The unbearable lightness of Stéphane Dion

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At the end of May, the Trudeau team and, specifically, its piffle of a global affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, will likely fail two significant foreign policy tests that will challenge their ability to comply with domestic and international law. One deals with an individual war criminal, while the other is a massive terrorism and torture trade show coming to Ottawa.

On May 26, a man responsible for complicity in horrific war crimes, Henry Kissinger, will arrive in Toronto, along with another similarly shady character, Shimon Peres, to speak at the incredibly named Spirit of Hope gathering of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. (Readers of this column may recall the shameless selfies with Kissinger recently taken and promoted by Liberal cabinet ministers Mélanie Joly and Navdeep Bains, which proved hugely insulting to Kissinger's victims.)

Apparently, the folks at the Wiesenthal Centre -- who built a reputation on hunting down Nazis -- are willing to overlook Kissinger's bloody past, including collusion with ex-Nazis to discuss the potential overthrow of the West German government in the 1970s. The ball is now in Stéphane Dion's court: he has an opportunity to prevent Kissinger from entering the country given the very reasonable suspicion that the former U.S. Secretary of State is complicit in war crimes. But will he uphold the law, or continue the old line of Liberal pusillanimity?

The last time the Liberals faced the Kissinger test, in 1999, they failed. At the time, a Toronto-based group, Kissinger Out of Canada, implored then external affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy to exercise his powers under the Canada War Crimes Act to either keep Kissinger from entering the country or, preferably, to arrest him under the aid and abet section of the Act.

Axworthy fails legal test

At the time, the always self-regarding Axworthy was bouncing about with his own ideas of "humanitarian interventionism" and "responsibility to protect" (two concepts that put a smiley face on carpet-bombing other countries), declaring: "Ultimately, the only way you are going to get people to stop committing atrocities is if they recognize that someday, somewhere, some place, they will be held accountable for them." But Axworthy refused to act. Members of Kissinger Out of Canada were thus left with no option but to attempt a citizen's arrest of the war criminal, but before they could complete their mission, Toronto police arrested four members of the group. It was only seven months after Kissinger came and went that Axworthy bothered to respond to the group's correspondence, commending the group for its concern about war crimes but scolding them that "Canada does not regard [Kissinger] as a war criminal."

At the time Axworthy was dispensing with the Kissinger matter, he was experiencing one of his many dissociative moments, ignoring his high-fallutin' words about stopping atrocities by refusing to cancel previously signed export permits for the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia, which was ramping up its decades-long genocidal war against the people of East Timor. At a time when even the U.S. and EU had stopped weapons shipments, Axworthy soldiered on. It was another example of Liberal obeisance to the war industry and militarism, whose long history includes Lester Pearson campaigning to bring nuclear weapons to Canada and Trudeau Senior paying for the construction and testing of cruise missiles in Canada. More recently, it's been exhibited by Dion's refusal to recognize clearly documented war crimes being committed by the Saudi regime in Yemen. Dion assured himself that the $15 billion in Canadian-produced war equipment -- set to roll off the assembly line at London's General Dynamics plant -- would not be used for war-like purposes, and signed the export permits for the armoured brigade vehicles that are mounted with 105 mm cannons.

While the Liberals (and, to their discredit, the NDP) campaigned on a refusal to cancel what they said was a done deal consummated by Harper's Conservatives, they clearly lied. The deal had not been signed off by Harper, and so there was, in fact, an opportunity for Dion to stop the sale in light of evidence that continues to show the Saudi regime not only commits gross human rights violations, but also supports the very forces Canada has publicly pledged to fight in Syria and Iraq. In what Prime Minister Trudeau said was a question of "principle," Dion put his own signature to the deal earlier this month, just two weeks after he broke bread at the Saudi embassy during a fundraiser for the United Way of Ottawa. It is not clear whether the United Way rejected the blood money or simply accepted it as the cost of doing business in a scary world.

Terrorism trade show

And so, while the London, Ontario plant will start rolling out its killer vehicles (which Trudeau calls "jeeps" and former foreign affairs minister John Manley names "fancy trucks,"), it is unlikely that Dion will do anything to put a halt to the massive terrorism and torture trade show called CANSEC16 taking place at Ottawa's EY Centre on May 25 and 26. This annual gathering of Canada's war industry, along with companies that profit from mass surveillance, border control, militarization of police forces, and refugee interdiction, expects over 11,000 visitors and 61 international delegations.

Given the nature of the times -- when sunny ways means we don't brag about our blood-stained hands, the way the Harper government might have done -- CANSEC has ceased boasting (as it has in past years) about the international heavyweights who will be perusing the latest technology of mass murder. The optics of welcoming the Saudis publicly will not play particularly well.

CANSEC annually hosts international delegations in co-operation with the Canadian Commercial Corporation, with the beheading capital of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, heading the list. Other regular violators of human rights who were officially touted as 2015 guests included Bahrain (according to Amnesty International, "Children are being routinely detained, ill-treated and tortured in Bahrain"), Kuwait (repression of women, torture), Israel (well documented by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, as well as war crimes documented by Amnesty International), Mexico (the use of torture has grown by 600 per cent in the last decade), Oman (Human Rights Watch reports "rights routinely trampled" and where "Torture has become the state's knee-jerk response to political expression"), United Arab Emirates (where torture is commonplace with as many as 75 per cent of detainees experiencing abuse), United Kingdom (intensely complicit in the rendition to torture program) and United States (U.S. Senate reports on "ruthless" brutality in its "war on terror").

As host country of CANSEC, Canada is also complicit in the torture of its own citizens (as established by two separate judicial inquiries as well as Supreme Court and Federal Court decisions) as well as deportation to torture.

The show will be attended by War Minister Harjit Sajjan, who will no doubt speak to the Liberals' goal of a leaner, meaner military, while continuing to fund war to the tune of over $20 billion annually. Show participants will also likely discuss plans to bring more war training and development to the National Capital Region. Indeed, now under consideration is a move of weapons training facilities from Cold Lake, Alberta to areas north of Ottawa in traditional, unceded Algonquin territories. But in a classic case of undermining the respectful "nation to nation relationship" that Trudeau keeps promising to eventually deliver, Colonel Mike Barker of the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, currently based in Alberta, enthuses that testing guided bombs and blowing up stuff just north of Ottawa would be perfect, because "You don't have to go very far north of Ottawa before there is a lot of nothing." Other than, of course, Indigenous people living on lands never ceded to the Crown. It's the colonial continuation of the historic Terra Nullius (the idea that these lands were empty when colonizers showed up on these shores).

Irresponsible conviction

All this is justified under what Dion calls his policy of "responsible conviction," a twisted bit of illogic he defended in a truly bizarre March 29 speech. Dion speaks of Canada contributing to "a more peaceful and prosperous world," one that respects human rights, and specifically the rights of women and refugees (two groups disproportionately victimized by the manufacturers and purchasers of CANSEC war gear.) Under Dion's mantra, it is good to stand for what is ethically right, except when the market dictates something else. Hence, Dion attacks pacifists in his doctrine, for these "advocates of non-violence at all times" do not show the kind of "responsibility" that Dion thinks world players should exercise.

In a fine example of his facile grasp on the events of world history, Dion opines in classic colonial style that "although Gandhi's pacifism delivered results in the face of a British democracy that doubted the legitimacy of its empire, it obviously would have had disastrous results in the face of Hitler's army." Here Dion plays the role of obfuscatory, insidious intellectual: what evidence does he have in hand that the British "doubted the legitimacy of its empire" when its proud global reign ("the sun never sets on the British empire") was so clearly relished by its colonial masters and beneficiaries? Then Dion has the gall to throw in the classic non-argument that Gandhi would not have succeeded if the Brits weren't such nice and noble fellows, thereby erasing the courage and ingenuity of the Indian people who won an end to British control through decades of organizing and sacrifice. Dion also ignores that the British committed mass atrocities against the people of India during the liberation campaign, most notably at Amritsar, when British troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, murdering over 1,000 people and wounding countless more.

As The Independent reports:

"When Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign of peaceful resistance, [Winston] Churchill raged that he 'ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.' As the resistance swelled, he announced: 'I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.' This hatred killed. To give just one, major, example, in 1943 a famine broke out in Bengal, caused -- as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved -- by the imperial policies of the British. Up to 3 million people starved to death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region. He bluntly refused. He raged that it was their own fault for 'breeding like rabbits.' At other times, he said the plague was 'merrily' culling the population."

Churchill certainly never doubted the white supremacist legitimacy of the empire. But Dion's approach to the world is reminiscent of the country music song, "You Can Feel Bad If It Makes You Feel Better." Dion is a reluctant empire enthusiast, a white colonial saviour who feels qualms about it every once in a while. Indeed, his doctrine clearly states on numerous occasions that it shares "the same conviction as the previous government," but just uses different means of achieving the same brutal goals.

Dion fails history

Dion is also wrong about the course of history. As has been documented time and again, in many instances where mass nonviolent resistance was employed against the Nazi regime, the peaceful approach in fact worked. As documented by the likes of Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth, nonviolence works equally well against dictators and democrats because it is about disarming power and removing the consent of the governed. Perhaps Dion is unfamiliar with the mass refusal of Norwegian teachers to introduce Nazi ideology or the remarkable story of the Berlin Wives who, in the middle of the war, stared down the Gestapo, occupying a major square until their Jewish husbands were returned to them.

But Dion and his Liberals are not going to be slaves to the facts when they are twisting themselves like pretzels to justify the unjustifiable. "Of course, I would like to live in a world without weapons," the guilty Dion moans, playing the role of innocent Canadian abroad in a world of malevolent actors. "But my peaceful conviction must take the real world into account if I want to be a responsible decision maker."

Dion feels badly about colluding with brutal killers, but being the responsible realist, he says one must hold one's nose and proceed thusly:

"We take no more joy than our conservative friends in keeping open channels with authoritarian regimes. Of course, we would like it if the world were made up of nothing but exemplary democracies. But our world is highly imperfect, and to improve it we must engage in it with our eyes open, not withdraw from it. The consequences of withdrawal are not good for anyone."

Again, Dion, who has for some reason acquired the reputation as a deep-thinking academic, ignores history. Apartheid in South Africa came to an end through a combination of the heroic resistance of its population as well as international isolation via trade sanctions. Would Dion have kept the weapons and oil flowing to the apartheid regime in South Africa, as Canada continues to do with the Israeli apartheid regime? Apparently so.  

In addition, Dion refuses to recognize the fact that, if the world is a scary place, it is partly due to the role played by this country's policies, from the export of weapons and the destruction wrought by the nation's mining industries on Indigenous lands at home and abroad, to the unceasing support for coups and dictatorships from Haiti and Honduras to Egypt and Syria (yes, Canada's state security agencies used Syria's dungeons as a convenient drop-off point for torturing Canadian citizens).

Canadian complicity in atrocities abroad was recently illustrated once more in the murder of Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres in Honduras. "Sunny ways" Canadian officials confirmed they were "troubled" by her murder and that of her colleague Nelson García, and offered their condolences. But Cáceres' family rejected those empty condolences, and as the indefatigable group Rights Action points out:

"Since supporting the coup in 2009, the Canadian government has maintained full political relations with the post-coup regimes, turning a blind eye to widely documented State repression, corruption and impunity, while working actively (including the signing of a "Free Trade" Agreement with the regime) to expand Canadian investments in Honduras in the areas of mining, hydro-electric dam construction, tourism, maquiladora sweatshops, etc."

Such details do not make it into Dion's world of responsible conviction. They are simply "real-world" conditions that idealists must accommodate to get along.

And so, as thousands of weapons buyers descend on CANSEC, it seems clear that Dion, who commits himself to the notion that "Canada must be a fair-minded and determined peace builder," will not be among the protesters gathered at the entrance to the arms bazaar. But you can be part of the protests that day if you live in the area, or you can organize one at one of the many hundreds of weapons companies across the land. Things will get underway in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 24 at 5 p.m. with a War Criminals Welcoming Walk that tours the hotels packing in CANSEC guests, to be followed by a 7:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. protest at the CANSEC gates on May 25.  Details and more information are available from Homes not Bombs at tasc[at]web.ca.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: UN Geneva/flickr

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