Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CHALLENGES 2005-2006: Canadians Imagine an Army of Peacemakers

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Dec 28 2005 (IPS) - Canadian peace activists are trying to head off the usual calls for increased military spending by the two major political parties that tend to coincide with the country’s national elections, now set for Jan. 23.

It is time for Canada, they believe, to go beyond traditional peacekeeping and undertake the sophisticated work of conflict resolution and peace-building.

These are skills that cannot be learned on the fly, but require a national federal department of peace that is dedicated to nurturing them, says Bill Bhaneja, a retired Canadian diplomat and senior research fellow at the University of Ottawa.

In fact, citizens in 11 different countries, including Canada, are similarly lobbying their governments for such a change in the traditional way defence and foreign affairs are organised.

Bhaneja recalls being embarrassed when European Union non-governmental organisations asked him if Canada could contribute a few thousand trained professional peace workers to go abroad. “I said, I am not aware of any such Canadian government programme,” he told IPS.

Bhaneja believes there is wide agreement in the conflict-resolution community that what Canada does with its defence money is obsolete and out of touch with Canadians’ desire to be true global mediators. It is also partially responsible for botched post-war reconstruction.

“Countries with economic dependence on weapons development and war machinery will instead have to start working for demilitarisation, focusing on ways to champion human rights and justice for the marginalised within and outside their borders,” he said.

Although the government currently dispenses international aid and promotes disarmament, democracy and human rights, he says, the problem is that these are “buried and accorded low priority” in eight separate federal departments, including Foreign Affairs, National Defence, the Canadian International Development Agency and the International Development Research Centre.

“In each of these there is a range of activities, and not all of them are carried out. Foreign Affairs thinks it does peace-building; Defence thinks it does peace-building. Even CIDA thinks its poverty alleviation mandate is peace-building. But there is no focal point, no coherent framework, no integrated approach.”

Organising a campaign for bureaucratic change in Ottawa may be a tall order, but Bhaneja has managed to garner some high-powered support. Former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy is on board, along with ex-senator, writer and chair of the Middle Powers Initiative Doug Roche.

“It’s time to give peace a profile in Canada and concentrate government’s attention on the fundamental values of this country, which are building the conditions for human security and peace,” Roche said from his home in Edmonton. “There is a considerable amount of work being done, but it is time to focus it and channel it.”

Meanwhile, among some non-governmental organisations on the front line of peace lobbying in Ottawa, there is hesitation. Ernie Regehr, a senior policy adviser at Project Ploughshares, worries about isolating peace-building in a single department. And he notes that “peace-building and human security have a kind of profile in government that they haven’t had for a long time”.

He concedes that the current impetus for peace promotion in Ottawa may not be strong enough, but wonders whether centralisation is the way to go: “Is the pace going to be changed by reorganisation, and is that going to galvanise some political will? That is a difficult judgment to make, I think.”

A number of critics have suggested that Canada’s self-image as a global peace broker has been tarnished by its counter-insurgency operations with U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

A report written by Regehr and Peter Whelan argues that Canada’s level of military spending is excessive. Of its 16.3-billion-dollar budget (about 14 billion U.S. dollars) for international peace and security, 76 percent is devoted to defence. “The most prominent threats to [people’s security] come from non-military sources such as unfavourable economic, social and political conditions,” the report asserts.

Bhaneja does not see a Canadian department of peace duplicating the diplomatic activities and programmes of his former employer, Foreign Affairs. He describes the latter as largely “reactive” to crisis points in the world and not set up to do the kind of long-range planning, research and education required for institution-building in troubled or failed states.

Rather, the former diplomat wants Canada to follow the example of Germany, where the government-supported civilian peace service is funding the training of peace workers in conflict resolution. These people are sent into the field in countries like Colombia to work with such grassroots groups such as Peace Brigades International (PBI), the Nonviolent Peace Force and the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

The difference is that a national government can train and export non-violent peace workers on a scale that would not be possible with these kinds of volunteer-based organisations, Bhaneja explains.

Although he would not comment on the NATO-led, military-based development missions in Afghanistan (the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams), he questions the ability of soldiers anywhere to engage in peace-building. “They are in the business of fighting and winning wars,” he said.

Veteran peace worker and trainer Lyn Adamson says peace-building work would receive a major boost with the establishment of a government peace department. “I could certainly see a role for that, absolutely,” she said.

Adamson was formerly with Peace Brigades, which primarily uses small teams of visible international volunteers to accompany local activists in potentially violent circumstances. She is now on the international board of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, an NGO that envisions sending thousands of experienced, salaried peace workers, not volunteers, into conflict zones instead of troops.

The uncertain fate of the Christian Peacemaker workers taken hostage by an unknown group in Iraq should not be used to dismiss the value of peace-builders in countries that have invited them, says Adamson.

“It is inevitable that there will be some loss of life in the non-violent alternative. But to put it in perspective, it should be noted that PBI has sent well over 1,000 team members into the field in such places as Colombia, Indonesia, Haiti and Mexico’s Guerrero and Chiapas regions since 1981 and has not suffered a single fatality,” she noted.

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