The Think Tank
Hashtags and Facebook posts are no match for state governments, but they can set the agenda on an issue and plant the seed for change, writes Alfred Hermida in his new book, Tell Everyone.
The current UBC journalism professor, who was a founding editor of the BBC News website in the late ’90s, explores the human tendency to share, the technology that has allowed us to do so at an incredible rate, and the risks of assuming what we see online is representative of the whole picture. He spoke to OpenCanada this week about policymaking in the social media era — from protests in Egypt and the Idle No More movement to Romney’s ‘Binders of Women’ gaffe. More …
Let’s begin with the good news — the success stories of social media as a tool for social change, as a tool of empowerment.
One of the things that social media is very good at is connecting people who have similar interests and concerns, getting them to know each other… That might be through a Facebook group, it might be through a hashtag on Twitter. That is tremendously powerful because you connect to others who are also concerned about the same issue.
In countries where taking political action or standing up to social injustice is dangerous, where it’s a matter of ‘If I step out on the street I could get beaten up,’ that really does change dynamics. We saw this in Egypt dramatically during the time of the uprising. It was a way for people to say ‘Look, enough of this. We’ve had enough with the corrupt regime, we’ve had enough with police brutality. We want change.’ One of the studies that was done on this, what they found was that people who just talked on the Facebook page were far more likely to then be out on that very first day of protest. So it actually affects how you feel about taking part in action.
So it’s not just reactionary, it also drives action.
Yes, because in these situations you say ‘Well, there is a protest organized for this weekend.’ You might say ‘Well, I’m going to go, but is anybody else going to be there?’ In places like Egypt, you need that safety in numbers. If through the Facebook page you are seeing that there are thousands of people like you saying ‘I’m going to go there’ even if only half of them turn up you still know that there are thousands of people who have said they are going to go. That gives you the reassurance that you’re not going to be the only one and that you might have some safety from police brutality in the fact that it’s not just going to be you and your friends, it’s not you and a dozen people, but you and thousands of others who are taking that first step. That really changes the dynamic of social protest.
You talk about the diversity of voices that appear on social media, as different from the voices portrayed or quoted in the media, especially with the example of Idle No More. Do those diverse voices get through to the policymaking level in some way?
I think in some ways we expect too much of social media because it’s so new, because it’s so shiny and it is so powerful in a way that can change everything. So the reality of social media is that it’s changing everything, but we probably won’t realize how much it has changed everything for a generation.
Sending out a Tweet is not going to topple a government. We saw that in Iran in the elections in 2009. Tweets are no match for countries, but that is not the issue. You saw the big protests over climate change, when tens of thousands of people across the world took part in demonstrations. Now did that change climate change policy overnight? No, of course it didn’t. We don’t expect that, for suddenly politicians to say, ‘Yes we need to abide by all these protocols.’ We should have similar expectations of social media.
When social media becomes used as a tool for activism, the power is in laying the seed for change and enabling people to find others who feel like they do, to connect with them and to start laying the seeds of future organizations. To build that capacity for change in a generation’s time.
It is leading to forms of action that we haven’t seen before. It is leading for people to connect with people they didn’t know before social media. It would have been very hard for them to organize and mobilize. And it’s also amplifying certain messages which then become an issue in the media. Now we saw that with the Occupy Protest, we saw it with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag in Nigeria — it’s the six month anniversary [of the kidnapping]. Now creating a hashtag is not going to bring back our girls, but it then focuses attention on what is happening in Nigeria and potentially laying the foundation for some sort of change in the long term.
So I think this is where we see the power of social media. Not so much in making a change overnight, but in effecting what makes the news, how that news is reported and whose voices are heard.
Is that what you mean when you mention in the book the images of children killed by nerve gas in Syria and how such images were waking people up on the issue. That awareness, then, might shape how people would react to, say, foreign military action in Syria.
Journalists don’t tell people what to think, but they tell them what to think about and often frame the parameters of that discussion. Every news organization will have a certain perspective and by choosing who you quote, that affects the news and whose voice is heard. What happens to social media is we have the power of thousands of people who can selectively say ‘Here is somebody that is worth listening to’ which you won’t read about in the Globe and Mail because they won’t be quoted in the Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star. But, we think they are somebody worth listening to and the collective actions of all these thousands of people will say ‘Here is somebody worth listening to.’ We saw that through Idle No More. Eventually what you then get is a crowd-sourced elite. They are not telling people what to think, but they affect what we think about and how we think about it. They change the nature of the debate and discussion and can bring prominence that wasn’t there before.
What about the risks, from the use of social media as a surveillance tool and so on?
Even before we talk about surveillance, part of the risk is when we see a lot of activity in a hashtag, [we think] it means something but it is not representative of what everybody in Canada thinks about this issue. It is not representative of what the world thinks about these issues. It is representative of a collective group of engaged individuals who have decided it’s important. Now that is not to dismiss it, but we also need to realize that are individuals who are engaged in this particular issue for one reason or another. Part of the danger then is that this group of engaged individuals then sets the agenda.
In the book I talk about Mitt Romney’s ‘binders of women’. Presidential debate, everybody looking out for the gaffe. Mitt Romney is talking about he has promoted all these women and has talent to draw from. Surely that’s something to talk about — here is a presidential candidate who says he values women as leaders. That wasn’t how that debate was framed. He made the ‘binders of women’ gaffe. ‘Binders of women’ flew on social media, and that became a running joke and then that became the story the next day.
Journalists will then say if this is what people are taking away from a debate, then we are right about what people are interested in. Whereas you could have written a story about Mitt Romney having lots of talented women, that positive aspect.
I think this is where you have some of the dangers of social media. You can actually create the idea that there is a ground swell around a particular issue or a particular way of thinking about something and it’s not necessarily representative of the general public because most people aren’t on Twitter. People on Twitter tend to be people who are more engaged with the news, who are more engaged with causes. But that is not the majority. It is not a poll on what people think.
But will it be the majority? We are still in the midst of a generational change.
Well I think it is really figuring out who these different groups of people are, how they are expressing their interest and their passion, and what does that mean? How do we interpret? How do we make sense of that?
One of the challenges in trying to make sense of it, is that it doesn’t work like traditional media. You know we have had newspapers around for hundreds of years. When we see the front page of a newspaper we know how to interpret. We know that every story with a big headline, the editor has decided that is important. Social media is so new that we look at it and it’s this jungle of stuff. There is an order there, but it’s not necessarily the order of the newspaper or the news bulletin. You look at Twitter and it seems like an endless stream of stuff that is just coming at us, mixing the important, the inane, the personal, the professional. There is an order there, but it’s very hard for us to us the tools we have to discern that. I think that’s where the challenges come in making sense of that.
How true is it that social media helps provide access to those weren’t as accessible otherwise — I am thinking of policymakers — and whether it helps keep them accountable as well.
A lot of policymakers are now using social media to bypass the news. Why talk to a journalist who can ask you questions, when you can just put out something on your Facebook page or send out a Tweet about it and announce policy that way? In some ways you could say ‘Well I’m being more accountable to my constituents’ but on the other hand you are not because essentially you are just broadcasting messages and using it as another tool for propaganda.
We’ve seen how effective ISIS is at using social media for propaganda. During the conflict in Gaza, the Israeli Defence Force has been very effective in portraying a certain image of the conflict through its social media platform. But if you then followed Hamas and its social media, you had a very different picture of what happened. In a sense that is where the journalist comes in. They are trying to provide you with a much more rounded picture of what is happening there.
So this is where social media is really complicated because while it can be used for accountability, it can also be used as a tool to bypass a lot of those traditional channels for accountability.
In the book, you recall covering protests in Egypt in the 1990s, when there were no videos posted on YouTube, and compared it to today.
With those protests, yes we got tear gassed, and I reported it for the BBC but it wasn’t really big news. Another protest crushed by the Mubarak regime. Lawyers in their gowns and collars and everything, which makes a very odd sight, lawyers being tear gassed. They don’t seem the most radical dissidents you might imagine.
What you see now, and you certainly saw this during the Arab Spring, is a much more multi-faceted picture of what is happening there. That’s both a good and bad thing because the other side of this coin is that what a lot of activists in Egypt realized, if they Tweeted in English, western journalists would pick up on it. And they would then rebroadcast those messages. So one of the ironies you have for these kinds of protests is you get the sort of on-the-ground context, but you get it from those people who know how to use these tools and technologies which then gets amplified by the western media.
So if you follow the Egyptian uprising on social media, you might have got this impression that all the activists were young, western educated, liberal. All on their smart phones ready to overthrow the government. And yet what that didn’t take account of is the fact that the main strong political force in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood. Older, largely male, largely speaking Arabic and not organizing and mobilizing through social media. So then in the West we have this picture of young people that are the faces of the revolution that are like us, want the same things as us. And then we have elections and most of the votes go to the Islamic Party. The West is surprised that the Islamists have the majority, whereas anybody who knows this country, certainly from my experience in Egypt, of course the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win the election. They spent decades organizing as a political force. They had the people in place, they had the structures. Of course they are going to get the majority of votes. But yet the picture we got through social media, which is then amplified through the western media, was very, very different.
I think that’s one of the contradictions and complications when it comes to how we see the world through social media. We are seeing things that were much harder to see before, but we are not necessarily seeing the complete picture. That picture is being drawn by the people taking part in those activities and they are not necessarily representative of the vast population. They are representative of a small group of people who understand these technologies.
Is there any irony that you needed to detail this in a book format?
I have been thinking about this quite a bit. I am very digital, I do a lot of stuff online. I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I think there is a lot of on how this works, how is that working.
What a book does is essentially it enables you to take a step back and say: How do all of these things come together? What is happening to our society as a result of how we are taking advantage of new ways to connect with each other? How is this affecting the way policy plays out? Protesting? The way business has been effected. We as individuals need to think about these tools so that we end up using them rather than them using us.
The book as a physical object itself is enabling you to bring that together. It has got great battery life, it has got touch interface, it has got a way of searching with the index at the back. So actually it has all these tremendous attributes that we take for granted with smartphones and technology. The battery life is never going to run out of this book.
Your book in 140 characters?
It is how we are becoming more human, more connected as we share more with each other.
Because really it is about us, and that is the value of the book. That it is basically about society and how we are changing and the new things we can do.
In today’s Globe and Mail, Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s foremost military historians and big fan of the Canadian Forces, wrote that the Conservative’s treatment of the military is causing him to vote for someone else next time.
Harper has lost a hawk despite his rhetoric about defense, his celebration of the Royal past of the CF, the focus on the glorious War of 1812. Why? Because Canada is spending less today, after adjusting for inflation than when Harper came into power. Perhaps not every procurement project is a disaster – but pretty much all of the big ones. Each year, the government announces that it has not spent all of the money budgeted for the military since the procurement programs are behind… and by coincidence (winky face indicating wink) this makes it easier to reach a balanced budget. More …
My personal bugaboo has been the refusal to cut the size of the forces. If the dollars are going down, how about cutting personnel since they are a very big percentage of defence spending? No, Harper wants the numbers of personnel to stay the same so he can claim that he expanded the military. But if the personnel numbers do not go down, then cuts will have to come from elsewhere – operations (oops, mideast stuff is going to make this hard) and maintenance. Nobody here uses the American phrase “hollow force” but perhaps that is a matter of time.
Anyhow, the key reality is that Granatstein has no place else to go. When a right wing party cuts the military, what is a hawk to do? The New Democratic Party will certainly not run on spending more on defence, as it has to play to the pacifists in the party. The Liberals? They can try to re-claim the mantle of the adult foreign/defence party, but will have a hard time doing so as they have appeal to the left as much or more than the right. That is, if the Liberals are to win, they probably will have to take far more seats from the NDP than from the Conservatives.
And Harper knows this – that he can afford to take symbolic stances that are harmful to the military (keeping the size the same but cutting the budget) and defer and delay the procurement programs. Conservative voters are not likely to swing to the centre or left in search of more pro-military stances.
So, I feel for Granatstein and his dilemma. As a non-citizen (some day that will change), I have often been glad that I don’t have to choose among the Canadian parties – as I have not been a big fan of any of them during much of my time here. Then again, the American choices at the ballot box also suck quite often.
Lastly, this gets to one of the themes of the past month – policy relevance. Scholars may often be right about diagnosis and prognosis, but our prescriptions may not be appealing to those we want to influence. Harper almost certainly understands what he is doing is not good for the military or good for Canada, but it may get him re-elected. Ah, the joy of democracy – short term incentives win out.
In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests. In agreeing to sell uranium to India, Australia becomes the latest country to accept, if with regrets and resignation rather than enthusiasm, the reality of India being a nuclear-armed state for the foreseeable future. Yet, even if one were to concede the tests were understandable, the question arises: What did India gain? The short answer is: Not much.
Unilateral nuclear disarmament is unlikely by any of the nuclear-armed states, including India, and is thus unrealistic as a policy goal. However, a denuclearized world that includes the destruction of India’s nuclear stockpile would favourably affect the balance of India’s security and other interests like development and social welfare, national and international interests, and material interests and value goals.
The goal of an eventually denuclearized world is both necessary and feasible. As long as any one country has nuclear weapons, others will want them; as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used again some day by design, miscalculation, rogue launch, human error, or system malfunction; and any nuclear war fought by any set of nuclear-armed states could be catastrophic for the whole world. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. More …
Nuclear weapons can be sought for compellence, defence, deterrence, and status.
“Compellence” means the use of coercion to force an adversary to stop or reverse something already being done, or to do something he would not otherwise do. There is no demonstrable instance of a non-nuclear state having been cowed into changing its behaviour by the threat of being bombed with nuclear weapons. Indian doctrine, backed by deployment patterns, explicitly eschews any intent to use nuclear weapons as tools of coercion.
It is hard to see any role for India’s nuclear armaments as instruments of defence. India’s no-first-use doctrine disavows use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks. Nuclear weapons cannot be used for defence by nuclear-armed rivals whose mutual vulnerability to second-strike retaliatory capability guarantees that any escalation through the nuclear threshold would be mutual national suicide.
India’s nuclear arsenal offers no defence against a major conventional attack by China, Russia or the US – the only three countries with the capability to do so. As for intent, Russia is a diplomatic ally and friend of long standing, relations with the US have warmed to a remarkable degree (including a high-profile visit by India’s PM at the moment), and deepening and broadening bilateral Sino–Indian relations, and cooperation on several major international issues based on converging interests in forums like BRICS, provide considerable substance, texture and ballast to the relationship today. During his recent visit, President Xi Jinping signed agreements to invest $20bn to upgrade India’s woeful infrastructure.
With nuclear weapons being unusable for defence, their sole operational purpose and role is mutual deterrence. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a shaky precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar. Nuclear weapons have failed to stop wars between nuclear and non-nuclear rivals (Korea, Afghanistan, Falklands, Vietnam, 1991 Gulf War). To believe in deterrence is to argue that Iran should be encouraged, indeed facilitated in getting the bomb in order to contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East. Good luck and good night.
Nuclearization has failed to be a stabilizing factor in South Asia. Powerful domestic constituencies have grown up in both countries to identify a multiplication of threats that justify a matching expansion of a highly elastic nuclear posture. The low-cost, low-risk covert war in the shadow of nuclearization had three attractions for Pakistan: it would weaken India by raising the human and economic costs of Kashmir’s occupation; the fear of nuclear escalation would raise the threshold for cross-border Indian retaliatory raids; and it would help to internationalize the Kashmir dispute by highlighting the risk of nuclear escalation.
Pakistan has invested in terrorist groups as part of its unconventional inventory against India. In responding to a terrorist attack, any deliberate escalation by India through the nuclear threshold would be extremely high-risk. The development of tactical missiles and battlefield nuclear weapons by the two sides, whose utility is contingent on proximity to battlefields, multiply the risks. India must also live with the nightmare possibility of jihadists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. While obviously more acute for Pakistan, the threat is grave for India also.
Just what is a “credible minimum deterrent” – India’s official doctrine – that would dissuade nuclear blackmail and coercion and permit second-strike nuclear retaliation? China and Pakistan are incommensurate in their national power, strategic frames and military capabilities. The requirements of numbers, reach, deployment patterns and locations, and distribution between land-based, air-launched and sea-borne platforms, are mutually incompatible as between them. That which is credible towards China cannot be minimum towards Pakistan, and vice versa.
Finally, few analysts would take issue with the claim that currently, non-nuclear-armed Germany has a higher status, weight and clout in Europe and the world than nuclear-armed Britain and France. Nuclear brinksmanship earns North Korea neither prestige, power nor friends; non-nuclear-armed South Korea fares better on all three counts. India does have a higher international profile today than in 1998. This is despite, not because of nuclear weapons, and rests in its economic performance and IT credentials. Pakistan’s profile has not arisen alongside India’s since 1998, despite Islamabad’s more focussed efforts on expanding, deepening and broadening its nuclear weapons capability.
If India’s economy stutters, its social pathologies intensify and multiply and its political system proves incapable of making and implementing the hard decisions, like Pakistan, the fact that India has nuclear weapons will add to international unease and worries rather than enhance India’s global stature and international prestige. If India’s economic future is mortgaged to bad governance rooted in populist politics, other countries will return India to the basket of benign neglect while offering ritual but empty praise for its rich civilization and culture. PM Narendra Modi at least seems to get this.
A version of this piece was originally published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.
The United Nations (UN) Charter under Article 2(4) is clear: States must ‘refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force’. Yet it makes two exceptions within Chapter VII. Article 51 codifies ‘the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations’ and Article 42 enables the UN Security Council (UNSC) to authorize ‘such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security’.
There is arguably a third exception—humanitarian intervention—but this is not mentioned in the Charter and the claim that it is grounded in customary international law is debatable. The much talked about Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, which declares a responsibility to intervene when a state manifestly fails to prevent mass atrocities, insists that military intervention must be authorized by the Security Council.
The UNSC has not authorized the current intervention in either Iraq or Syria, so a legal defence of the airstrikes would have to look to the self-defence argument. Indeed, US officials have argued that Iraq has a valid right of self-defence against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria “because the militant group was attacking Iraq from its havens in Syria, and the Syrian government had failed to suppress that threat”. More …
The frustrating aspect of international law, however, is that it is characterized by a high degree of indeterminacy. There is much scope for interpretive debates and because international society lacks a judiciary of any significance, there is no mechanism for independently judging claims to legality. Lawyers will argue but politicians will have the scope for deciding which legal argument they sell to their constituency.
For instance, lawyers will question whether the US is threatened by the IS and whether that threat is imminent in a way that justifies a pre-emptive strike. This, however, misses an important element in the current situation where the militant group clearly poses an existential threat for Iraq and where the US is acting in its support under Article 51, which recognizes the inherent right to collective self-defence.
But lawyers will also argue that while the US has the approval of the Iraqi government to assist it in its defence against IS, it does not have Syrian consent, and therefore lacks authority to pursue the group in Syria. They will no doubt cite the Nicaragua judgment of the International Court of Justice, which insisted that states had a right to collective self-defence against non-state armed groups only when those groups were sent on aggressive missions by another state. Given that Syria has not sent IS to attack Iraq, lawyers will argue that the US intervention will breach Syria’s sovereignty.
Other lawyers, including those in the U.S. administration, will argue against this “restrictionist” interpretation (see Tom Ruys’ book Armed Attack and Article 51 of the UN Charter). Syria, they will argue, may not have sent IS fighters but has been ‘unwilling or unable’ to stop those fighters. Indeed, the country has manifestly failed to exercise sovereignty responsibly and, thus, it forfeits the right to non-intervention. According to this interpretation, the US has an Article 51 right to assist Iraq to defend itself by pursuing IS fighters in Syria.
Lawyers often disagree, leaving politicians to decide which legal argument they want to present to their constituents, how are we (as voters) to judge their decisions? The oft-cited hazard with “counter-restrictionist” interpretations of Article 51 is that they will create a dangerous precedent. By advancing arguments that enable the US to use force, “counter-restrictionists” risk weakening the power of the law and the restraining effect it has on other states. These arguments, it is claimed, will put international society on a slippery slope to anarchy.
But precedent is only as powerful as the political weight behind it. It will not inform practice if it is politically inconvenient to act upon. Politics plays an important role in judging whether the politician’s decision to adopt a counter-restrictionist legal argument is legitimate. How then does this impact on the current situation?
It is politically significant that the U.S. has managed to unite the region behind its airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria. As one would expect, the US is joined by its western allies and regional opponents of the Assad regime. But more than that, Syria’s ally Iran, who was apparently kept informed by the U.S., equally lacks sympathy for IS; and while Russia will complain about bypassing the Security Council, it is inclined to unite around an anti-IS policy. However fragile, this coalition will add to the claim that the use of force against IS in Iraq, as well as Syria, is legitimate.
However, it is only partly right to conclude that the latest airstrikes in Syria are “illegal but legitimate”. Using this formulation, which is closely associated with NATO action in Kosovo, potentially confuses these strikes with humanitarian intervention, lacking a clear legal base. These strikes are grounded in the law on self-defence, and they are not only legitimate but also potentially legal.
A version of this piece was originally published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.
It has been nearly three months since Israel launched an offensive operation in Gaza, after a series of events sparked unrest, including the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June and the suspected retaliatory killing of a 16-year-old Palestian boy on July 2.
For seven weeks in July and August, the violence there made daily headlines: more than an estimated 2,000 dead in Gaza, including 500 children, thousands of homes destroyed and a third of Gaza’s population displaced. Around 67 Israeli soldiers, and six Israeli civilians, were also killed. A ceasefire has remained in place since the end of August, and Egyptian-mediated talks are expected to resume in late October to negotiate conditions of a longer truce.
But while events in Gaza fall away from the media spotlight and negotiations remain on hold, the UN commission investigating possible war crimes during the summer is moving forward. Renowned international law scholar, Canadian William Schabas, has been appointed chair of the commission, leading a team of about half a dozen staff and three commissioners in the on-the-ground investigation. Upon his appointment, Schabas, a professor of law at Middlesex University in London, author of a long list of books on human rights and legal issues, and Officer of the Order of Canada, was both criticised and defended for his perceived views on Israel.
Earlier this month, as he prepared to leave for the region, he spoke with OpenCanada managing editor Eva Salinas by phone from London on the investigative procedure, the challenges he expects his team to face, and on Foreign Minister John Baird’s ‘fixed opinion.’ More …
What is the process now, once the team is together, do you go straight into the field to do interviews?
Yeah. It’s a fairly standard methodology for these commissions. This isn’t the first time it has been done in the UN. It involves a mixture of plodding through open sources, looking at all of the accounts and materials that have been generated; going and interviewing people on the ground; holding hearings, in some cases there will probably be some public hearings; interviewing people and obtaining documents and studies.
So it is getting together as much of that kind of material as we can put together and then writing a report which would be probably several hundred pages in length.
And what kind of evidence will you be looking for?
Well, we will have accounts by victims about what happened to them. We will attempt to get explanations from those who are responsible for what happened to them, to find out what they thought they were doing and what they knew and planned to do. That is probably going to be hard because we may not have access to those people but it is something that you want to find out.
Then there will be experts, for example military experts, who are able to talk about issues like targeting and assess proportionality and what can and can’t be done under those circumstances. So we will be getting that kind of information, too.
Is having access or approval from some of these individuals going to be one of the largest challenges in the investigation? What kind of other challenges will you face?
Yes, it is. It was a challenge to the previous investigation of this kind in what was called the Goldstone Mission [named after Justice Richard Goldstone], which was conducted in 2009.
A significant issue of course is determining those who fired the weapons, what they thought they were doing, what their orders were and what they knew about what they were firing at. Firing missiles and rockets and so on in a war isn’t, in principle, prohibited. But it is prohibited if you are targeting civilians and it’s prohibited if you are indiscriminate and it’s prohibited if you are disproportionate. So part of making that assessment involves hearing from the people who did it.
Richard Goldstone issued a statement several months after he produced his reports — I say ‘his report,’ it was a group of four people who signed it. But he made a public statement saying ‘If I knew then what I know now’… because he had information from Israel subsequently, he said the report would have been different. To me that just confirms the usefulness of hearing from those involved directly and also it is a pretty good argument to Israel as to why they should cooperate with the mission.
And what was the result of the commission in 2009 and what might be the implication for the report this time around?
The results. There was fierce debate within the United Nations. The report was controversial. You know, it’s like whatever the results of these things, it’s a piece in a complex story.
Obviously it didn’t bring peace to the Middle East and it didn’t result in prosecutions of people who were felt to be responsible for what the Goldstone Commission felt were international crimes. And of course the conflict resumed, so it certainly didn’t resolve matters. I think it would probably be presumptuous that this Commission will do so as well.
But probably one of the distinctions today is that the International Criminal Court is sort of standing in the wings. It’s a very significant piece now of the issue of accountability in the region. Palestine has indicated that it will probably join the Court. It hasn’t confirmed this yet, but it has indicated it will. If that happens and if the Commission concludes that probably war crimes were committed then there will be an institution all ready to prosecute them.
There is already a Palestinian proposal to the ICC, although from what I understand President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet approved it. Would this kind of report lend as evidence, depending on the results, to its proposal? Or would it go forward independently as a separate case brought to the ICC?
Well the ICC would have to be given jurisdiction. It doesn’t yet have jurisdiction so it is still a bit speculative. Although, as I say, the Palestinian Authority has said that they are very likely to do that. Then it’s in the hands of the prosecutor of the ICC as to what issues to address, whom to prosecute for what crimes and so on. We wouldn’t be involved in that. That is something that happens after the Commission issues its report.
So this is investigation is one piece, as you say, in a complex story. How important is this piece?
Well it’s important in many respects. I mean, we recognize now there are human rights victims. Probably not just victims but everybody has a human right to know the truth about things.
When you have a conflict like this where thousands of people lose their lives and there is huge devastation of civilian infrastructure, then there is an entitlement of the victims, first of all, but I would say also of the global community to know what happened. So the idea is an inquiry like this can provide something a little more thorough and comprehensive than the snapshots people get from the news coverage and from accusations from one side or the other. This is going to be a more serious study and it will be issued by the United Nations and hopefully the judgment of those in the position to know about these things will be that it has been done professionally and is therefore credible.
Are there specific cases or allegations that will get special attention, such as the deaths of the teenagers on both sides, earlier on?
Well I think it’s a bit premature for me to answer that. We may, at some stage in our work, indicate the incidents that are of particular interest to us. But I have to meet with the other commissioners and we will have to discuss that before I could answer that question. I mean I think it is a very logical way to proceed, to identify a number of these cases. Some of them simply because they are emblematic, because they enable you to have a more general understanding of what went on. Because in the time we will have, and with the resources we will have, we won’t be able to look entirely thoroughly at everything. Partly because they were issues that attracted huge international scrutiny and therefore there is a sense that more light has to be shed on them. So those are the ones that were in the headlines.
When could we expect the report?
We are required by the resolution to present the report in March of 2015. So that will be our objective.
Finally, the ICC has received criticism in the past, especially from various African states, that there has been an unfair focus on possible war crimes happening in the non-Western world. In this case, you have been accused of being biased against Israel. How do you address this issue of bias in international law?
Well everybody in the world who knows about the existence of Israel and Palestine probably has an opinion about it.
We are not asked as a Commission to give a general opinion about the conflict or about the origins of the conflict. We are asked to look at a very specific part of the situation which is the violation of human rights law and of international humanitarian law. That will be our challenge to try and do that. Our report will be all the stronger to the extent we can focus on what we have to do and do it as professionally as we can do it.
It is like trying to get a jury for when there has been some notorious event that has taken place and everybody in the country has read the newspapers and seen the reports on television and then you try and create a jury of 12 impartial people. You know? At one point, you swear an oath to be impartial and independent and you try your best to do so. That is what we will try to do. I have two colleagues and they are people of great integrity and we will do our best to do that. People who know seem to think I can do it.
So the comments by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have not been an issue amongst you and your colleagues, I assume? Or this idea that non-bias could even exist.
Well you know the bias issue, some people say the UN is biased. Then people say ‘Well not the whole UN, but the Human Rights Council is biased.’ Then some people say that I am biased.
So there are slightly different issues, actually. The problem is that some of the people making the accusations can’t untangle that. So I think Minister Baird’s view is that the whole thing is biased. He is entitled to his opinion about it, but he is quite dismissive of the UN generally and in particular of the Human Rights Council.
If they had appointed Donald Duck to be Chairman of the Commission he would be dismissive of him as being biased. So he thinks the whole thing is biased. He is not really a good judge of whether I’m biased because he has such a fixed opinion about the whole thing.
It would be impossible for him to say ‘This whole thing is biased. The UN is biased. The Human Rights Council is biased. But, the guy in charge of the Commission is a fair-minded person who will do a good job.’ He could do that. So this is why I am sensitive to anybody who is accusing me of being biased, but to date, the people who know me and know my reputation and my work are not concerned about that. It is only people who are dismissive of the whole project, of this Commission and the role of the UN who say the UN is biased against Israel. So they are the only ones who seems to be shrieking about my own personal situation. So I have to weigh all of that. So far, it hasn’t weighed very heavily.
What a difference a few weeks can make in the Middle East. Suddenly, it appears that the United States and former supporters of the Syrian opposition have switched sides much to the benefit of the Syrian regime in Damascus. Of course, this is not the case but the Syrian government has to be pleased with the way events have unfolded in the past week. Back in 2011, the aim was to topple the Syrian regime. Now, a lifeline has been thrown to Bashar al-Assad. To understand how all this has come about it’s worth turning back the clock a few years to March, 2011.
That month, mass protests against the Syrian government erupted in Damascus and Aleppo and soon after unrest spread to more cities across Syria. More …
In the beginning, the protests were mostly peaceful in nature and centered on a desire for democratic reforms and the lifting of emergency law. However, the protestors’ focus soon turned to overthrowing the Assad government. In response, the Syrian Army cracked down and hundreds were killed and arrested.
As the violence continued, seven defecting Syrian officers, led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the end of July 2011. Their intent was to lead an organized effort to topple the Syrian regime and by the end of 2011 an estimated 20,000 fighters had joined their ranks.
Turkey, angered with the Syrian government’s conduct, offered the Syrian rebel army a safe haven and the Apaydin refugee camp in Hatay became their new headquarters. The Syrian National Council, a coalition of anti-government groups formed in August 2011, also found sanctuary in Turkey.
One year after the fighting first commenced, the Syrian Government and the FSA entered a UN mediated ceasefire period but after numerous infractions by both sides, the peace plan collapsed in early June 2012. Soon after, battles were taking place across the country and to make matters worse a Turkish F-4 fighter jet, allegedly flying in Syrian airspace, had been shot down by a Syrian air defence unit, killing both pilots.
Syria, declared the UN, was now in a state of civil war.
Assad’s demise? Not quite
Around this time, in June 2012, I made the first of many visits to the Turkish-Syrian border to see and report on matters for myself. Over the next two years, I would meet with numerous Turkish government and military officials, Syrian fighters and many others connected with the opposition.
Then, around the time of my first visit to the border, the Assad regime was definitely on the defensive but rumours of its imminent demise had been greatly exaggerated. For example, the western media often parroted whatever the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. The SOHR, run out of a house in Coventry, England, by a Syrian expatriate, was clearly pro-opposition and I recall many of my colleagues in Ankara, based on SOHR information, wagering that Assad would be gone by August 2012.
Many countries also believed they could safely cheer on the opposition from the sidelines without getting too involved themselves. Yet, if the experts in Washington and elsewhere had taken the time to visit the Syrian government’s official website in 2012, Iran’s Press TV or read reports from journalists embedded with the Syrian military, the inclination to so easily write off the Syrian regime would have quickly faded.
For example, every defection from the Syrian government, especially when high-ranking military officers fled, was seen as a clear sign the regime was about to collapse. However, the defections mostly served to undermine the opposition not strengthen it. With Colonel Raid al-Assad running the FSA there was a reasonable chance of some success. But, as more senior officers arrived in Turkey they wanted to be in charge. Many of these generals had little to no fighting experience, were too old to lead or were simply civilians with some sort of military rank. There was a good deal of fanfare in Ankara when two more senior Syrian Colonels arrived in Turkey but I later found out they were dentists.
As the Assad regime slowly rallied in 2013 and the United States canceled plans to launch air strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons, the mood in the Syrian opposition became decidedly gloomy. In October 2013 opposition representatives asked me point-blank why the West had abandoned them. More foreign fighters were entering Syria from Turkey they added – foreigners who were more interested in establishing an Islamic caliphate than fighting the Assad regime. This view of foreign fighters was vastly different from what I had been told the year before. In 2012, foreign fighters had been welcome. They were, said a member of the opposition I met in Reyhanlı, Turkey, the “boots on the ground” that America and others refused to supply.
Turkey fending for itself
The amount of support Turkey has given to foreign fighters and specifically extremist elements remains a topic for debate. As for my own experience, I met plenty of foreign fighters in Turkey. On one occasion while driving in the town of Yayladağı, I passed three men with long beards and wearing combat uniforms strolling down the street in full view of a Turkish police checkpoint. Of course, not every foreign fighter was or is a member of the Islamic State (IS), something I think the media forgets.
The Turkish government, like everyone else, expected the Assad regime to fall quickly – although no one had a plan for what might happen once he left (much like the situation in Libya). Ironically, it’s very possible if Assad had been toppled, the security situation in Syria, and by extension Iraq, could be far worse than it is right now. Nevertheless, with the United States refusing to embroil itself in Syria and the opposition falling apart, Turkey was left to fend for itself. Perhaps, out of sheer exasperation, a decision was made in Ankara to support anyone offering the best chance of toppling the Syrian regime?
In defence of the Turkish government, it’s simply not that easy to control its long border with Syria, nor do they have all the resources to do so. Turkey might have the second-largest armed forces in NATO with some 600,000 personnel but 400,000 of them are conscripts who serve for 12 months. Meanwhile, some of the best available units are deployed on Cyprus or around Istanbul while much of the 2nd Turkish Army and elements of the 3rd Army are tied-down countering the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in eastern and south-eastern Turkey. As a result, it would require considerable effort to launch and sustain cross-border operations into Syria, even with NATO support.
United against the ‘Islamic State’
However, the international community has finally come together, not to get rid of Assad but to destroy the IS instead. Speaking of the IS, what were they thinking by taking-on the Free Syrian Army, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian regime, the Iraqi government and the United States all at the same time? The IS also took 46 Turkish citizens hostage who had been stationed at the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held them for over three months.
Moreover, what motivated the IS to consider capturing Mosul, a city of 2 million whose citizens quickly demanded they turn the power back on and pick up the garbage? You simply can’t do all this and run a caliphate with only 30,000 fighters. Not for long, that is.
In fact, the group has made countless strategic errors that have been overshadowed by a few tactical victories against weak and disorganized opponents. However, the Americans have now started to organize everyone and even have the Qatari and Saudi governments bombing the very people they were likely supporting not that long ago.
As a result, I would venture the IS will disappear as quickly as it came. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that all those foreign fighters, including Canadians, will be coming home, likely via Turkey.
I would suggest it’s in our own best interests to provide as much help as possible to Canadians returning from Syria and Iraq. Many will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and will likely need psychological counselling if we are to have any chance of re-integrating them back into Canadian society.
At the same time we should be looking to learn from their experiences in order to better counter the recruiters of the future. If some have committed acts of terror then let the legal system handle these cases.
It’s also worth remembering that many returnees would have been fighting for FSA units, which Canada and the international community continue to support. For example, after the Canadian Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in March 2012, Foreign Minister Baird intensified his anti-Assad language. In a statement released from his office he said that those turning a blind eye to the killings of the Assad regime would have the blood of the Syrian people on their hands. So, it wasn’t that necessary to watch YouTube videos in 2011 or 2012 to convince some Canadians to go to Syria when our own mainstream media and government consistently publicized acts of terror carried out by the Syrian regime.
The conundrum of what to do with Assad will also return once the IS is no longer a factor. Oddly enough, and as I mentioned already, we can thank Assad and his allies that the current caliphate doesn’t extend across the entirety of Syria. I also can’t help thinking that as American aircraft and cruise missiles entered Syrian airspace to bomb IS and other targets that the biggest cheers in the region were coming from the Syria’s military headquarters in Damascus.
Nevertheless, the question now is should we continue equipping the Syrian opposition, conceivably pro-longing the civil war for years to come and by extension destabilizing the entire region? And, what about the millions of Syrian refugees and those displaced by the fighting? When will they be able to go home?
In an enthusiastic endorsement of Barrack Obama’s new offensive in Syria, Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack argues that the key to the stability of the region lies in effective nation-building.
In the face of innumerable failures and, over the last 20 years, of the progressive reconfiguration of Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans around newly created — or re-created — ethnic states, Pollack still argues that multi-ethnic or multi-communal nation-building is possible in the Middle-East, from the outside and without rearranging the absurd boundaries of the region.
And yet, if it were successful (a big if), the most likely outcome of the strategy he outlines — arming a “moderate” Syrian opposition and helping it take control of the country against both Assad and IS — would be the rise to power, in Syria, of a Sunni regime that would be a mirror image of Iraq’s Shia one, and under which you wouldn’t want to be a minority: Alawite, Kurdish or Christian, in this case, instead of Kurdish and Sunni in Iraq. More …
As Pollack puts it, “ISIS is the symptom of that underlying problem, not the problem itself.” Fine, but what is the problem and, in particular, what is the problem that can be resolved? He basically argues that the problem is the need to make Syria and Iraq into unified and functional social and political entities in spite of the tensions and the blood over decades of state-led communal repression of communal massacres and wars. This is indeed a problem, but one that nobody since WWII has been able to resolve, especially not through the “reconstruction” of infrastructure and civil society-building by foreign experts who have been failing miserably everywhere they have tried.
And for good reason: what is being sought is not nation-building but nation denial, nation breakdown, nation oppression and nation fragmentation among artificial states. In a few rich democratic countries like Canada, the UK (barely) and Spain (for now) it has been possible to sustain multi-communal nations. Everywhere else, it just hasn’t worked.
ISIS is the symptom of the failure of the state system that Britain and France, then the United States, and now the UN, have been trying to salvage for decades. It is the expression of a nationalist claim on the part of Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq that just will not (in the case of Syria) or that could not (in the case of Iraq) continue to live under political regimes that are dominated by other communities. Take the Sunni of Iraq and Syria out of ISIS — or the Pashtun out of the Talibans — and you are left with a weak movement devoid or territorial or social anchor.
Aside from the re-establishment of communal dictatorships that would happen to represent majorities, instead of minorities, nothing good can come from the kind of nation building that Pollack advocates. The only sustainable solution to the problem is the creation of a Sunni state on a territory that currently straddles Syria and Iraq. In this region, remember, Sunni Arabs have no home, unlike the Kurds (almost), Shia Arabs, and Shia Persians.
As Jeffrey Herbst has been arguing for years, this kind of solution also beckons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, I would add, in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and a number of other countries.
I can hear the standard objections: re-opening the border issues would lead to chaos and anyway, we don’t do that anymore. We patch things up at the UN.
Well, chaos is here and has been here for a long while and, as I mentioned before, we have in fact been doing lots of boundary adjustments in recent years, though only in Europe and almost exclusively with white people. The time has come to open up the communal state club to other peoples.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will address the United Nations General Assembly today.
I wrote in the Globe and Mail Wednesday that we should not expect to see a warming in Canada’s relations with the world body, which have been chilly since the Harper government failed to win a seat for Canada on the Security Council in 2010.
I mentioned in the article that I had conducted research on whether Canadians remain supportive of the UN and liberal internationalism. The short answer is: yes, they do. This research appears in the current issue of International Journal. More …
The introduction of my journal article is below. The full version is available for free until the end of 2014, courtesy of International Journal and Sage Publications.
Since coming into office in 2006, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rejected many elements of the liberal internationalist consensus that underpinned Canadian foreign policy in the decades after the Second World War.
This consensus included the conviction that working through international institutions generally served Canadian interests and values, that energetic multilateral diplomacy provided Canada with opportunities for international influence which it would have otherwise lacked, that strengthening rules and norms in all areas of international affairs was critical for a country in Canada’s position of openness and vulnerability to global forces, and that promoting reconciliation and the peaceful settlement of disputes abroad was both a reflection of Canada’s success as a multicultural society and a means of contributing to international security.
Ian Brodie responds to Roland Paris: Harper is an internationalist, albeit of a different kind.
Although there are still fragments of liberal internationalism in Harper’s foreign policy—including his party’s attention to negotiating new trade agreements and its promotion of religious freedom and certain other rights—the Conservative government has clearly, if not ostentatiously, distanced itself from this broad approach to international affairs. Harper and his colleagues seem to regard the principles of liberal internationalism as more Liberal than liberal—that is, as a hallmark of the Liberal Party of Canada—even though they provided a largely non-partisan basis for foreign policy over the preceding 60 years.
Indeed, the most enthusiastic and effective practitioner since Pearson was arguably a (Progressive) Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, who reinvested in multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations (UN) and elsewhere, championed Canada’s role in international peacekeeping, negotiated new global environmental accords and trade agreements, and cultivated close relationships with a broad array of foreign leaders.
Harper’s Conservatives signalled a departure from this approach even before they came to power. Their campaign platform for the 2006 federal election asserted that previous Liberal governments had “compromised democratic principles to appease dictators.” This language, a harbinger of what would become a new Conservative narrative about foreign policy, portrayed liberal internationalism not only as a failure, but also as morally flawed. Harper and his ministers have since presented a different reading of Canada’s history and its role in the world, one that plays down the accomplishments of Canada as a multilateral entrepreneur and peacemaker, and instead highlights Canada’s participation in wars and great moral struggles—including the War of 1812, the two world wars, and the Cold War. Previous governments, they have argued, lost sight of this older and truer tradition of moral steadfastness and martial valour. As we shall see, the Conservatives have sought to reinstate this older tradition, in part, by attempting to convince Canadians to discard the symbols and practices of liberal internationalism and to embrace, in their place, Harper’s vision of Canada as a valiant fighter.
Is there any evidence that Canadian public attitudes have shifted away from liberal internationalism and toward the foreign policy values articulated by the Harper government?
This article seeks to answer this question by examining recent public opinion surveys and focusing, in particular, on three indicators of change: (1) attitudes toward the UN, a proxy for public opinion toward multilateral institutions more generally, and also a particular target of Harper government criticism; (2) attitudes toward peacekeeping, historically the most prominent symbol of liberal internationalism; and (3) attitudes toward the Canadian military, the centrepiece of Harper’s narrative about Canada being, as he put it, a “courageous warrior.”
As we shall see, the results are intriguing. While there are signs of some attitudinal shifts during this period, a closer examination reveals that Canadians continue to perceive their country’s foreign policy role through predominantly liberal internationalist lenses. Moreover, these findings apply equally to first-generation Canadians, who are sometimes said to have more Conservative policy views. Although some diaspora groups have strongly embraced certain Harper government policy positions, new Canadians generally appear to be just as liberal internationalist as the rest of the population in their attitudes toward foreign policy.
To explain these results, I draw upon role theory in international relations—a body of scholarship that examines “national roles,” or deeply held assumptions about the kinds of functions that a given state is expected to perform in international affairs. Such assumptions tend to be tenacious; they are not readily abandoned or changed.
The Canadian case seems to provide an illustration of this phenomenon, but it also poses something of a challenge to role theory, which has tended to focus on the assumptions of policymakers rather than those of the mass public. To date, Cristian Cantir and Juliet Kaarbo note, this literature has made “little use of polling data and other measures that would tap into whether the masses really do agree with the elites on a country’s national roles.”
This article, by contrast, uses polling data to expose an apparent divergence between the foreign policy roles articulated by Canadian government officials and those embraced by the general public: there have been fundamental changes in the substance and rhetoric of Canadian foreign policy under the Harper government, but we have yet to see a corresponding transformation in public attitudes about Canada’s role in the world.
The remainder of this article is divided into five sections. First, I review the Harper government’s foreign policy behaviour, arguing that it has turned away from key elements of liberal internationalism. Second, I examine the government’s foreign policy narrative, which calls into question core assumptions of liberal internationalism.
Third, I investigate recent public opinion surveys that have probed Canadians’ attitudes about foreign policy.
Fourth, I examine the views of particular segments of the electorate, including first-generation immigrants. Finally, I use role theory to explain the apparent tenacity of liberal internationalism in Canadian public opinion.
Roland Paris gives a serious appraisal of the Harper government’s international policy. Other efforts to tackle this subject sometimes descend into soft anti-semitism, or conclude Harper is a policy incrementalist. Paris avoids both these unsatisfying outcomes and argues the Harper government has embarked on a new kind of foreign policy for Canada.
When I became PMO Chief of Staff, I asked a retired ambassador to help me identify Canada’s core international interests. He responded that, in his former department’s view, Canada has no interests, except for fish and softwood lumber. Paris dresses up this approach in the high-minded garb of “liberal internationalism.” But since 1945, the core challenges of Canadian foreign policy have been simple. We do what is needed to defend North America, usually in NORAD’s binational structure. We do what we can to preserve the western alliance, from external threats (in Europe and, recently, elsewhere) and internal divisions (during the Suez Crisis and in Cyprus). And, we always defend Canadian fisheries and softwood lumber interests. More …
Otherwise, Canadian governments are free to pick when and where to engage internationally. These efforts are rarely essential to our national security, and thus rarely generate domestic political debate. Some governments choose wisely. Diefenbaker opted to oppose apartheid and Mulroney to move first in recognizing Ukrainian independence. Others make deplorable choices. Trudeau responded to Soviet clampdowns in Poland and Afghanistan by embarking on an ill-timed international peace mission. Prime Minister Harper has focused his efforts on improving child and maternal health in developing countries. This seems a commendable choice and might help improve humanity’s achievements to date on this score.
Paris claims Harper has undermined liberal internationalism by denigrating international institutions and energetic multilateralism. But is this true? Harper has governed during a severe global economic crisis. His government has focused on building the G20, the IMF, and other multilateral forums for economic coordination. And while it is too early to assess the results, the effort cannot be denied. Paris is right that under Harper, Canada withdrew from the Convention to Combat Desertification and boycotted a Commonwealth Summit. But overall, it is impossible conclude Canada has become “markedly less interested … in multilateral diplomacy and institutions.”
Paris also argues that the Harper government has abandoned the United Nations. But is this true? Harper has addressed the General Assembly three times. He has also devoted time to trying to improve the UN’s child and maternal health programs. While his effort did not get Canada a two-year term on the Security Council, the Security Council is at a low point in its history. A decade ago, the U.S. Secretary of State argued the case for intervening in Iraq at the Security Council before the U.S. opted for military action. In 2014, the Obama Administration began bombing northern Iraq without even a courtesy call to the Security Council. It pursues its nuclear security initiative outside the aegis of the UN. And the Security Council was not notably helpful in responding to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine. Harper is not alone in calibrating his multilateral efforts.
Canada’s contribution to UN peace operations have not increased under Harper, but no other recent Canadian government has excelled here. Harper has committed the Canadian Forces to several other multilateral military missions. Moreover, today’s UN operations are often African missions led and staffed by African nations. Canada pays its dues for these missions. Under Harper, Canada has stepped up its funding for OAS and other efforts to build resilient, effective security institutions in Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. These efforts might prevent future conflict and state failure.
Paris’ most unfair criticism is hinting that Harper has pulled back from NATO. Harper expanded and extended Canada’s massive commitment to NATO operations in Afghanistan, rushed Canadian air, land and naval forces to respond to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and dispatched Canadian staff officers to NATO headquarters. Canada is now at the forefront of NATO operations.
Since 2006, Canada has cooled on the Arms Trade Treaty, and has refused to make climate commitments that the world’s largest emitters will not make themselves. The Harper government also demanded changes to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Under Harper, these positions are now considered core Canadian interests and pursued with the same vigour as fisheries and softwood lumber. But does this mark a retreat from energetic multilateral engagement? No.
Paris is right that the Harper government has departed from the post-1965 tradition in describing Canada’s history. But this is not the first government to try to shape our understanding of Canadian history. The practice of giving newly naturalized Canadians a copy of the Charter of Rights downplayed the importance of the 1960 Bill of Rights. Trudeau’s citizenship policy of 1960s and 1970s tried to shift the narrative of Canadian history and change Canadian political culture. Although Canadians have never been militarists, we were once more willing to take up arms in defence of our allies than the U.S. was. In drawing new attention to some aspects of Canadian history, Harper isn’t drawing on “vague notions of a noble war-fighting past” but paying his respects to the volunteer effort and sacrifice of earlier generations. Boosting attention to the Canadian Crown, past military valour, and the War of 1812 rebalances previous efforts to downplay these aspects of our history. And rightly so.
Paris is also right that Harper rejects on moral grounds the idea Canada should be an “honest broker.” There is nothing morally praiseworthy in trying to reconcile with evil intentions. Trudeau’s peace initiative did nothing to vindicate the rights of central and eastern Europeans. Past Canadian governments have softened their advocacy for human rights to improve commercial and other relations with authoritarian regimes. Harper’s early comments about China were assailed for impeding bilateral trade and investment. Harper has refused to abandon his support for Israel and act as the “honest broker” in the Middle East. He stridently opposes terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. This irks some observers. But it is possible the world would be closer to an Israeli-Palestinian entente if others had opposed Hamas and Hezbollah instead of pretending to be honest brokers over the last few years.
Harper’s new approach to Canada’s international engagement has nearly united Canada’s political leaders. On Iran, Russia, Lebanon, Gaza, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Harper’s political opponents either back his position or lodge minor disagreements. Harper twice mustered opposition support for extending Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan. On trade, where everyone is frustrated at failure of global multilateral talks since the Doha meeting, Harper successfully negotiated Canada’s entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership talks, and has landed trade deals with the EU, South Korea, Colombia, Peru and many others. His trade initiatives have gained the support of federal Liberals and been opposed only by the NDP, a party that rejects many tenets of multilateral trade policy in any case.
What kind of internationalist is Harper? Appropriate in his multilateralism, given the challenges at hand. Consistent with some Canadian traditions on maternal health. Showing no reluctance to deploy military forces overseas. Ready to stand for democratic allies and oppose terrorist organizations. And reluctant to embrace the honest broker role when vital principles are at stake. Roland Paris is right – this adds up to an important new role for Canada in the world. And a better one.
At the emergency debate in the House of Commons last week, on Sept. 16, Minister Jason Kenney made an unequivocal call for our ‘responsibility to protect’ people in peril in Iraq, against acts of genocide undertaken by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL or ISIS). In his own words, “If the responsibility to protect means anything, if our moral obligation to defend human dignity means anything, it must mean that we act in this instance.”
While much of the media attention has focused on Canada’s deployment of 69 military advisors to Northern Iraq and former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s warning message that it could pull Canada into further commitments in the region, the invocation of R2P on the situation in Iraq calls for a more careful assessment of the new direction undertaken by the Canadian government.
There are clear implications of calling out acts of genocide committed by the ISIL and invoking R2P as a guiding principle in Canadian foreign policy. In times of crisis, as we witness ISIL brazenly committing human rights crimes under daylight, it is all the more critical for the Canadian public to fully understand the implications of invoking R2P and Canada’s role on the global stage. More …
Naming the Crime
Since its emergence in the spring of 2013 as a major player in Syria’s civil war, the “Islamic State” has committed a wide range of crimes, including arbitrary and targeted killing, abduction, rape, forced conversions, trafficking, sexual abuse, and extreme brutality to shut down dissent. To this date, ISIL has publicly beheaded, shot, and tortured thousands of civilians. ISIL continues to attack ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak and Turkomen throughout western and northern Iraq. As early as August this summer, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated that civilians in Iraq were suffering horrific human rights violations at the hands of ISIL, including “systematic and intentional killings” and “widespread ethnic and religious cleansing,” amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
There have been reported executions of over 500 members of the Yazidi community in Sinjar and the surrounding areas in northern Iraq by the members of “Islamic State”. There have been reports of abductions of some 1500 Yazidi, Christian and Shabak women and girls. Over 200,000 people have fled the advance of ISIL militants into the Sinjar area in the Ninewah governorate of northern Iraq. The ISIL has given an ultimatum to those who remain, many of whom are minority groups, such as Christians and Yazidis, to convert to Sunni faith or leave. Such attacks against any individual or group on the basis of their identity, including their ethnic and religious identity, are prohibited under international human rights law. The massacres committed by ISIL are deliberate, planned, and public in attempting to wipe out religious minorities through the use of force and violence. As documented by UN observers and civil society groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for RtoP, the widespread and systematic killing of civilians by ISIL call for our immediate attention and decisive action.
As U.S. President Barack Obama made clear in his recent speech on the American strategy against the ISIL, this terrorist organization is neither “Islamic” nor a “State” – ISIL began as an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq and has taken advantage of Syria’s ongoing civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. A vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim, in addition to thousands of ethnic minorities who refused to pay a religious tax or convert. ISIL is not recognized by any government to be calling itself a state, and uses killing as a primary tool of expansion and control. The crimes perpetuated by ISIL not only threaten the Iraqi and Syrian state but also the stability of the Middle East and our global community at large.
The UN Security Council has also issued a statement declaring that “wide-spread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity.” There are serious warnings issued by Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict that ISIL is using children as informers, checkpoint sentries and suicide bombers and girls were abducted for forced rape and marriage. The use of child soldiers and the systematic rape and sexual assaults on young girls seriously violate existing tenets of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Child. The indiscriminate use of cluster munitions by ISIL, as reported by Human Rights Watch, constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law, particularly in light of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Naming the crime is a first step towards effective response in the face of mass human atrocities. A “genocide” which owes its intellectual roots to the leadership of a Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin,is a very specific crime in international law, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. In the wake of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, many western countries refused to call the crisis a “genocide,” fearing obligations imposed under the Genocide Convention and international law. Back then, our refusal to name the crime and take timely and decisive action led to the death of over 800,000 innocent civilians over the course of merely a hundred days. Samantha Power called it a “Problem from Hell” in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, as the western leaders idly stood by as they failed to overcome the yardstick of national self-interest.
Today, we witness another test for humanity in light of acts of terrorism and gross violations of fundamental human rights committed by the ISIL. Minister Kenney’s invocation of the word ‘genocide’ on the situation in Iraq in the House of Commons last week, therefore, should not be interpreted as a mere political rhetoric. Despite concerns about uses and abuses of R2P, the Canadian government has taken a clear stance on the global struggle against the ISIL. Canada is certainly not alone in this fight – our allies, such as the United States, France, Germany, and others, are united in countering the ISIL’s message of hate, stopping financial flow, and protecting people in peril through our collective capabilities.
To this date, in addition to the 69 special military advisors to Iraq, Canada has committed $28 million in humanitarian aid and $50 million in support for operation impact. Canada is also set to ship bullets to security forces battling the ISIL. There are concerns that this engagement might last longer and cost us more than we anticipate. There are legitimate concerns raised by scholars and experts on the scope of the engagement and the viability of military and political strategies.
In light of our limited capacities and other priorities at home, Canadians ought to demand more clarity in the government’s long-term plans against the ISIL. Yet, in this deeply troubling moment for all humanity, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put it, “turning a blind eye to these acts is no longer tenable and our responsibility to protect is collective and urgent.”
Responsibility to Protect, also known as R2P or RtoP, is a proud Canadian intellectual offspring, first coined under the leadership of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2011, with the sponsorship of the Canadian government. R2P essentially states that when a national government is unable or unwilling to protect its people from four specific mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity), the international community has the responsibility to protect them.
At the 2005 World Summit, 150 heads of state and government unanimously endorsed the paragraphs 138 and 139 and pledged to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means in a timely and decisive manner.
While the member state has the primary responsibility for protecting its people, the international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help states exercise this responsibility and support the UN in establishing an early warning capability. The international community also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Each case is to be considered on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, and may require collective action taken under the authority of the UN.
Since the endorsement in the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has developed a three-pillar approach on R2P. These three pillars are to be applied as needed, in full partnership with regional and international organizations. As formulated in the Secretary-General’s 2009 Report (A/63/677) on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, the three pillars of R2P entail:
- The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
- The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
- 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.
Earlier in August, the UN Security Council Resolution 2170 strongly condemned the acts of ISIL and encouraged the member states to take measures to combat terrorism to fulfill their responsibilities under international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law.
Even if we were to deny the relevance of R2P on the situation in Iraq, our existing obligations under various tenets of international law would hold us accountable as we witness the massive killings of Iraqi civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. What R2P provides is a toolbox to tackle the most horrendous crimes facing our common humanity, with the hope of mobilizing the political will and necessary resources in the most timely and decisive manner.
Protecting Iraqis – but how?
In the case of Iraq, we have already passed the point at which the prevention wing of R2P can be effective and it is clear that the Iraqi government is unable, and failing, to uphold its responsibility to protect its people against the ISIL attacks. Populations at risk in Iraq and Syria desperately need international assistance as they fear for their lives, security, and freedom. Contrary to popular misconceptions, invoking R2P does not always mean resorting to the use of force or regime change. At its best, R2P should be used for prevention and coordination of rapid response, and only if all available tools, such as diplomatic tools and economic sanctions, have been tried and exhausted, and only when it becomes clear that the national government is unwilling or unable to protect people in peril, the international community may need to use military tools to stop mass human atrocities in a timely and decisive manner.
The second pillar of R2P, which refers to “assistance” to the state in fulfilling its protection responsibility, is most relevant for the situation in Iraq. While fully acknowledging that the state has the primary responsibility for protecting its people, Pillar II provides a number of international assistance and capacity-building measures for the implementation of R2P, ranging from dialogue and preventive diplomacy to capacity building such as developing bedrocks of good governance, addressing horizontal inequalities and assistance to protect the rights of minorities.
While President Obama’s goal of “ultimate destruction” of ISIL through a counter-terrorism strategy, as we are seeing in full-force in Syria this week, may be difficult to achieve given the very nature of ISIL’s operations, there is much that could be done in Iraq through a professional and accountable security sector, impartial institutions for overseeing political transitions, strengthening judiciary and human rights institutions, developing media capacity to counteract hate speech, and protecting civilians in humanitarian emergencies, as well as the special plight of women and children who have fled their homes or have been internally displaced.
Recently, at the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 8, the sixth annual dialogue on R2P focused on this second pillar of R2P principle. The dialogue followed the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s sixth report on R2P called “Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility: International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect.” Most of the member states gathered at this informal and interactive dialogue reaffirmed their commitment to R2P and highlighted various ways in which they can mainstream R2P in their domestic political context. Assistance and capacity building must always be based on a clear understanding of the nature of the four R2P crimes, and a wide variety of actors, including regional and sub-regional bodies, civil society actors, the private sector and international organizations could play important roles in carrying out protection responsibilities.
At all times, principles of sovereign equality, mutual commitment, flexibility, and ‘do no harm’ must govern all engagements. Although assistance is generally considered in non-military forms, pillar II could also entail the use of force, especially when “international military assistance may be the surest way to support the State in meeting its obligations relating to the responsibility to protect, and in extreme cases, to restore its effective sovereignty.”
Promoting global humanitarianism, beyond the calculations of geostrategic interests, is something that Canada has been known for on the global stage. We need not go back as far as the Gray Lecture delivered by Louis St. Laurent in 1947, when he outlined five key guiding principles of Canadian foreign policy, including political liberty, rule of law in national and international affairs and acceptance of international responsibility in promoting our key values. Throughout our history as a nation, Canada has believed in the importance of rule of law, political freedom and respect for diversity. Ranging from the UN Peacekeeping Operations to humanitarian aid to intellectual legacies such as the R2P principle, belief in human dignity has indeed been an important guiding principle in Canadian political culture.
Above all, we should also remember that freedom of conscience, religion, belief, opinion, expression, and association remain fundamentally Canadian values, as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted in July this year that “forced conversions, by threat of death, are an egregious violation of the fundamental human right to the freedom of religion…” and called upon the Iraqi government to govern for all Iraqis, regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief.
This week, the ISIL released a video message, urging Jihadists to attack Canadians. In light of the rampant recruitment campaign conducted by ISIL on social media, which has managed to attract western-educated elites (some of whom are Canadian citizens) for their objectives, it is also in Canada’s national interest to do everything we can to stop ISIL’s activities for the safety of Canadians at home.
An attack against Christians and other ethnic minorities in Iraq is an attack against all of us who believe in freedom of conscience and religion. As Martin Niemöller put it so eloquently in his powerful poem, “First they came for the Socialists,” our indifference towards others and inability to speak out in the face of injustice may ultimately put our own lives in jeopardy – “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Giving tangible meaning to our pledge of “never again” allow death of innocent lives compels each one of us to care a little more, do a little more, and speak up a little more.
Despite our best intentions, tackling the ISIL will be a complicated and lengthy engagement with multiple regional and international partners. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to combat the cycle of hate and violence perpetrated by ISIL.
A systematic campaign that targets ISIL’s leadership, infrastructure and funding will require a close cooperation between the North and the South, and the West and the East. Putting boots on the ground is always a controversial issue and a test for our national unity, our core values, and our actual capability. R2P is not always about military intervention, but sometimes, military engagement may be our last, and most effective tool, to save innocent lives. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands in 2003 provided military, civilian and police support to protect populations at risk and to hold perpetrators accountable. Pillar II assistance, like any other international engagement, is complex in nature and depends heavily on the political will and commitment of resources.
Twenty years ago, our indifference and inaction in the face of evil led to the “failure of humanity” in Rwanda. While the nature of perpetrators and regional contexts are entirely different, we face another test for humanity as we witness the graphic acts of terror committed by ISIL.
A country like Canada, with a track record of punching above its weight in promoting global humanitarianism, is uniquely equipped to serve as the voice of reason and live up to our collective responsibility for protecting people in peril. In the face of daunting and often depressing reality, our first responsibility is to try and remain united in our hope for the future of humanity.