Monday, August 09, 2004

Canada and the UN

Something extraordinary happened at the UN on July 21 and Canada was at the center of it.

In a UN General Assembly vote demanding Israel tear down the security barrier ruled illegal -- in a non-binding opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) -- Canada voted to abstain.

Canada did not accede to pressures from the predictable Arab/Muslim voting blocs, the America bashers and the EU, who voted in favor of the resolution, nor did

Canada respond to pressures exerted by the US and Israel, who voted against it. Given the publicity and the implications of the vote, Canada's stand was even more remarkable.

Canada's abstention is a not so subtle demand to change to the status quo in both the region and the UN. The decision to abstain from endorsing the resolution or condemning it, reflects a singularly realistic view and interpretation of today's realities in the Middle East conflict-- something sorely lacking in the UN today.
The security barrier built by Israel is at once a necessity and a tragedy.

Israeli civilians, long targeted by factions opposed to any peace settlement with Israel, cannot be expected to bear the brunt of the murderous intentions of Palestinian extremists and rejectionists. There is no question the security barrier has worked. Suicide bombings and attacks on Israelis have sharply declined.

Palestinians have seen their economy and much of their infrastructure decimated by Israel (Inasmuch as Israel created that economy and built most of the Palestinian infrastructure, it isn't hard to understand how little value the Palestinians placed on what they did not earn for themselves.They are now realizing the cost of such indifference.). In their understandable desire for a secure environment, Israel is making all Palestinians pay a heavy price. The security barrier, military incursions and checkpoints humiliate and frustrate the thousands whose only desperate desire is to go to work and provide for their families.

Is it collective punishment? Sure it is. But in lieu of a Palestinian Authority (PA) unwilling to behave responsibly and exert all efforts to curtail terrorism, Israel has little choice. The PA cannot claim to be the legitimate government of a people and not behave in the best interests of those it claims to represent.

It is in the framework of these realities that Canada voted to abstain from the UN resolution, demanding Israel removes the security barrier. In so doing, Canada, in a quiet way, may well have fired the first shot at a real and necessary UN revolution of overhaul and reform.

In recognizing 'fact's on the ground', Canada's vote is more than a numerical reflection of the zero sum game, the all or nothing game of world politics. Slowly but surely, Canada may be coming around to dealing with the realities and immutable truths of the Middle East.

Recent headlines are hard to ignore. The Palestinian Authority is in disarray, on the verge of disintegration. Decades of corruption have bankrupted the PA's coffers, authority and credibility. Most importantly, the Palestinian people have been cheated. Under the current leadership, they have been deprived of a past, present and future. Palestinian politicians, newspapers and intellectuals have been clear. They acknowledge the chaos in Gaza and the West Bank isn't as a result of conflict with the Israelis-- it is the result of the decades long corruption by the PA leadership.

The Palestinians have long had to contend with various political factions. Some are secular, while others are religious. Some are more moderate; others espouse the vilest form of hate and violence, with variations of every stripe between them. The PA insists that their mandate is that of a democratically elected government-- a single election held a decade ago, under less than ideal circumstances. Mr. Arafat's opponent had to be approved by Mr. Arafat himself.

By insisting that the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank never be evacuated, Israeli religious extremists adopt the view that somehow, biblical theology is an acceptable basis for modern cartography-- politics and reality be damned. Like their Islamist counterparts, Israeli extremists are determined to fulfill what they see as their God given destiny. Though small in number, these religious extremists wield far more power than their numbers indicate. Israeli parliamentarians are legendary in their ability to form deal-making coalitions across a wide spectrum of political ideologies. Thus, the extremist position becomes disproportionately exaggerated and the majority of Israelis are held hostage to political agendas they find unacceptable.
Canada's UN vote seems to signal that the status quo is no longer acceptable. The vote was in effect, a challenge to the world body.

The issues in the Middle East are complex and intricate. They are not meant to be viewed in a vacuum. Votes in the UN are not meant to be simple or permanent exonerations or castigations of any one nation's behaviour. Canada's abstention is a refusal to be drawn into another meaningless round of finger pointing and recriminations, something the UN does with exquisite regularity.

The world body would do well to consider Canada's position.

The UN has spent decades attempting to resolve the Israel-Palestinian issue. More non-binding resolutions have been passed in the Genera Assembly condemning Israel than any other country. Nevertheless, over cocktails and haute cuisine, UN diplomats have stood idly by as atrocities in Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Algeria, China, East Timor and a host of others have resulted in the deaths of millions. The immediate unfolding humanitarian crises in Darfur are all but being ignored. In the meantime, the UN Iraq Oil for Food is blossoming into a full-blown scandal. And so it goes.

Many despotic and autocratic regimes indignantly insist that the democratic principles espoused by the UN be applied, notwithstanding realities and 'facts on the ground'. Such righteous indignation and would have far more credibility if that same indignation were applied at home. For those despotic regimes, democracy is only applicable when it works to support a particular agenda-- it is never important enough to be applied at home. This begs the question: If democracy isn't good enough to be applied in their home countries, why should we believe that their UN votes really take into account the best interests of others? The victims in Darfur, waiting for any help as the UN fiddles, are no doubt asking that very question.
Canada's stand last month in the face of undeniable pressures exerted made no friends on either side of the issue. It was not a vote endorsing one side or the other. It was a vote acknowledging that the status quo in the UN and the region aren't good enough.

The late Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada in the 70's, once said that being America's neighbor was like being a mouse in bed with an elephant. While we may be lovers, he said, Canadians need to watch out when the elephant rolls over. If Canadians needs to distinguish their identity from Americans, so be it. If the effort is honest and the goal admirable, more power to them. America can and should support such efforts.

In the meantime, the UN would do well to look in the mirror Canada is holding up.

Wandering Mind

may not be suitable for political vegans