For years, Michelle Hassen has fought against the use of land mines and cluster munitions. The Canadian government hasn’t always been on her side.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight, the human-rights advocate and the Liberal party’s candidate for New Westminster–Coquitlam recalled the disappointment she felt at a September 2007 conference in Oslo on land mines and cluster munitions. There, Hassen said, Nobel Peace Prize winners Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi joined others in expressing a “clear dissatisfaction” with Canada’s participation in the process to ban the weapons.
“Instead of playing a leadership role,” she explained, “Canada was”¦dragging its feet, putting in a lot of stops, and voicing a lot of concerns.”
Hassen argued that the cluster-munitions issue is just one example of the Harper government’s lack of appreciation for Canada’s role as a peacekeeper.
“We don’t want to see a Canada that is tied at the hip to George W. Bush and the United States, and that’s where I think that Stephen Harper is getting his talking points from,” Hassen said. “Frankly, he’s losing respect on the international scene.”
Harper stepped onto the world stage in January 2006, when Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.
Derek Gregory, a professor at UBC who recently spoke at an Ottawa counterinsurgency symposium organized by the Department of National Defence, described the Conservative government’s reaction to the election of Hamas as “typically ignorant and uninformed”.
Harper made Canada the first country to freeze aid to the Palestinian territories and end diplomatic relations with the Palestinian government.
Gregory also criticized Bush and Harper’s response to the Israel-Lebanon War of July 2006. He said that while governments around the world and opposition parties in Canada called for a ceasefire, Harper and Bush repeatedly stalled a ceasefire and refused to recognize that Lebanese civilians should be protected. Gregory said Harper’s top priorities in the Middle East were political posturing and photo opportunities.
Conservatives cannot be accused of paying lip service to Afghanistan, though. There, the Conservative government has extended Canada’s military involvement until 2011.
Dawn Black was last in Afghanistan in January 2007. The NDP candidate for New Westminster–Coquitlam told the Straight that Canada’s current role in Afghanistan is the wrong mission for the country.
“The people in Afghanistan, they need clean water, they need electricity, they need a sense of security,” Black explained, “not air strikes.” She pointed to an August 2008 U.S. air strike that killed upward of 90 Afghan civilians as the kind of incident that can badly damage Canada’s image in the region.
Jim Stephenson, Green Party candidate for North Vancouver, told the Straight he believes that Afghanistan has tied Canada’s reputation to that of the United States.
“There is a sadness that I encounter as a candidate,” Stephenson said, “that we’ve tarnished our reputation, that we’ve switched from peacekeeping to combat, and that we’ve lost our independence.”
In a telephone interview with the Straight, Lorne Mayencourt, the Conservative candidate for Vancouver Centre, claimed that while campaigning for the federal election, he had never heard Canada criticized for its involvement in Afghanistan.
“I’m hearing people talk about more social issues in Canada,” he said. “I don’t believe that that [Afghanistan] is truly on the mind of very many people.” Mayencourt argued that Canada has played a major role in building Afghanistan’s education and health sectors and that is what Canada will be remembered for in that country.
Black claimed that for every dollar Canada spends on aid in Afghanistan, $10 is spent on counterinsurgency operations.
“Why all of our resources are being sent to Afghanistan is something that needs to be questioned,” she said.
Black is a member of the Greater Vancouver Gogos, which supports grandmothers in Africa. She pointed out that while AIDS is slowly killing an entire generation in Africa, Harper didn’t even attend the 2006 International AIDS Conference, which Canada hosted in Toronto.
“It was appalling,” Black said. “It sent the message of a government and a prime minister who didn’t care about the poorest and most disenfranchised people in the world.”
Hassen, who has visited several African countries in her work on human rights, said that Harper had no excuse for missing the AIDS conference. She described the move as an example of the Conservatives’ lack of interest in Africa and noted that Canadian overseas-development assistance has decreased since Harper took office.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, in 2005 Canada allocated 0.30 percent of its gross domestic income to development assistance; in 2006 it gave 0.29 percent; and in 2007, 0.28 percent.
Hassen said that Harper has also missed opportunities to involve Canada in conflict resolution in Africa. She argued that Harper has consistently snubbed China while he should have been trying to engage Beijing on Darfur.
Mayencourt described the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as a “black eye” on Canada’s record but said that he didn’t know enough about Darfur to say whether Canada should be involved there or not.
According to Hassen, Harper’s 2003 position on Iraq remains the “dividing line” between the Liberals and the Conservatives.
In the House of Commons in March, 2003, Harper pledged support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.