Launched on March 23rd, 2020 the UN Secretary-General’s plea for an immediate global ceasefire “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives” has been gathering steam. See the latest UN update here.
The International Crisis Group in an April 9th commentary stated:
At least twelve conflict parties have signed on to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s appeal for a worldwide cessation of hostilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a promising start, and despite setbacks in some places, the Security Council should endorse the call wholeheartedly.
The constructive role that that UN Secretary-General is playing in re-energizing manifold ongoing UN and other efforts to engage conflicting parties and provide opportunities and incentives to turn away from war stands in stark contrast to the paralysis of the UN Security Council, which has yet “to tackle COVID-19 in a unitary and strategic fashion”. In the view of Crisis Group:
The best compromise at this time may be for the Council to get behind a narrow resolution that backs the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call and … signals that the Council will track how the call is implemented, giving it some additional credibility among sceptical states and armed groups.
We continue to commend Canadian diplomatic efforts, in conjunction with other UN member states such as Switzerland, to secure the broadest possible support for a global ceasefire. However, as the Crisis Group commentary makes clear, each conflict has its own dynamics, which must be addressed if ceasefires are to be agreed, let alone maintained.
A glaring case in point is the conflict in Yemen, which has wreaked havoc on the poorest country in the Middle East. A fragile ceasefire now hangs in the balance. As the UN Security Council Expert Panel on Yemen has observed (and what is manifestly obvious in any event), the continued supply of weapons to parties involved in the conflict in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.
Yet, shockingly, Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced on Thursday, 9 April that Canada was lifting all restrictions on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, a leading belligerent in the Yemeni war. Note that Canada, unlike most of its close allies, had not instituted a ban on exports under existing permits, only future ones. And this is the restriction that is now being lifted.
In his statement, FM Champagne cited significant improvements to the contract, including greater transparency and the removal of the threat of financial penalties if future permits are delayed or denied. The changes appear to remove draconian and anti-democratic contractual provisos negotiated by the previous Stephen Harper government, including a blanket secrecy requirement and alleged huge financial penalties if Canada withheld export permits for any reason. The Minister went on to announce:
In addition, in order to ensure that the government always upholds the highest standards with respect to human rights, we are announcing the creation of an arms-length advisory panel of experts who will review best practices regarding arms exports by state parties to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty [ATT] to ensure that our system is as robust as possible.
While the amended contractual provisions are a welcome step in the right direction, as is the announcement of a new advisory panel, the composition of which will determine just how effective it will be, it is hard to reconcile the government’s professed determination to adhere to the highest international standards for arms transfers at the same time it is giving the green light to new arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
The Rideau Institute is a longstanding member of a coalition of civil society organizations, including Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares among others, that is seeking to narrow the gap between Canada’s rhetorical support for international law and the protection of human rights and its actual behaviour. President Peggy Mason comments:
It is not just that Canada’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other coalition partners like the United Arab Emirates are facilitating grievous human rights abuses in Yemen. We are aiding the war effort itself — at a time when we are rhetorically calling on every UN member state to support a global ceasefire and when Yemen has just confirmed its first case of COVID-19.
The contradiction is breathtaking in its cynicism.
We call on the Government of Canada to ensure that the new “advisory panel of experts” will include leading Canadian experts in international humanitarian law and will have both a mandate adequate to its task and the ability to make public its recommendations.
Support grows for sanctions relief during the pandemic
In recent blog posts we have highlighted the urgent need — and growing calls from the UN Secretary-General and others — for an easing of economic sanctions, especially U.S. unilateral measures, which are undermining the ability of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, among others, to get the vital medical supplies they need to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
A new voice has been added with the Transatlantic call for Iran relief organized by the European Leadership Network (ELN) and The Iran Project. Signed by a bipartisan group of American and European national security leaders including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini; four former NATO Secretaries-General; a range of former US officials spanning five Democratic and Republican presidential administrations; and British, French, German, and other European Prime Ministers, Foreign and Defense Secretaries, Ministers, and Ambassadors, the appeal states in part:
Targeted sanctions relief would be both morally right and serve the health and security interests of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.
On 6 April 2020 the Rideau Institute and the Group of 78 sent an Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Canada highlighting the very specific contribution that we can make at this time:
In recent weeks the UK has used quiet diplomacy to urge President Trump to ease the sanctions inhibiting the shipment of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to Iran’s 80 million people. Canada, with its regular ongoing interactions with the United States in the management of the pandemic and our mutual border, is in an even better position to engage in constructive discussions with the U.S. administration to ease sanctions on humanitarian grounds.
The Open Letter concludes:
We call on the Government of Canada to take this action in the name of our common humanity. We are in a unique position to make a difference. Let us act accordingly.
For the full text, in both English and French, copies of which have also been made available to the media, see: Canadian quiet diplomacy urgently needed to ease U.S. sanctions.
More rethinking of global priorities
This past week saw more deep thinking — homegrown and from further afield — on the kind of post-pandemic priorities we need going forward.
Our own Doug Roche penned a tour de force for the Hill Times that begins:
“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”
In one short sentence, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has opened the door to a new understanding of what constitutes human security. Will governments seize the opportunity provided by the immense crisis of COVID-19 to finally adopt a global agenda for peace?
The former Member of Parliament, UN Disarmament Ambassador and Senator has a very specific message for Canada:
The government plans to increase defence spending to $32 billion by 2027. Why? …. Far better to cut Canada’s planned defence spending by 10 percent and put an extra $2-3 billion into the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, the 17-point program centring around huge improvements in maternal health, water systems and sustainable agriculture.
For the full article, a must-read in our view, see: Warring parties must lay down weapons to fight bigger battle against Covid-19 (Douglas Roche, hilltimes.com, 6 April 2020).
George Monbiot, veteran opinion writer for the UK Guardian, explores a similar theme, arguing:
We are defending ourselves against the wrong threats. For decades, UK governments have been fighting not just the last war but a redundant notion of war, spending hundreds of billions against imaginary hazards. At the same time, as we have become horribly aware over the past few weeks, they have neglected real and urgent dangers.…
That £41.5bn spent on the military is more than twice as much money as the UK spends on preventing climate and ecological breakdown — which are not just potential threats but current emergencies.
Like others we have recently featured, Monbiot is calling for nothing less than a complete reassessment of what security means:
If ever there were a time for brokering peace, this is it. If ever there were a time for nations such as the UK and the US to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and work with Russia and China to put their wasted billions to better use, this is it. If ever there were a time to reassess the genuine threats to our security and separate them from the self-interested aims of the weapons industry, this is it.
For the full article, see: What does ‘national defence’ mean in a pandemic? It is no time to buy fighter jets (guardian.com, 08 April 2020).
Even before the pandemic hit, the Rideau Institute had supported proposals for the launch of a full-fledged review of Canadian foreign policy in light of the radically changing global environment. Now, with COVID-19 upon us, the calls are growing for a global realignment that puts the highest priority on cooperation, sustainability and equality — what we have termed “sustainable common security”.
Once we are through the worst of this deadly outbreak, it will be time for serious, well-resourced and well-staffed examinations at both the national and global levels on how we move the UN agenda for sustainable common security forward.
As part of its UN Security Council campaign, we call on the Government of Canada to outline its plan in support of a UN Commission on Sustainable Common Security to be informed in part by national commissions, including a Canadian one.
And for those who like podcasts, check out our post with veteran Journalist Ed Hand and his Unpublished Café podcast featuring University of Ottawa Professor Amir Attaran and RI President Peggy Mason on the N95 Mask Controversy (5 April 2020).
Main photo credit: Government of Canada