Canada and the Middle East

From Saudi Arabia to Israel, Stéphane Dion is continuing Harper’s policies

In his short time as foreign minister, the former Liberal leader is building a legacy of disgrace
Photo: European External Action Service

Editors' note: Today the Globe and Mail reported, "Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly granted Ottawa’s crucial approval for a controversial $15-billion shipment of armoured combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia in early April – even though the Liberals insisted they could not reverse a 'done deal' clinched under the Harper government."

Stéphane Dion has been an easy figure to ridicule. He was once famous for handing a silly video to media networks during the political crisis after the 2008 election. After Dion's departure, Canadians wondered if a Liberal could possibly do worse than Dion, and it took Empire Lite Michael Ignatieff in 2011 to prove that, indeed, one could. Dion's 2008 candidacy was probably sabotaged from within the Liberal Party. Back then, I thought it was unfair that the media were treating him as some kind of buffoon.

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But that was then. Dion, as Trudeau's appointed foreign minister, has racked up quite a few new zingers. Recently, he's defended a $15-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Cancelling the deal, he has said, “would not have an effect on human rights in Saudi Arabia.”

“Riyadh does not care if the equipment comes from a factory in Lima, Ohio or Sterling Heights, Mich., rather than one in London, Ont.,” he said. He didn't specify whether he thought there might be an impact on human rights in Yemen, where the Saudi kingdom is busy slaughtering civilians and devastating infrastructure with weapons like the ones Canada's selling. But Dion's point came through: Saudi Arabia is indifferent to human rights. Canada's only choice is whether to profit from the kingdom's desire for weapons.

But the Saudi achievement is only one of Dion's disgraceful acts in his short time as foreign minister.

Israel vs United Nations

The United Nations Human Rights Commission recently appointed a Canadian professor, Michael Lynk, to be Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the (Israeli-)Occupied Palestinian Territories. Lynk will be in eminent company. Previous special rapporteurs include John Dugard from South Africa and Richard Falk of the United States.

Reports by previous rapporteurs documented the rise of systematic malnutrition in Gaza under Israel's siege, Israel's practices of jailing Palestinians without legal proceedings (“administrative detention”), the killing of Palestinians without legal proceedings (“targeted killings”), the Wall that Israel has built deep in Palestinian territory and between Palestinian communities, and Israel's periodic massacres in Gaza (2008-09, 2012, 2014). The report on the 2008-09 massacre in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) stated that “the Palestinian right of resistance within the limits of international humanitarian law and Israeli security policy will inevitably clash, giving rise to ever new cycles of violence”.

A major theme of the reports, especially since the 2008-09 massacre, has been Israel's refusal to allow the rapporteurs access to occupied Palestine. Phrases such as “owing to the failure of Israel to provide full and free access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and “once again it is necessary to highlight the failure of the Government of Israel to cooperate in the implementation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, even to the extent of allowing him to enter occupied Palestine” abound.

The rapporteur that Lynk will be replacing, Makarim Wibisono, resigned because the lack of access caused his mission to fail. “Unfortunately, my efforts to help improve the lives of Palestinian victims of violations under the Israeli occupation have been frustrated every step of the way,” he wrote. The Palestinian side complied fully. Israel didn't even bother to reply to his requests.

Israel is no fan of the United Nations. It famously targeted and killed five UN peacekeepers in Lebanon in 2006. In 2014, it targeted United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools that had been used as civilian shelters, targeting and killing children and families who had fled to UN facilities, thinking foolishly that the UN could keep them safe. Having been bombed, UNRWA then had to answer Israeli (false, invented) accusations that UNRWA had allowed its civilian shelters to be used by the people Israel was trying to kill: Hamas.

Israel bombs civilians, including children, hiding in UN shelters, and the UN finds that it has explaining to do. Such is the logic of this conflict. The UN does its best to placate the power that kills its personnel and bombs its schools.

But for Israel and its advocates, it's never enough. In addition to the right to kill civilians and UN personnel at will, in addition to the right to prevent UN rapporteurs from even getting into the territories it occupies, Israel also wants the right to veto and malign these rapporteurs. Israel hated Dugard and Falk, and as Michael Harris reported in iPolitics, Israel advocates also “knocked” Penny Green, a law professor and reknown critic of Israeli human rights violations, “out of the running” before going after Michael Lynk.

Real change missing on foreign policy

Israel’s methods are standard and probably written in a manual somewhere: find instances of criticism against Israel, highlight them, and accuse the rapporteur of bias against Israel.

Since Israel is the more powerful party and since Israel has been on an increasingly genocidal path towards the Palestinians, anyone who reports honestly about what Israel is doing will find plenty of violations of international law and human rights to describe. If they are legal advocates, they then typically make recommendations about how to hold powers like Israel to account. Such reports and recommendations, to advocates of Israel, are evidence of intolerable bias.

Of course, the only people that have not made such reports and recommendations are either unqualified for the position of special rapporteur, since they have no experience with the conflict, or they are advocates of Israel who ignore Israeli crimes and show interest only in the crimes committed by the occupied, not the occupier, in the conflict.

In foreign policy, changes of government from Conservative to Liberal matter very little indeed.

For Israel and its advocates, the only acceptable rapporteur would be one who went on a guided tour of Israel, accepted a complete denial of access to the Occupied Territories, ignored Israel's crimes, and repeated whatever Israeli officials said about the Palestinians.

Perhaps they felt that Michael Lynk would not be such a rapporteur. Luckily for them, they found an ally in Dion, who promptly fired up his Twitter account and tweeted at the UNHRC to reconsider Lynk because of his bias. In so doing, he managed to insult Lynk, malign the UN, and embarrass Canada, sending a message to the world that in foreign policy, changes of government from Conservative to Liberal matter very little indeed. Perhaps in so doing he made Israel advocates happy. But, like the UN, he should know that it will never be enough.

The message from Israel advocates to Lynk was clear enough: Israel can get the Canadian government to denounce you, before you've written a word in your capacity as rapporteur. Lynk was forced to respond by emphasizing how balanced he is, even describing his willingness to expand the rapporteur's mandate to look more closely at crimes by Palestinians under occupation. Lynk told the press that he had never said Israel was an apartheid state and never compared Israel to Nazi Germany — a comparison he said he finds “odious.”

Odious? Saying things the Nazis said is odious. Doing things the Nazis did is odious. But is comparing people, countries, or political movements to Nazis out of bounds now? I don't think the Internet got the memo (see Godwin's Law). Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, compares Iran to Nazi Germany frequently and has done so for many years. He has also invented outright fictions about the Holocaust, in order to incite violence against the Palestinians.

The bullied have to explain themselves to the bully.

As for Lynk's vehement assertion that he has never said that Israel is an apartheid state, would that be such a strange thing to do, following Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and several Palestinian and Israeli writers who have done so? Since apartheid is a crime under international law, and the UN is one of the only spaces where states can be held accountable, that the UN rapporteur was forced to distance himself from any mention of Israel's policies before starting his job does not bode well. Surely whether Israel is committing the crime of apartheid is a matter for investigation.

Lynk, in other words, had to try to prove himself to Israel and its advocates in the public arena. By qualifying himself to fanatical supporters of Israel, he is forced to declare reasonable and well-evidenced positions out of bounds. The bullied have to explain themselves to the bully.

Condemning BDS

Dion's disgraceful speech and action on this issue doesn’t start and end with Twitter. He came up with another zinger when the Canadian Parliament voted to condemn a nonviolent, largely campus-based movement based on international law: the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The demands of the BDS movement are equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the dismantling of the Wall and an end to the occupation, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. All these rights are enshrined in international law and UN resolutions. The BDS movement's methods are entirely nonviolent and largely based on trying to spark debate and discussion of the issue.

Opponents of BDS use methods that are largely based on trying to shut down debate and discussion, regardless of Charter rights, constitutional rights, or academic freedom — for example, having Parliaments and legislatures condemn the BDS movement. After the Liberals voted with the Conservatives to condemn little groups of activists for Palestinian human rights, Dion came up with this brilliant comment: "The attempt of the Conservatives to divide this House on this issue failed yesterday, and it will always fail as long as we have this government.” This is typically convoluted, but translates more or less to “Liberals and Conservatives stand together forever for Israel's right to do whatever it wants to the Palestinians.”

Israel/Palestine has offered, and will continue to offer, many opportunities for Canadian politicians to disgrace themselves and support bullies. Ignatieff and Bob Rae had a public row while fighting for the Liberal leadership, because Ignatieff referred to some Israeli war crimes as war crimes (then said he wouldn't lose sleep over them). Harper spent a decade proving he was more pro-Israel than Israel. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair declared himself an “ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances” and purged the party of pro-Palestine candidates (although credit goes to the NDP for not voting with the Liberals and Conservatives on the condemnation of BDS, and credit goes to Elizabeth May for this sensible and minimalist petition).

And of course it isn't just Canadian politicians. Everybody kisses the rings. Supposed maverick Donald Trump got standing ovations at AIPAC for channeling Netanyahu (take a look at Rania Khalek's interesting social experiment on the similarities between Trump and Netanyahu’s inciteful rhetoric), and Hillary Clinton has been talking about taking the U.S.-Israel relationship to the next level. It's hard to imagine the dizzying heights.

Scrolling backwards from late March on Dion's Twitter feed, there's a tweet about Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's conviction for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Dion commented that the conviction proves that the reach of justice is long. Karadzic, a political leader, was found guilty for a massacre committed by military forces. In the Bosnian Civil War, Karadzic's Serb forces faced Muslim forces that had a much better military balance than the Palestinians have compared to Israel. The Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995 separated and targeted males for massacre — unlike Israel, which kills children and families indiscriminately in its aerial and artillery massacres.

By the logic of International Criminal Tribunal, Israeli political and military leaders could be tried and sentenced for the Gaza massacres of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. For the time being, that is a very remote prospect: first, because international criminal courts are not for all war criminals, just those who lose wars, and second, because the world's foreign ministries are populated by people like Dion.

Linda McQuaig wrote a book about Canadian foreign policy, published in 2007, called Holding the Bully's Coat. Dion has only just started, but his foreign policy legacy is setting up to turn the country into a coat rack, with hooks for the United States, the Saudi kingdom, and Israel. Can you picture Dion, in a grainy video, standing in front with his hand out, waiting for the next coat to hang?

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