By Yves Engler
In a stunning international rebuke, Stephen Harper’s government lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat last week. The vote in New York was the world’s response to a Canadian foreign policy designed to please the most reactionary, short-sighted sectors of the Conservative Party’s base — evangelical Christian Zionists, extreme right-wing Jews, Islamophobes, the military-industrial-academic-complex, mining and oil executives and old Cold-Warriors.
Over the past four year Harper’s government has been offside with the world community on a whole host of issues. Canada was among a small number of countries that refused to recognize the human right to water or sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On two occasions Ottawa blocked consensus at the Rotterdam Convention to place chrysotile asbestos, a known toxin, on its list of dangerous products, and in November of last year, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty refused to even consider former British PM Gordon Brown’s idea of a global tax on international financial transactions.
Close to the companies making huge profits on the Tar Sands, the Conservatives repeatedly sabotaged international climate negotiations. They angered many in the Commonwealth by blocking a resolution calling for a “binding commitment” on rich countries to reduce emissions and at a UN climate conference in Bangkok last year, many delegates from poorer countries left a negotiating session in protest after a Canadian suggestion to scrap the Kyoto Protocol as the basis of negotiations.
The Conservatives extreme “Israel no matter what” position definitely hurt its chance on Tuesday. “It’s hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who emigrated from Moldova when he was 20 but still feels fit to call for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The Conservatives publicly endorsed Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, voted against a host of UN resolutions supporting Palestinian rights and in February Ottawa delighted Israeli hawks by cancelling $15 million in funding for the UN agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The money was transferred to Palestinian security reform.
For the past three years Canada has been heavily invested in training a Palestinian security force designed to oversee Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and “to ensure that the P.A. [Palestinian Authority] maintains control of the West Bank against Hamas,” as Canadian ambassador to Israel Jon Allen was quoted as saying by the Canadian Jewish News.
According to deputy foreign affairs minister Peter Kent, Operation PROTEUS, Canada’s military training mission in the West Bank, is the country’s “second largest deployment after Afghanistan” and it receives “most of the money” from a five-year $300 million Canadian aid program to the Palestinians.
At the same time as Canadian “aid” strengthens the most compliant Palestinian political factions, the Conservatives have refused any criticism of Israel’s onslaught against the 1.5 million people living in Gaza. Canada was the only country at the UN Human Rights Council to vote against a January 2008 resolution that called for “urgent international action to put an immediate end to Israel’s siege of Gaza.”
Later in 2008 Israel unleashed a 22-day military assault on Gaza that left 1,400 Palestinians dead. In response many governments condemned the bombing and Venezuela broke off all diplomatic relations. Israel didn’t need to worry since Ottawa was prepared to help out. The Canadian embassy now represents Israel’s diplomatic interests in Caracas.
While Brazil and Turkey tried to dissipate hostility towards Iran, Harper used his pulpit as host of the G8 to pave the way for a possible U.S.-Israeli attack. A February 17 Toronto Star article was headlined: “Military action against Iran still on the table, Kent says.” The junior foreign minister explained that “it’s a matter of timing and it’s a matter of how long we can wait without taking more serious pre-emptive action.”
“Pre-emptive action” is a euphemism for a bombing campaign. Canadian naval vessels are already running provocative manoeuvres off Iran’s coast and by stating that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada,” Kent is trying to create the impression that Iran may attack Israel. But it is Israel that possesses nuclear weapons and threatens to bomb Iran, not the other way around.
While Ottawa considers Iran’s nuclear energy program a major threat, Israel’s atomic bombs have not provoked similar condemnation. The Harper government abstained on a number of near unanimous votes asking Israel to place its nuclear weapons program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls and in September Bloomberg cited Canada as one of three countries that opposed an IAEA probe of Israel’s nuclear facilities as part of an Arab led effort to create a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East.
Not content with taking on Iran, the military-minded Conservatives turned on Russia. Harper referred to Russia as “aggressive” and in a throwback to the Cold War, Defence Minister Peter MacKay added that Ottawa would respond to Russian flights in the Arctic by flying Canadian fighter jets near Russian airspace. Making sure that Moscow got the message, during a July 2007 visit to the Ukraine MacKay said Canada would help provide a “counterbalance” to Russia.
Ottawa even prioritized the military over aid in the face of the incredible suffering caused by Haiti’s earthquake. Two thousand Canadian troops were deployed while several Heavy Urban Search Rescue Teams were readied but never sent. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon explained that the teams were not needed because “the government had opted to send Canadian Armed Forces instead.”
Overthrown in February 2004 by a joint U.S./France/Canada destabilization campaign, Haiti’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas, has been barred from participating in elections. The Conservatives supported Fanmi Lavalas’ exclusion, congratulating Haiti’s puppet government for bringing “a period of stabilization” good for “investment and trade.” Ottawa backed up its words with deeds, adding tens of millions of dollars to a Haitian prison and police system that has been massively expanded and militarized since the 2004 coup.
Ottawa gave its tacit support to the Honduran military’s removal of elected president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. Mexico’s Notimex reported that Canada was the only country in the hemisphere that did not explicitly call for Zelaya’s return to power and Canadian officials repeatedly criticized Zelaya at the Organization of American States (OAS). The ousted government complained that Ottawa failed to suspend aid to Honduras, which is the largest recipient of Canadian assistance in Central America. Nor did Ottawa exclude the Honduran military from its Military Training Assistance Program.
The Harper government opposed Zelaya’s move to join the Hugo Chavez-led Alba, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas, which is a response to North American capitalist domination of the region. Canada has actively supported the U.S.-led campaign against the government of Venezuela. In mid-2007 Harper toured South America “to show [the region] that Canada functions and that it can be a better model than Venezuela,” in the words of a high-level foreign affairs official. During the trip, Harper and his entourage made a number of comments critical of the Venezuelan government.
After meeting only members of the opposition during a trip to Venezuela in January, Peter Kent told the media that “democratic space within Venezuela has been shrinking and in this election year, Canada is very concerned about the rights of all Venezuelans to participate in the democratic process.”
Venezuela’s ambassador to the 34-country OAS, Roy Chaderton Matos, responded: “I am talking of a Canada governed by an ultra right that closed its Parliament for various months to (evade) an investigation over the violation of human rights — I am talking about torture and assassinations — by its soldiers in Afghanistan.”
Despite the move to the left among the majority of the region’s governments Harper moved closer to Latin America’s most right-wing state. Colombia’s terrible human rights record did not stop Harper from signing a free-trade agreement that even Washington couldn’t stomach.
The trade agreement as well as the Harper government’s shift of aid from Africa to Latin America was designed to support Canadian corporate interests and the region’s right-wing governments and movements. Barely discussed in the media, the main goal of the shift in aid was to stunt Latin America’s recent rejection of neo-liberalism and U.S. dependence.
One issue mentioned in a number of media reports about Canada’s loss last week had to do with the Congo. At the G8 in June, the Conservatives pushed for an entire declaration to the final communiqué criticizing the Congo for attempting to gain a greater share of its vast mineral wealth. Months earlier Ottawa began to obstruct international efforts to reschedule the country’s foreign debt, which was mostly accrued during more than three decades of Joseph Mobuto’s dictatorship and the subsequent war.
Canadian officials “have a problem with what’s happened with a Canadian company,” Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende said referring to the government’s move to revoke a mining concession that Vancouver-based First Quantum acquired during the 1998-2003 war. “The Canadian government wants to use the Paris Club [of debtor nations] in order to resolve a particular problem”, explained Mende. “This is unacceptable.”
The mining industry increasingly represents Canada abroad. Canadian miners operate more than 3,000 projects outside this country and many of these mines have displaced communities, destroyed ecosystems and resulted in violence. This doesn’t bother the Harper government, which is close to the most retrograde sectors of the mining industry. Last year they rejected a proposal — agreed to by the Mining Association of Canada under pressure from civil society groups — to make diplomatic and financial support for resource companies operating overseas contingent upon socially responsible conduct. Despite countless horror stories suggesting the contrary, the Conservatives claim that voluntary standards are the best way to improve Canadian mining companies’ social responsibility.
Finally, the Conservatives have knowingly supported torture in Afghanistan and embraced an increasingly violent counterinsurgency war. Apparently, Canadian Joint Task Force 2 commandos regularly take part in night-time assassination raids, which are highly unpopular with the Afghan population.
Losing the Security Council seat will hopefully cost the Conservatives some votes and temper their more extreme international positions. But, for those of us working to radically transform Canadian foreign policy the consequences of the loss may be much greater. There has probably never been a bigger blow to the carefully crafted image of Canada as a popular international do-gooder, a mythology that blinds so many Canadians to our country’s real role in the world.