Canada’s Gaza policy shift reasserts its moral leadership

Canada’s Gaza policy shift reasserts its moral leadership

Canada’s Gaza policy shift reasserts its moral leadership
Justin Trudeau addresses the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Mar. 19, 2024. (Reuters)
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Canada appears to be recalibrating its policy toward the war in Gaza. Initially, it sided uncritically with Israel, but it has now reconsidered in light of the catastrophic conditions in Gaza, which has become a virtual concentration camp and a free-for-all death zone. Palestinians who are not killed by airstrikes, sniper bullets or tank and artillery shells die in large numbers as a result of Israel blocking humanitarian assistance or systematically destroying medical facilities. Israel’s current leaders appear to have totally abdicated their responsibilities under international humanitarian law in a nonstop killing and destruction spree not seen in Palestine since the Crusades.

To distance Canada from these actions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become increasingly critical of Israel’s war on Gaza. And now his government has made two concrete decisions indicating its displeasure. The changes are more than symbolic, although Canadian humanitarian organizations have demanded that the government do more.

On Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly announced that her government would halt future arms shipments to Israel. Another equally important reversal was the announcement on March 8 that Ottawa would resume its funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, the main humanitarian organization operating in Gaza, after a disruption of several weeks due to accusations by Israel that some of UNRWA’s staff had Hamas connections.

The decision to halt future arms sales to Israel follows a nonbinding vote in Canada’s House of Commons on Monday. The motion was introduced by the New Democratic Party, which supports Trudeau’s minority government. The New Democrats have repeatedly criticized the government for failing to do enough to protect civilians in Gaza. The motion passed 204-117 with the support of the ruling Liberal Party, Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party.

The vote on Monday also called on Canada to work “toward the establishment of the state of Palestine.” The New Democrats had originally called on the government to directly “recognize the state of Palestine,” but that was watered down at the behest of the government, which believes that Palestinian statehood should come as the result of a negotiated settlement with Israel, a position it shares with the US.

Canada previously said that, while it had paused issuing military export permits to Israel, it was still assessing applications on “on a case-by-case basis,” but the vote on Monday appears aimed at stopping delivery of previously licensed shipments. “It is a real thing,” Joly told the press.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East called the vote “watered-down,” but said it represented a “small step forward for ending Canadian complicity in Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza.”

Many in Canada have opposed their country’s continued arming of Israel despite the atrocities its forces have committed in Gaza. On Feb. 4, more than 50 peace and humanitarian organizations sent a letter to Joly expressing their “profound concerns about the legal and humanitarian implications of Canada’s transfer of weapon systems to the government of Israel.”

They added: “Over the last decade, Canada has exported more than 140 million Canadian dollars ($102 million) in military goods to Israel, including military aerospace components as well as bombs, missiles, explosives and associated parts.” And that “some of these weapons could be enabling Israel’s operation in Gaza.”

In addition to direct exports, the letter stated that Canadian-produced technology has also been supplied to Israel after first being integrated into US-produced systems, including components incorporated into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Israel has used in its bombing campaign across Gaza. The letter quoted experts describing this campaign as the “deadliest and most destructive in recent history.”

Given Israel’s conduct in Gaza, there is “clear and substantial risk” that Canadian arms may be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law, according to the signatories. The letter cited Canada’s obligations under the Export and Import Permits Act and the Arms Trade Treaty to stress that it is “required to halt arms transfers and deny further arms export and brokering authorizations to Israel.”

The letter also cited the Jan. 26 provisional ruling by the International Court of Justice, which deemed that at least some of South Africa’s allegations of violations of the rights of Palestinians under the Genocide Convention are “plausible.” All parties to the Genocide Convention, including Canada, have a duty to ensure the prevention of and their non-complicity in genocidal acts. Countries that transfer arms to another country that are likely to be used in the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide risk being complicit in those crimes, the letter said.

To distance Canada from Israeli actions, Trudeau has become increasingly critical of Israel’s war on Gaza.

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The letter concluded by welcoming Canada’s strong support for the “critical role” of the world court and commitment to abide by its rulings in the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel. However, it cannot at the same time continue to “arm those whom the ICJ has ruled are plausibly accused of genocide.”

So it is with Canada’s decision to resume funding for UNRWA. Initially, in January, it went along with a number of other countries in stopping funding for the organization based on unsupported claims made by Israel, which has long tried to disrupt UNRWA’s work, if not end it altogether.

The devastation in Gaza appears to be deliberate and politically motivated; it serves Israel’s purpose of making the territory uninhabitable. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that “1.1 million people in Gaza are facing catastrophic hunger — the highest number of people ever recorded — anywhere, anytime.” What makes it worse, he added, is that it is an “entirely manmade disaster.” So, faced with this unspeakable suffering, and bowing to criticism from within Canada for its hasty initial decision, the Canadian government decided this month to resume the funding.

These two decisions are significant indicators that Canada plans to play a more constructive role in this conflict, which Joly stressed during her visit to Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region this month. They could also restore Canada’s global moral leadership for upholding international norms and values.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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