Orginally Published in the Globe and Mail Metro**
Thanksgiving weekend brought Canadians face to face with the harsh reality of living in a post-Sept. 11 world. At a time traditionally set aside to join family and friends in quiet celebration of our blessings, we found ourselves as a charter member of a military operation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
There is no more difficult decision for a government to make and people to accept than the commitment to fight. It calls for a clear declaration of support for our military personnel who are asked to do the fighting. That’s why it is strange that Parliament will not meet until next week.
The House of Commons should be convened immediately, not only as the forum through which Canadians can express their solidarity, but as a place where tough questions can be asked about the conduct and objectives of this military operation.
We all knew this battle was coming, but little clue was given as to the nature of Canadian involvement. Now that it is upon us, and promises to be a long-term engagement of a particularly tricky and complex kind, it is vital that there be a much better understanding of how this use of force will reduce the terrorist threat, what the consequences will be for the broader goal of instituting an international legal order, and whether Canada will do more than offer troops.
Both Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George W. Bush spoke of a grand strategy involving diplomatic, humanitarian and financial efforts. But little is known about what this means and who will call the shots. The “coalition” members — including Canada — have yet to meet, other than through a series of bilateral telephone calls and visits to the White House. This strikes me as a hub-and-spoke arrangement, where direction comes from the centre with little input from the outside members. This is not a foundation for building an international partnership based on collective responsibility and contribution, nor one in which Canada can play an active creative role.
To use one example: This country has been at the forefront of establishing an international legal system to hold accountable those who commit crimes against humanity, including acts of terrorism. The construction of such a criminal system should be one of the prime goals of an anti-terrorist coalition. But the Bush administration has just endorsed a bill submitted by Senator Jesse Helms that would deny U.S. aid to any country that ratified the statute setting up the international criminal court. Hardly a position Canada should be supporting.
Then there is the problem of the humanitarian consequences of an attack against Afghanistan, where there is already a refugee disaster in the making. It is shrewdly recognized by the Bush administration that the military action will exacerbate the situation, so it is dropping food and medicine and trying to persuade the people to stay put. While an important gesture, it is not an effective response. The refugee needs go far beyond airlifted supplies. These people, reeling from two decades of civil war, need sanitation, water, medical treatment, shelter and security, just for starters.
The matter of Afghan refugees is a priority, requiring an international effort preferably through the United Nations, as suggested by Kofi Annan. Will Canada take the lead in mobilizing this kind of multilateral exercise? Can we take the lead in this kind of initiative now that we have been singled out by the U.S. President as a prime member of the military team attacking the Taliban? Or has our value as an independent player been compromised? Closer to home is the question of Canadians’ own security now that we are identified as front-line participants. Most analysts expect a retaliation to this attack. Osama bin Laden has promised a holy war. The probability of our being in the front line of that retaliation has increased commensurate with our role in the coalition. That means added responsibility to provide protection for Canadians here and abroad. This is especially crucial in enhancing security for our embassies and other visible overseas organizations such as cultural centres, aid projects and large Canadian business operations. We are about to learn the hard price to pay in fighting the war against a hidden, dedicated, merciless, covert enemy.
The aftershock of the Sept. 11 attacks is now being felt. How Canadians will muster their resources to help restore a sense of security for people around the world is the issue of our day. We have just begun to ask the pertinent questions.
* Lloyd Axworthy, foreign affairs minister from 1996 to 2000, is director and CEO of the Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues at UBC.