Canada’s Incoherent Foreign Policy is Endangering its Reputation in the World
It was in early 2016, when during Question Period former Conservative MP Tony Clement outlined a long list of accusations against Iran and critically asked then Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephen Dion “Can the Minister please tell us what he likes about Iran” . He was confronted by a short yet important reply: “I like the people of Iran”. Unfortunately, Canadian foreign policy has changed considerably from those early days of the Trudeau government.
If one looks at the events happening since then, one finds an extremely confusing Canadian foreign policy. A few examples are worth noting here. In August 2018, Foreign Minister Freeland criticized on Twitter the arrest of the Saudi activist Samar Badawi, a move that was followed by Saudi unilaterally cutting diplomatic and most trade and cultural relations with Canada. Canada also rightly stood with most of the world in condemning the horrific death of Jamal Khashoggi a few months later.
All along though, there was a major other story being neglected by many. Prime Minister Trudeau had consistently ensured the Saudis that the lucrative 15-billion-dollar arms deal with the Saudi government will not be canceled even after Khashoggi’s murder.
Despite that, there was a consensus in Trudeau’s cabinet that there should be a review of such arms exports. Very recently however, it was announced that Canada would lift the suspension on arms exports to Saudi Arabia. This came at a time that Yemen, that has been already struggling with the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, is now facing a coronavirus outbreak that is estimated to kill around 30,000 to 40,000 of its population even if it’s provided with enough aid from the UN and other international donors.
The fact that the actions of the Saudi government has contributed a lot to this dire situation in Yemen is known to any observer of the turmoil in the region. In 2017, the UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs had warned that if the Saudi-led blockade stays in place, the country would face one of the world’s worst famines in decades. Three years after his stark warning, the blockade is still in place.
It would not be inaccurate to note that Saudi Arabia has also been directly responsible for the literal decimation of the country’s economic and health infrastructure through its brutal campaign of indiscriminate airstrikes against the Yemeni civilian population. A military campaign that does not even spare people celebrating at weddings and children in a school bus.
The fact that Global Affairs Canada has concluded that “Canadian exports of military goods and technology to KSA contribute to regional peace and security” would be utterly preposterous based on the Saudi government’s human rights records during its intervention in the conflict in Yemen, something that has also been noted by Project Ploughshares, a non-government organization working to end wars and armed violence, and many other academics and activists. It’s up to Canada to live up to its own claim of being a standard-bearer for human rights or rather wait for the UN to rank it, alongside the US, UK, and France as another state being complicit in Saudi war crimes.
The story of Iran-Canada relations is not much hopeful either. Prime Minister Trudeau came to power in 2015 on a promise to restore relations with Iran. Despite the initial efforts made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and MP Majid Jowhari that culminated in a visit by a number of Canadian diplomats to Tehran in October 2017, the bilateral relations were not restored primarily due to a Harper-era law, described by former Canadian diplomat Dennis Horak as a “stupid law”, that allows Canada to seize Iranian assets. And so far the Trudeau government not only has failed to repeal this law but also they have renewed Iran’s designation allowing for seizing around $30-million of Iranian assets.
The prospect of normalization reached its low in 2018, when the majority of Liberal MP’s including Prime Minister himself joined their Conservative colleagues in supporting a motion to stop reengagement with Iran. Even though one reason that was cited by the Liberals to support this motion was the death of the Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami in Iranian prison followed by the subsequent ban of his widow Maryam Mombeini from leaving Iran, it should be noted that lack of any diplomatic talks cannot help much to bring an end to these human rights situations. As simply put, there will be no leverage when the two countries have abandoned all their diplomatic, political, and trade ties.
On top of that, President Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA and the subsequent escalation of the situation between the two countries which culminated in the assassination of General Soleimani, led to the tragedy of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner involving over 80 Canadian citizens and permanent residents. This further makes it a necessity that the two countries resume talks, first in order to bring justice to the families of the victims of this tragedy, to prevent further military escalation in the region, and to improve the lives of many Iranians in Canada as well as Canadians in Iran who struggle due to the lack of access to any consular services. As mentioned by Dennis Horak and Jeremy Kinsman, another former Canadian diplomat, reengagement with Iran is absolutely essential in these unprecedented times.
There are more examples of Canada’s declining role in pursuing a progressive foreign policy including its brazen intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela as well as its support of the Bolivian interim president despite her support of the violence that ensued her rise to power. But there are also good signs such as the recent move by the Prime Minister to express concerns over the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, even though it would have been far more appropriate to outright condemn the plans and to take concrete action in international organizations to prevent any illegal annexation.
In the midst of the many crises of our times that require international collaboration, Canada needs to reconsider its foreign policy if it wants to reclaim its traditional peacekeeping role in international relations. Otherwise, it will not be able to simply shrug off any criticism should another crisis come our way.
Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the IC Journal or its editorial board.