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The lies told to justify Canadian foreign policy

Lies, distortions and self-serving obfuscations are to be expected when political and business leaders discuss far away places.

In a recent Toronto Star column Rick Salutin observed that “foreign policy is a truth-free, fact-free zone. When leaders speak on domestic issues, citizens at least have points of reference to check them against. On foreign affairs they blather freely.”

Salutin vividly captures an important dynamic of political life. What do most Canadians know about our government’s actions in Afghanistan or Haiti? Most of us have never been to those countries and don’t know anyone living there, from there or even who’ve been there. We are heavily dependent on media and politicians’ portrayals. But, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, international correspondents generally take their cue from the foreign policy establishment or diplomats in the field.

Journalists are prepared to criticize governments and corporations to a certain extent on “domestic” issues, but the spirit of “challenging power” largely disappears regarding foreign policy. One reason is that nationalism remains an important media frame and the dominant media often promotes an “our team” worldview.

Another explanation is the web of state and corporate generated ideas institutes, which I review in A Propaganda System, that shape the international discussion. In a forthcoming second volume I look at the Canadian Left’s contribution to confusing the public about international policies.

The state/corporate nexus operates largely unchallenged in the Global South because there is little in terms of a countervailing force. Instead of criticizing the geo-strategic and corporate interests overwhelmingly driving foreign policy decisions, the social democratic NDP has often supported them and contributed to Canadians’ confusion about this country’s international affairs. The NDP endorsed bombing Serbia and Libya and in recent years they’ve supported military spending, Western policy in the Ukraine and the dispossession of Palestinians. The NDP has largely aligned with the foreign policy establishment or those, as long time NDP MP Libby Davies put it, who believe a “Time Magazine version” of international affairs.

Closely tied to the NDP, labour unions’ relative indifference to challenging foreign policy is another reason why politicians can “blather freely” on international affairs. On many domestic issues organized labour represents a countervailing force to the corporate agenda or state policies. While dwarfed by corporate Canada, unions have significant capacities. They generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual dues and fund or participate in a wide range of socially progressive initiatives such as the Canadian Health Coalition, Canadian Council for Refugees and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. But, unions rarely extend their broader (class) vision of society to international affairs. In fact, sometimes they endorse unjust international policies.

To the extent that politicians’ “blathering” is restrained it is largely by other countries. The recent political conflict in the Ukraine provides an example. Canadian politicians have aggressively promoted a simplistic, self-serving, narrative that has dominated the media-sphere. But, there is a source of power countering this perspective. Moscow financed/controlled media such as RT, Sputnik and others have offered a corrective to the Western line. A comparatively wealthy and powerful state, Russia’s diplomats have also publicly challenged the Canadian media’s one-sided portrayal.

An important, if rarely mentioned, rule of foreign policy is the more impoverished a nation, the greater the gap is likely to be between what Canadian officials say and do. The primary explanation for the gap between what’s said and done is that power generally defines what is considered reality. So, the bigger the power imbalance between Canada and another country the greater Ottawa’s ability to distort their activities.

Haiti provides a stark example. In 2004 Ottawa helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government and then supported an installed regime that killed thousands. Officially, however, Ottawa was “helping” the beleaguered country as part of the “Friends of Haiti” group. And the bill for undermining Haitian democracy, including the salaries of top coup government officials and the training of repressive cops, was largely paid out of Canada’s “aid” to the country.

A stark power imbalance between Ottawa and Port-au-Prince helps explain the gulf between Canadian government claims and reality in Haiti. Describing the country at the time of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster, former Globe and Mail foreign editor Paul Knox observed, “obviously, in the poorest country of the Americas, the government is going to have fewer resources at its disposal to mount a PR exercise or offensive if it feels itself besieged.”

With a $300 US million total budget for a country of eight million, the Haitian government had limited means to explain their perspective to the world either directly or through international journalists. On the other hand, the Washington-Paris-Ottawa coup triumvirate had great capacity to propagate their perspective (at the time the Canadian International Development Agency and Foreign Affairs each spent 10 times the entire Haitian budget and the Department of National Defence 60 times). The large Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince worked to influence Canadian reporters in the country and their efforts were supplanted by the Haiti desks at CIDA and Foreign Affairs as well as the two ministries’ communications departments and Canadian military officials.

While an imbalance in communications resources partly explains the coverage, there is also a powerful ideological component. The media’s biased coverage of Haiti cannot be divorced from ‘righteous Canada’ assumptions widely held among the intelligentsia. As quoted in an MA thesis titled “Covering the coup: Canadian news reporting, journalists, and sources in the 2004 Haiti crisis”, CBC reporter Neil McDonald told researcher Isabel McDonald the Canadian government was “one of the most authoritative sources on conflict resolution in the world.”

According to Isabel McDonald’s summary, the prominent correspondent also said, “it was crazy to imagine Canada would be involved in a coup” and that “Canadian values were incompatible with extreme inequality or race-based hegemony”, which Ottawa’s policies clearly exacerbated in Haiti. (Neil Macdonald also said his most trusted sources for background information in Haiti came from Canadian diplomatic circles, notably CIDA where his cousins worked. The CBC reporter also said he consulted the Canadian ambassador in Port-au-Prince to determine the most credible human rights advocate in Haiti. Ambassador Kenneth Cook directed him to Pierre Espérance, a coup backer who fabricated a “massacre” used to justify imprisoning the constitutional prime minister and interior minister. When pressed for physical evidence Espérance actually said the 50 bodies “might have been eaten by wild dogs.”)

The Canadian Council on Africa provides another example of the rhetoric that results from vast power imbalances and paternalist assumptions. Run by Canadian corporations operating on the continent, the council said it “focuses on the future of the African economy and the positive role that Canada can play meeting some of the challenges in Africa.”

Similar to the Canadian Council on Africa, the Canadian American Business Council, Canada China Business Council and Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce also seek to advance members’ profit-making potential. But, the other lobby groups don’t claim humanitarian objectives. The primary difference between the Canadian Council on Africa and the other regional lobby organizations is the power imbalance between Canada/the West and African countries, as well as the anti-African paternalism that dominates Canadian political culture. A group of Canadian corporations claiming their aim was to meet the social challenges of the US or UK would sound bizarre and if they said as much about China they would be considered seditious. (Ironically the US-, Britain- and China-focused lobby groups can better claim the aid mantle since foreign investment generally has greater social spinoffs in more independent/better regulated countries.) But, paternalist assumptions are so strong — and Africans’ capacity to assert themselves within Canadian political culture so limited — that a lobby group largely representing corporations that displace impoverished communities to extract natural resources is, according to the Canadian Council on Africa’s previous mission statement, “committed to the economic development of a modern and competitive Africa.”

To counter the “fact free zone” individuals need to educate themselves on international issues, by seeking alternative sources of information. More important, we should strengthen internationalist social movements and left media consciously seeking to restrict politicians’ ability to “blather freely”.

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GardaWorld private security firm a danger to democracy

Last week students at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) disrupted a board meeting after learning administrators planned to sign a $50 million, seven-year, contract with security giant GardaWorld. Protesters are angry the administration has sought to expel student leaders and ramp up security at the politically active campus as they cut programs.

The world’s largest privately held security firm, Garda is open about its need for repressive university, business and political leaders. The Montréal firm’s chief executive, Stephan Cretier, called the 2012 Québec student strike “positive” for business. “Naturally, when there’s unrest somewhere – the Egyptian election or some disruption here in Quebec or a labour disruption somewhere – unfortunately it’s usually good for business.”

But, that’s not half of it. A 2014 Canadian Business profile described Garda’s business as “renting out bands of armed men to protect clients working in some of the Earth’s most dangerous outposts.” Garda operates in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Algeria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere.

Established in 1995, the early 2000s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan propelled Garda’s international growth. With financing from Québec’s Caisse de dépôt pension fund, by 2007 they had as many as 5,000 employees in the region.

While US militarism boosts its profits, the company has deflected criticism with a noble Canadian shield. When four Garda employees were kidnapped (and later killed) in 2007, the head of the company claimed its private soldiers in Iraq were “perceived differently because we’re Canadian.” Of course, he didn’t mention if Iraqis shot by unaccountable mercenaries feel that way on discovering the bullets were fired by an employee of a Canadian firm.

Garda has been engulfed in controversy in Afghanistan as well. In 2012 two of its British employees were caught with dozens of unlicensed AK-47 rifles and jailed for three months while two years later the head of Garda’s Afghan operations, Daniel Ménard, was jailed for three weeks on similar charges. Commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2009-10, Ménard left the military after he was court-martialed for recklessly discharging his weapon and having sexual relations with a subordinate.

In 2013 Garda established operations in Nigeria to provide “logistical support” for international oil firms, which have faced political and criminal attacks. That year Garda also rented a villa in Mogadishu, Somalia, to lodge energy contractors and international development workers as well as accompany them around the country. A 2014 report from the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries questioned the growing role of Western security companies in the country. As Somalia “rebuilds its security institutions, the Government should ensure that private security forces are properly regulated and do not become a substitute for competent and accountable police. All Somalis have the right to security, not just those who can afford to pay for it,” said Faiza Patel, chairperson of the UN Working Group.

But it’s not simply a matter of equal justice. In a country where control of armed men has long been the main source of power, private security companies can easily strengthen the hand of a political faction or prolong conflict.

Garda’s most successful foray abroad is in Libya where it appointed former Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Zdunich head of its operations. Sometime in the “summer of 2011”, according to its website, Garda began operating in the country. After Libya’s National Transition Council captured Tripoli (six weeks before Muammar Gaddafi was killed in Sirte on October 20, 2011) the rebels requested Garda’s assistance in bringing their forces “besieging the pro-Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte to hospitals in Misrata”, reported Bloomberg. Garda’s involvement in Libya may have contravened that country’s laws as well as UN resolutions 1970 and 1973, which the Security Council passed amidst the uprising against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Resolution 1970 called for an arms embargo, mandating all UN member states “to prevent the provision of armed mercenary personnel” into Libya. Resolution 1973 reinforced the arms embargo, mentioning “armed mercenary personnel” in three different contexts. In an article titled “Mercenaries in Libya: Ramifications of the Treatment of ‘Armed Mercenary Personnel’ under the Arms Embargo for Private Military Company Contractors”, Hin-Yan Liu points out that the Security Council’s “explicit use of the broader term ‘armed mercenary personnel’ is likely to include a significant category of contractors working for Private Military Companies (PMCs).”

Contravening international law can be good for business. As the first Western security company officially operating in the country, Garda’s website described it as the “market leader in Libya” with “over 3,500 staff providing protection, training and crisis response.” Garda’s small army of former British special forces and other elite soldiers won a slew of lucrative contracts in Libya. The company’s Protective Security Detail provided “security for a number of international oil companies and their service providers” as well as NATO soldiers training the Libyan Army (the first time NATO contracted out the protection of a training program).

The Montréal company also protected a hundred European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) personnel who trained and equipped Libyan border and coast guards in a bid to curtail African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Garda’s four-year EUBAM contract garnered attention in early 2014 when 19 cases of arms and ammunition destined for the company disappeared at the Tripoli airport. But the company didn’t let this loss of weapons deter it from performing its duties. According to Intelligence Online,company officials asked “to borrow British weapons to ensure the safety of EU personnel.”

The request found favour since Garda already protected British interests in Libya, including Ambassador Dominic Asquith. In Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi, Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz describe the ambassador’s protection detail: “Some members of Sir Dominic Asquith’s security detail were undoubtedly veterans of 22 Special Air Service, or SAS, Great Britain’s legendary commandos, whose motto is ‘Who Dares Wins.’ Others were members of the Royal Marines Special Boat Service, or SBS.”

In June 2012 a rebel group attacked Asquith’s convoy in Benghazi with a rocket-propelled grenade. “The RPG-7 warhead fell short of the ambassador’s vehicle”, notes Under Fire. Two Garda operatives “were seriously hurt by fragmentation when the blast and rocket punched out the windshield of the lead vehicle; their blood splattered throughout the vehicle’s interior and then onto the street.”

One wonders how many Libyans have fallen prey to “Canada’s Blackwater”?

A source of employment for retired Canadian, British and US forces, Garda has built up its connections in military–political circles. A former Canadian ambassador to the US and Stephen Harper advisor, Derek Burney, is chair of its International Advisory Board. Garda’s board also includes retired four-star US Admiral Eric T. Olson, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security Michael P. Jackson and UK Permanent Secretary, Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the Cabinet Office Sir Richard Mottram. In December Garda hired recently retired Conservative minister Christian Paradis, reported Le Soleil, to “convince different levels of government to increase their use of the private sector in public safety.”A

A creature of neoliberal capitalism and Western aggression, Garda is a danger to democracy.

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