Canada is big on international law. We cited it when we joined the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and when we opted out of the 2003 one. We lobbied for the International Criminal Court so international law would have teeth. We have made support for international law, the United Nations and human rights the cornerstone of our foreign policy. The Martin government, however, has begun to change this, particularly as it applies to the Middle East.
The shift was demonstrated in a one-two punch at the UN General Assembly. The first came last July when, in a highly unusual move, Canada withheld its support from an International Court of Justice ruling condemning the Israeli-built "security fence" in the West Bank as illegal. The second punch came last month when Canada voted against a couple of resolutions backing Palestinian rights.
Why should a shift in our Mideast policy in favour of Israel matter to Canadians?
The international resonance of the votes is highly significant to Canada's global standing. That the votes marked a shift from long-standing policy that had served Canada well, and was influenced by forces unique to the Martin government, raises questions about the integrity of the new policy.
First, the votes and their significance: When Canada abstained on July 20 from a UN resolution calling for the adoption of the ICJ advisory ruling, it broke with the majority of nations (150) that voted in its favour. The ICJ said "the wall . . . [is]contrary to international law" and called on UN members to "bring to an end the illegal situation" resulting from its construction. By its abstention, Canada reasoned that adopting the ICJ ruling would not "contribute to the aim of advancing a . . . negotiated settlement to the conflict." Well, neither does the wall, built almost entirely on occupied Palestinian land.
Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiators, finds a disturbing dichotomy between Canada's words and actions. "The Palestinians did what the West, and Canada, told them to do, and used non-violent means to resist Israel's actions by going to the ICJ. And what did Canada do? It turned its back on them. This told the Palestinians that the legal means are not on their side, and the use of force is the only answer." Not the kind of message Canada should be sending if it is the moderates we want to strengthen.
Similarly, in its No vote on Dec. 1 to a UN resolution extending the mandate of the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Canada moved away from the pack and sided with Israel, Australia, the U.S. and three of its tiny protectorates.
"Tell me who your friends are and I tell you who you are," says McMaster University economics professor and Middle East commentator Atif Kubursi. "Canada has broken off from a long-standing record of upholding international law and human rights and has done itself a lot of damage in the process." He argues that Canada, a soft power militarily and politically in the global sense, is a "hard power on moral issues" -- one that is now being eroded, due to domestic considerations and lobby groups.
He is alluding to the increasing influence of a group of MPs calling itself Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel, which lists among its ranks half a dozen federal cabinet ministers. In a policy paper it issued in 2003, the group called for a shift in Canada's UN voting pattern in favour of Israel, citing a lack of balance in UN resolutions. "The current argument that the various resolutions that we support merited our backing because they mostly agreed with our foreign policy . . . does not make these resolutions balanced."
In other words, it should be a numbers game: One resolution for the Palestinians should be balanced with one for Israel, international law and foreign policy be damned. Hardly a prescription for a sound approach to international affairs. Ms. Buttu calls it an "Israel first" approach that does not take into account Canadian values and may, in effect, be "detrimental to Canada's interests."
Canadians don't want their government to be pro anyone in the Middle East conflict. Polls conducted for the Canada-Israel Committee in recent months showed that 83 per cent of Canadians supported a neutral approach. Successive Canadian governments have resisted pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in favour of a pro-Canada policy: support for international law, human rights and the UN. As it has on other issues, Mr. Martin's government appears to be buckling on this one, too. The loser is Canada.
Raja G. Khouri is former president of the Canadian Arab Federation and author of Arabs in Canada: Post 9/11.