalists should be assessing the justifications, the strategies, the tactics, the operations, and the outcomes as they happen.  In the case of Afghanistan, the coverage tended to ebb and flow. When the issue was hot in Parliament or when major events happened on the ground like the first big battles or the prison breaks, journalists paid attention.  But that attention largely faded after the 2008 vote to extend the Kandahar mission only until 2011, settling the debate in Ottawa. After that, it was only the detainee issue that received full coverage.

Government officials also need to be making these assessments now, not decades from now, as they need to draw the lessons learned in time for the next crisis. Governing is all about tradeoffs, about allocating scarce resources and time among competing priorities, so the question of whether something is or was worthwhile has to be asked all of the time.

Scholars, who are criticized by several of the combatants in this debate (Maloney, despite being one, and Glavin), also have a role to play in asking these questions.  Because we have much more latitude – we cannot be fired by the government, nor do we have to worry about the agendas of newspaper editors – we can ask the pesky questions, including considering whether the Afghanistan mission was worth it.  Scholars range in their expertise on the matter – most of us are not as qualified to assess how the military operates – but we still have the capacity to consider the politics and economics involved.

However, we do vary in our patience.  Historians such as Maloney will consider some questions unanswerable in the short run since the real impact of the effort will not be felt for generations.  Obviously, over time, different facts will come out, different interpretations will develop, and so on.  There is still new work coming out on the history of the First World War, so I am not sure how long we ought to delay our asking of this question.

Political scientists, like myself, do not have that kind of patience.  We seek to assess things as they happen or shortly afterwards.  We want to understand now what happened over the past ten years so that we can explain it and make recommendations so that it can be done better the next time.  If we wait a decade or two, we will not be able to apply whatever lessons we learn in time for the next set of events.

The position of lobbyists will vary depending on whose side they are lobbying for.  If they work with organizations that support Afghanistan, then they have two choices: to defer the question or argue that it was/is very much worth it.

My point is that different people have different opinions on whether or not it is legitimate to ask this question now.  In my not so humble opinion, I think it is irresponsible not to ask the question.  I believe that the Kandahar mission was worth the sacrifices made by the Canadian soldiers, by the officials who served there, and by the taxpayers, but that is an argument for a different day.  The argument here is whether we can or should have this debate.  Given the stakes and the aforementioned sacrifices, I think we need to take seriously what Canada achieved or failed to achieve (or, more likely, something in between).  This means more than examining the six priorities and three signature projects that were touted by the government.  It requires figuring out why Canada went to Afghanistan and especially Kandahar, what it cost the country, and what goals were reached. 

To say that we should not be asking these questions is to suggest that we ought not engage in critical thinking about the most important Canadian effort in the world since the end of the Cold War.  This is not just a silly meme spreading from scholar to journalist to whomever. It is a very serious question that requires very serious engagement. The idea that this question is a meme is actually much closer to being a meme. 

Egypt’s Referendum Redux

Bessma Momani | January 16, 2014

Once again, Egyptians have gone to the polls to vote on a constitution. Only it’s not just a constitution they were being asked to consider. What this is really about is legitimizing a military coup.

The Egyptian military has always maintained that it was acting according to the will of the people when it overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi last summer. Indeed, the military went to great lengths to show the international community that it had the support of the 30 million people who poured into the streets to celebrate the end of Morsi’s government. Exactly how many Egyptians actually support the coup, however remains unknown. More …

In many ways, the referendum on the constitution is about getting the electorate to show its disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood’s tenure in office. The referendum has little to do with the substance of the constitution. After all, the majority of Egyptians have not even read the latest draft. Let’s not ignore the sad fact that 40 percent of the population is illiterate.

But then, the military don’t really care if people have actually read the constitution. The new draft is not really that different from the 2012 version rushed through by the Morsi-appointed constitutional committee. Yes, it does improve some of the language in reference to women and minorities, but it still discriminates against those who practice non-Abrahamic religions and says that Egypt must follow Islamic law.

The main difference is that it cements the autonomy and authority of the military and police. It makes the military budget and expenditures constitutionally off limits for inquiry or criticism. Furthermore, the new draft allows for heavy prison sentences for anyone who insults or undermines the military, its personnel, or its installations.

The military already controls an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, producing everything from washing machines to macaroni to arms. What is to prevent the military from arresting a competing manufacturer for questioning the pricing policies of a military-owned company? Sadly, the military regime has already proven itself capable and willing to cast a wide net on who it deems an enemy of the state.

Political prisoners in Egypt do not just include members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Journalists, civil society actors, and others who have questioned the military regime and its policies are also being held. Many of the youth leaders who helped organize the movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak are also now imprisoned for ‘undermining the state’ by questioning the coup and its gag order on civil society. Egypt is now one of the deadliest places for journalists to operate, worse than Somalia, according to journalist freedom watch groups. The Egypt Front Party, which campaigned against the new constitution, found some of its staff arrested as well. Liberal activists and former members of parliament, not aligned with the Brotherhood but critical of the coup have been barred from travel outside of Egypt and are under gag orders as well. This is the climate of censure prevailing in Egypt. Unfortunately, many Egyptians support the military for restoring order and ending the embarrassing rule of Morsi.

Early results indicate that the new constitution will pass. Indeed, few who would have voted ‘no’ would have gone to the polls. More worrying for the democratization process in Egypt, however, is that there will now be electoral support for the coup. In the long run, this will be to the detriment of Egypt’s political development. This referendum was done to hide the real threat facing Egypt: political repression and the censure of liberal thought.

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