Gun control, space security, Afghanistan and re-imagining Canada in the world

Conservative dissembling on gun control

Given the continuing legacy of the Polytechnique massacre of 1989, it is no surprise that gun control was a hot topic in the French language federal election leaders’ debate, sponsored by major Quebec broadcaster TVA and held the evening of 2 September.

In the words of CBC journalist John Paul Tasker:

O’Toole’s opponents pounced on his platform promise to reverse the Liberal government’s cabinet order banning “assault-style” firearms, a 2020 regulatory decision that rendered more than 100,000 firearms “prohibited” overnight.

In response, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole stated:

We will maintain a ban on assault weapons.

Here is the relevant portion of the Conservative Campaign platform at page 90:

We will start by repealing C-71 and the May 2020 Order in Council and conducting a review of the Firearms Act with participation by law enforcement, firearms owners, manufacturers, and members of the public. [emphasis added]

The May 2020 Order in Council which the Conservatives pledge to repeal is the “assault-style” firearms ban that outlawed some 1500 makes and models of military-grade weapons in Canada.

As for repealing Bill C-71, this is the Liberals’ firearms record-keeping legislation that came into effect in June 2019, and was further amended, effective 7 July 2021, to require lifetime background checks (not just the previous five years) and to require authorization to transport restricted and prohibited firearms.

In the view of

While polling consistently demonstrates the majority of Canadians favour stricter gun controls, support is highest in Quebec.  We condemn what appears to be a blatant attempt by the Conservative party leader to mislead the television audience on where his party actually stands on this core issue of an assault rifle ban.

Update: The Conservative Leader’s 5 Sept 2021 statements, promising to maintain the ban but institute a review, only compound his credibility problem on this vital issue.

ELECTION CALL to Canadians:

Let the federal party leaders and the candidates know that Canadians want even stronger, not weaker, firearms controls.

For new Liberal commitments, including mandatory buy back or permanent deactivation of prohibited weapons, see page 64 of their official campaign platform here. For the NDP, see page 92 of their official platform here.

We need a Ban Treaty on Destructive ASAT Weapons Testing

On 2 September 2021, a long list of distinguished international experts, scientists, politicians, diplomats, academics and civil society leaders (including RI President Peggy Mason) appeared as signatories on a letter to the current President of the UN General Assembly, for distribution to all UN member delegations.

The letter begins:

The undersigned urge the United Nations General Assembly to take up consideration of a kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) test ban treaty. The need for such a treaty is driven by very rapid growth in the number of satellites in orbit.

With the potential addition over the next ten years of as many as 100,000 active satellites to the over 7,600 already in orbit, new practices are urgently needed to stem the proliferation of space debris. In the signatories’ view:

A major step toward this end would be a kinetic ASAT test ban treaty.

The letter explains that kinetic ASAT weapons, whether ground-based or space-based, employ high velocity physical strikes through the use of a ‘kill vehicle’ or shrapnel to destroy or disable objects in orbit.

If just one piece of debris from such a test collides with a satellite and causes a major fragmentation event, this could lead to additional events affecting all States, which could include further fragmentations, satellite failures, or service disruptions.

A kinetic ASAT test ban treaty would prohibit the use of any high velocity physical strikes during testing.

The letter goes on to demonstrate the real-world effects of debris produced by the 2019 Indian kinetic ASAT test, even though they sought to avoid creating debris through low altitude testing.

With international support now growing quickly for a treaty, the UN Secretary-General has taken up the issue, writing in 2018:

The United Nations remains uniquely placed to facilitate international cooperation and mutual restraint as the only sustainable solution to ensuring peace and security in outer space.

Recent UN activities to this end include a report from the Secretary-General on the views of individual UN member states, including Canada, on limiting destructive ASAT testing. (See UN Doc. A/76/77.)

The letter  concludes:

Clearly, momentum in favour of multilateral constraints on kinetic ASAT testing is growing among Member States of the United Nations. This is understandable given that the risks posed to the international community by such tests are increasing quickly, as demonstrated above.

For these reasons, the undersigned urge the United Nations General Assembly to take up consideration of a kinetic ASAT test ban treaty.

This letter is now open for general signature for all who are concerned about the peaceful development of space.  Here is the link to the letter signing form. We urge you all to consider signing it.

For those interested in a report on a potentially complementary role by the EU to UN-centred negotiations, see: A Proposal for a Ban on Destructive Anti-Satellite Testing: A Role for the European Union? (Nivedita Raju, EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium, April 2021).

Whither Canada?

Canada has traditionally been a strong supporter of the peaceful uses of outer space as enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty, a position reiterated in the 2017 defence policy at page 71. In answer to the UN questionnaire, Canada stated:

Canada views responsible behaviour as committing not to undertake development, testing or use of anti-satellite capabilities that can cause widespread debris. Indeed, Canada supports discussions, in the context of the Conference on Disarmament, on a possible ban on the testing and use of anti-satellite weapons that cause space debris.

We call on all federal parties to declare their unconditional support for a ban on destructive ASAT weapons testing and for UN negotiations for a treaty to that end.

Canada, Russia and the Arctic

Canada and its allies need to find a way to normalize relations with Russia; this necessitates working with the Russia they have, rather than the Russia they want.

So begins an article by Professor Karl Roberts entitled: How Canada should deal with Russia in the Arctic (, 23 August 2021). It offers a refreshingly pragmatic and constructive approach to the huge challenge of  “managing relations with an adversarial Russia”.

Roberts argues for a “balanced understanding of Russia’s interests”, seen in the light of its wider foreign policy goals. This does not mean understating or downplaying areas of deep disagreement between our two countries. But it does mean putting a priority on maintaining the tradition of Arctic cooperation despite deteriorating relations elsewhere. He writes:

Arctic co-operation should not be contingent upon approval of Russia’s activities elsewhere.

This is by no means to suggest that Russia’s aggression should be accepted, but the stakes are too high in the Arctic to allow conflict with Russia in other areas to derail Arctic priorities that would be much harder to achieve in a weaponized environment.

Noting that ostracizing Russia has gotten us nowhere, he makes the following recommendation, in relation to Russia’s current chairmanship of the Arctic Council (June 2021-23):

An easy, good-faith, and low-cost way to begin would be to support Russia’s Arctic Council agenda, which prioritizes supporting northern peoples, environmental protection, climate change, socioeconomic development, and strengthening regional governance — priorities Canada shares.

For more on the many challenging security, environmental and other issues facing Canada in its management of our Arctic, see Beyond the Cooperation–Conflict Conundrum: Proceedings of an Arctic Security Webinar Series (eds. Whitney Lackenbauer and Peggy Mason).

A further word about the Conservative party platform statement on page 103 that:

Russia has expanded its claim over the Canadian Arctic.

Like leading international legal expert Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, featured in the above-noted webinar series, Professor Roberts sees no evidence of Russian rule-breaking on the issue of the delineation of Arctic extended continental shelves. He writes:

Canada’s chief disagreement with Russia in the Arctic is overlapping claims to continental-shelf extensions in the Arctic Ocean. Each has made a claim through the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and both are committed to this process. Russia has taken no action to suggest that it will disregard its commitments; Russia has historically been a booster of institutional governance in the Arctic, as a signatory to the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, and, most recently, in its rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Whither Canada?

None of the party platforms address Arctic security challenges in any meaningful way, let alone in a comprehensive, forward-looking one. Canada urgently needs to rediscover the art of diplomacy. We discuss this further after our brief Afghanistan update.

Afghanistan and the legacy of Western intervention

As various nations, including Canada, consider how they might condition their interaction with the Taliban government now being established, ponder these sobering facts:

  • After 20 years of Western-led intervention, Afghanistan is one of the most foreign aid dependent countries in the world, with 75% of its pre-Taliban takeover budget coming from that source.
  • After 20 years of Western-led intervention, almost 50% of the Afghan population lives in poverty.
  • Before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, which has now been greatly exacerbated by the freezing of foreign assets and withholding of IMF and World Bank funds, as well as development funds from major donors like the EU.
  • The international community is rightly demanding that the Taliban should establish an inclusive government. But this was precisely what the international community denied Afghanistan in the Bonn Agreement of 2001, excluding as it did representatives of the then defeated Taliban, part of the largest Afghan ethnic and tribal group, the Pashtuns.

In the view of

Against this sobering backdrop, the West should bring a large degree of humility to its efforts to develop what the EU now calls “operational engagement” with the Taliban. The primary objective must be the prevention of even greater suffering for the Afghan people.

Fundamental foreign policy reset needed

The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have all championed Canada’s role in support of a rules-based international order. See for example:

We will continue to implement domestic measures to protect Canadians and work closely with our friends, allies, and partners to respond to illegal and unacceptable behaviour by authoritarian states, including China, Russia, and Iran. – LPC platform, p. 70

Canada’s Conservatives will prioritize Canadian interests and values at the United Nations, not pander to the priorities of dictators and despots. – Conservative platform, p. 105

A New Democrat government will stand up to China with a strong and coherent strategy to defend Canadian interests at home and abroad. – NDP platform, p. 107

But if the United States could not bend impoverished Afghanistan to its will after 20 years of trying, how exactly are the US and its allies going to coerce China into different behaviour?

RI President Peggy Mason, former Canadian diplomat, comments:

Diplomacy is not about taking your friends to lunch.

The fundamental question is how do we work with NON-like-minded to resolve differences if we can, or to ameliorate them if we cannot? And even more important, how do we cooperate with antagonists, despite our differences, on huge global challenges like preventing climate catastrophe, averting a nuclear war and preventing a weaponization of space that would put our entire way of life on earth at risk?

At this point we note the following statement by the Green Party of Canada in the International Relations and Defence section of their platform, available here. While alone in flagging the danger of inflammatory rhetoric,  the reference to isolationism jars since that is probably the last stance we need fear from Canada:

Canada’s long-standing commitment to multilateralism builds on Lester B. Pearson’s legacy as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A Green government will support such international engagement, recognizing that isolationism and nationalistic jingoism create a dangerous path and must be vigorously resisted. We will strengthen Canada’s role in promoting peace and global cooperation.

Our last blog referenced an Open Letter that highlighted the increasingly complex global challenges of the 21st century. Speaking bluntly, the foreign policy platforms of the main federal parties in this election demonstrate that none of them is currently equipped to adequately articulate, let alone respond, to these challenges.

We urgently need a comprehensive foreign policy review. But countless past blogs have underscored the shocking lack of diplomatic capacity at Global Affairs, which can only be remedied by a dedicated rebuilding exercise.

A new Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government is not enough

The Liberal Party of Canada campaign platform at page 67 states:

Establish a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government to expand the availability of Canadian expertise and assistance to those seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights, inclusion, and democracy, and deliver good governance.

 This is a recycled 2019 campaign promise which we evaluated in our January 2020 blog as a good one, with the following changes:

  • An independent, rather than interdepartmental, centre is required if new ideas and approaches are to be forthcoming; and
  • The mandate needs to be broad enough to address urgent global peace and security challenges.

We assume that the Covid pandemic derailed this initiative from proceeding, and take the Liberals at their word that they are serious about it.

However, such a centre would be complementary to, not a replacement for, the Canadian diplomatic rebuilding exercise within Global Affairs Canada that is so long overdue.

In the view of

To guide the diplomatic rebuilding process, in accordance with a fundamental reassessment of Canada’s place in the world and how we safeguard and promote and improve it, an Independent Expert Commission is needed. It should include experts from inside and outside government and internationally, have the power to commission expert studies, and engage in broad public consultations.

Part of its remit should be the types of diplomatic expertise needed to advance their recommendations and a plan for developing that expertise.

Whither Canada?

We call on all parties to commit to the establishment of an Expert Commission on Canada’s Place in the World within 30 days of taking office.

Photo credit: Wikimedia images (UN General Assembly Hall)


Tags: 2021 Canadian Federal election, Afghanistan, Anti-satellite (ASAT), Arctic Security, assault weapon ban, Canadian Centre for Peace Order and Good Government, Conservative campaign platform, firearms regulation, Foreign Policy reset, Independent Expert Commission on Canada's Place in the World, Karl Roberts, Kinetic ASAT testing ban treaty, LPC campaign platform, Michael Byers, NDP Campaign Platform, peaceful uses of outer space, Peggy Mason, Russian chairmanship of Arctic Council, Taliban, The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), TVA Leaders' debate, UN General Assemby, UN Secretary-General Antonio António Guterres