Sanctions relief, rethinking global priorities and Mel Watkins In Memoriam

Cuba needs U.S. sanctions relief

In our 20 March blog we highlighted the horrendous impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Since that time the UN Secretary-General has added his voice in support of the urgent action needed. In a 23 March letter to G20 countries, he wrote:

I am encouraging the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support. This is the time for solidarity not exclusion…. Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.

In addition to Iran and Venezuela, both of which had health systems already decimated by U.S. unilateral sanctions, there is now a growing call for Cuba to receive sanctions relief. See for example: Covid-19: Cuba Deserves Relief from US Sanctions (Peter Knorbluh,, 31 Mar 2020):

And [i]n Washington, a coalition of policy advocates, trade lobby associations, and human rights groups led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas has called for the suspension of sanctions, restrictions, and licensing requirements that limit remittances, impede Cuba’s ability to import commercial goods, and block or delay donations of medical equipment such as ventilators, test kits, masks, and gloves.

There is a special dimension to the Cuban situation. Even as it combats the coronavirus at home, Cuba continues its longstanding and invaluable role of providing rapid-response medical teams to help countries around the world respond to natural disasters and medical emergencies. Aljazeera reporter Mariya Petkova writes:

Images of Cuban doctors in virus-hit Italy have drawn attention, highlighting a tradition of medical internationalism.…

Over the past 50 years, it is estimated that between 135,000 and 400,000 Cuban doctors have been sent abroad.

Whither Canada?

The Canadian government has recently responded to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, through a joint initiative with Switzerland resulting in a Declaration of support for the global ceasefire adopted by 53 countries. Click here for the text of the declaration and the list of signatory states.

In addition Canada joined with other G20 nations in pledging $5 trillion to defend the global economy against COVID-19 and to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies and other goods across borders.

Alas, despite a shift in tone from American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the USA has failed to act in the spirit of this extraordinary global act of solidarity by easing any of its onerous restrictions on international trade with Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others.

We commend Canada for its positive steps and call on our government to build on them through a diplomatic initiative in support of the UN Secretary-General’s urgent call for an easing of sanctions during the pandemic.

Resource reallocation and conversion to non-military production in the age of pandemic

In an initiative organized by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, a letter to all UK parliamentarians from three former UK Royal Navy commanders decries the misallocation of scarce resources in the time of pandemic. Former nuclear submariner Commander Robert Forsyth RN (Ret’d) writes:

It is completely unacceptable that the UK continues to spend billions of pounds on deploying and modernising the Trident Nuclear Weapon System when faced with the threats to health, climate change and world economies that Coronavirus poses….

At the end of the Cold war, one of the most exciting new areas of research and policy was the conversion of military to non-military production. RI President Peggy Mason comments:

As a Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN at the time, I had the immense privilege in 1994 of presiding over a meeting of the UN Disarmament Commission where Germany formally announced the launch of its new Bonn International Centre for Conversion (BICC).

However, the much-anticipated “peace dividend” from the post-Cold war winding down of military production, which had already started to sputter by 2000, was dealt a deadly blow with the overwhelmingly militarized response to the September 11th attacks. Thus, while the focus of BICC’s work initially centred on the conversion of military facilities and equipment to civilian uses (hence its name), the institute’s research gradually turned to conflict resolution, peacebuilding and measures to control small arms and light weapons.

And the trajectory of this one organization is emblematic of the truncation of further research efforts in the once promising field.

But just as climate change is driving calls for a radical reorientation of the global economy toward sustainable, eco-friendly options, so too is the coronavirus pandemic encouraging a second look at how to re-tool military enterprises.

Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Ploughshares, has penned a commentary with the provocative title: Can COVID-19 provide us with a blueprint for economic conversion? (2 Apr 2020).

He writes that, in the wake of COVID-19, arms producers are demonstrating that economic conversion is not only feasible, but achievable:

In the United Kingdom, a consortium of arms producers, including BAE, Airbus, Thales, and Ultra Electronics, is assisting the National Health Service by producing and delivering a planned 10,000 ventilators. America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Remington Arms, has offered more than a million square feet of warehouse space and access to manufacturing lines to produce and store a slew of medical items, including hospital beds. And in Canada, General Dynamics Land Systems, the supplier of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, has begun shifting some operations to help Western University produce face shields.

Gallagher does not downplay the difficulties in, and cost of, such retooling on a larger scale. But in the current situation, where resources normally devoted to arms production are serving the needs of public health, he highlights the central lesson:

If there is a gift to be gleaned from this horrifying virus, it could be this: it allows us to reimagine what our communities can and should value.

So perhaps we can hope that the now internationally-renowned Bonn International Centre on Conversion (BICC) will revisit and re-imagine its original work on conversion as an important new element of its peacebuilding research agenda going forward.

Mel Watkins (former RI Board Member) In Memoriam

Photo credit: Univ of Toronto files.

On April 2nd we lost a great Canadian, Mel Watkins, a “towering intellectual force whose body of work shaped the thinking of generations of students, scholars and policymakers”. Recipient of the Order of Canada in January 2020, he had a special connection to the Rideau Institute having been a founding Board member and a guiding light, only stepping down in 2017.

Current RI Board member, Bruce Campbell, in addition to the quotation above, penned the following tribute to his longtime mentor and colleague:

Mel’s work had a profound influence on my own thinking, beginning as an undergraduate student and throughout my career. He introduced me to Harold Innis and the staples theory of economic development, which shaped my understanding of political economy within Canada, its relations with the US, and internationally.

His intellectual accomplishments were matched by his political engagement. At the recommendation of then Finance Minister Walter Gordon, Mel was appointed by the Pearson government as chair of the task force on foreign ownership. Its findings shaped government policy in the decade that followed, leading among other things to the creation of the Foreign Investment Review Agency and Petro Canada in the 1970s. Later he was active in the NDP, notably as a leader of the Waffle movement.

Throughout his life he was deeply involved with, and supportive of, progressive causes including policy organizations such as the Rideau Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Progressive Economics Forum.

Steve Staples, founder of the Rideau Institute and now its Vice-President, offered this reminiscence:

Mel was a great inspiration to me and was a tremendous help on the Board of the Rideau Institute. I recall us going to the US in the early 2000s as part of a Citizen Weapons Inspection Team and his knowledge of Hiroshima and the Manhattan project was astounding as we talked for hours during the trip.

For a brilliant assessment of the renewed relevance of progressive economic nationalism in a globalized world, there is nothing better than the words of Mel Watkins himself in his article: The Waffle at 50, (, 27 Nov 2019).

The most recent [pre-COVID] happening is the call for a Canadian Green New Deal. That’s progressive nationalism indeed, willing to be associated with the American variant – the New Deal of the past and its proposed Green-ing in the present, wanting and working to escape from the Canadian staples trap of fossil fuels and thereby from the planet’s carbon trap.

Bruce Campbell concludes:

Mel was a warm and engaging person with a wicked sense of humour. He was a mentor to me, someone whom I was privileged to have known.

Rest in peace Mel. Yours was a life well lived.

For a longer remembrance with more information on his legacy, see: A Tribute to Mel Watkins (Bruce Campbell, behindthenumbers. Ca, 5 Apr 2020).


Photo credit (main photo): Office of the Prime Minister

Tags: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Bonn International Centre for Conversion (BICC), Bruce Campbell, Canada and Switzerland global ceasefire initiative, Cuba and rapid medical response teams, Cuba sanctions relief, G20 nations, Iran sanctions relief, Mel Watkins, Mel Watkins In Memoriam, military to non-military conversion, Order of Canada, peace dividend, Petro Canada, progressive economic nationalism, sanctions relief, The Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA), The Waffle, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, UK nuclear deterrent, UN Disarmament Commission, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, University of Toronto, Venezuela