Canada's role in the Suez Canal Crisis

Far from keeping the peace, Pearson’s mission was war by other means
Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page

Editors’ note: This is part two in a series focusing on Canada’s role in creating and supporting Israel.

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The Suez Canal Crisis is often touted as a turning point in Canadian history, the moment when the country came of age and displayed its true colours on the global stage. Canadian soldiers, from that point onward, became synonymous with UN peacekeeping missions in foreign lands, and Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to mitigate the conflict.

However, a closer look at Canadian policies shows that the country’s image as a peacemaker is undeserved. In fact, Canada was an important player in the war against Arab nationalism.

Canada’s opposition to the 1956 French and British attack on Egypt in response to Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the canal was not motivated by Canadian support for the newly decolonized world. Canada was on the side of the “great men of Europe,” as Pearson called them, when it came to denying an emerging Third World country such as Egypt its right of nationalization. Pearson, as quoted in Ali Dessouki’s Canadian Foreign Policy and the Palestine Problem, was clear: “I do not for one minute criticize the motives of the governments of the United Kingdom and France. . . . I do not criticize their purposes.”

Ready, aye, ready

What Canada disagreed with were the methods its mother countries had chosen to thwart Egypt. Dessouki writes that what France and Britain “failed to achieve by military force,” Pearson “was trying to get by United Nations’ resolutions.” Canada’s insistence that Western allies resort to the UN in order to deal with Third World nationalism was motivated primarily by a pro-American shift in Canadian foreign policy, but also by a desire to protect Israel.

After the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt began, the United States, the new imperial power, unhappy at seeing the two waning colonial powers interfere in an important strategic area without US approval, introduced a resolution at the UN calling for an immediate ceasefire and prompt withdrawal of forces from the area. Canada abstained from voting and, instead, introduced its own resolution. The difference between the US and Canadian resolutions was that the latter called for a UN peacekeeping force that would supervise the ceasefire.

Canada’s aim was to maintain the West’s grip over the Arabs –– under the tutelage of the Americans

Pearson had wanted to place a UN force at the canal. According to Dessouki, Pearson explained to US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the UN force would “make it possible for them [France and Britain] to withdraw with as little loss of face as possible, and bring them back into alignment with the US.” But bringing them into alignment with the US did not mean relinquishing control of the Middle East. On the contrary, Canada’s aim was to maintain the West’s grip over the Arabs –– under the tutelage of the Americans. What Canada had tried to convey to the Europeans was that going against the will of the United States would bring only embarrassment and that it was preferable to play junior partners to the US.

Different means, same ends

Canada’s goal was to counter secular Third World nationalism and protect Zionism, which was another reason Pearson had insisted on a UN force. Canada was attempting to exert control over Egypt by using the UN as leverage. This is why the international troops were stationed on the Egyptian side of the armistice line only. Even though Israel was the aggressor, no troops were sent to the Israeli territories. Pearson also proposed to transfer the administration of the Gaza Strip away from Egypt and into the hands of the UN, for which Canada came under fierce attack by Syrian and Jordanian representatives, who accused Canada of trying to take away whatever power Arab states had over the issue of Palestine.

When the withdrawal of all the troops was about to take place and UN forces were ready to step in, Canada insisted, contrary to the US, that Israel should be allowed to impose explicit conditions for its withdrawal. Canada succeeded in its demands. Israel withdrew, securing its right to passage through the Strait of Tiran, for which it had initiated the war against Egypt alongside France and Britain. Dessouki remarks that “Mr. Pearson successfully attempted to give this victory a political sanction by a resolution of the UN General Assembly.”

It is also important to note that Canada was one step ahead of the US when it came to defending Israeli interests against its Arab neighbours. The US was not in favour of a UN mission, and the Americans did not think that Israel, as the aggressor, had any right to impose preconditions for the withdrawal of its forces from the Egyptian territory. As Noam Chomsky has noted, the special relationship between the US and Israel began only after Israel’s stunning victory over the Arab states in the 1967 war. Canada, on the other hand, seemed to have entered into its own special relationship with Israel long before the Americans.

Cherry picking international law

Canada’s approach was plainly selective and at times hypocritical, because the goal of internationalizing the issue was to further disenfranchise already weak countries. In many cases international law was in favour of the weaker countries, and Third World countries showed solidarity with each other.

This was the case when Egypt denied Israel access to the Suez Canal. Canada ignored the provisions of the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which stated that the “maritime Suez Canal . . . is an integral part of Egypt,” as well as ignored the fact that the Suez Canal Company, which oversaw control of the canal, was established under Egyptian law and was thus an Egyptian company, despite certain international obligations. The obligation Egypt had toward the international community was to allow right of passage through the canal “even to the ships of belligerents.” Canada used this particular provision to argue that Egypt was violating international law by preventing Israeli ships from using the canal.

However, what Canada conveniently ignored was that Israel was not a party to the Convention of Constantinople under which the canal was governed, as it was signed in 1888 when the state of Israel did not exist. In 1926 and in 1929, the International Court of Justice — the same court that Canada blocked from addressing the issue of partition of Palestine in 1948 — had ruled that “a treaty creates rights only for the states party to it.” In legal terms, Israel was a third state, and the right of passage to third states was a concept under domestic law but not international law. Therefore, to quote Dessouki, “Israel [could not] have this right against the will of Egypt.”

The limits of UN

The selective approach of Canada on internationalizing an issue by taking it to the UN was consistent with its goals of privileging Western and Israeli interests in the region. While it insisted on taking the Suez Canal Crisis to the UN, it conveniently refused to involve the International Court of Justice on the question of Palestine in 1948 as well as ignored the court’s provisions regarding Egypt’s rights over the canal.

Today, Canada regularly chastises the UN General Assembly for taking up the issue of Palestinian statehood and is the most vocal critic of the internationalization of the Palestinian issue. This is because the balance of power at the UN is no longer in Canada’s favour.

Those who demand that Canada should refer to the UN as it did, for example, over the Suez Canal Crisis, forget that the UN serves as a tool for the more powerful countries, championed when useful and disregarded when not.

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