The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: conflict

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

The Dangers of Coping

They arrived in a manila package at our Calgary home one day, sometime in 1956. Our family gathered around as Dad pulled out the architectural drawings and laid them on the table. They were plans for how to construct and stock a bomb shelter in case of an atomic war. A large silver siren located on top of a long white pole occasionally reminded us of that fact, as occasionally it would emit a practice wail in preparation for the real thing.

For an entire generation of Canadians, none of this is strange. The Cold War was actually heating up and the threat to human existence always seemed to hang precariously in the balance. Popular music and movies were always there to remind us of the threat. The euphoria of the end of the great global conflict in 1945 didn’t last long, as both the Soviet Union and the United States made their fearful moves for world domination. But the decades following took on something of a standoff between the superpowers until the Soviet Union collapsed some 25 years ago. The era of a renewed internationalism began, along with a boost in confidence for a more peaceful future.

Suddenly the term “Cold War” has made a rapid comeback. Even before the recent American election, USA Today spoke of, “A New Cold War?” and CNN ran as one of its headlines: “Cold War-style conflict.” This past week, the Toronto Star reported of apocalypse survival food kits being sold by Costco Canada. This country, which has historically been one of the key boosters of internationalism, is now looking on in mild alarm as nationalism not only flourishes south of the border and in key European states, but is subtly emerging in various Canadian contexts, including the Conservative leadership race.

This country is finding itself impinged in the vice between nationalism and internationalism. Trump’s bewildering sense of American identity represents just as much a challenge to Justin Trudeau as Vladimir Putin’s rampant militarism. This isn’t just about nuclear weapons, but cyber warfare and the flagrantly hostile actions of Russia over other nations. In such a context, peacekeeping and good intentions seem somehow underwhelming. As Robert Legvold, political scientist and Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, sees it, “we have entered a second Cold War, only perhaps more dangerous because of the unstable global environment and the more modern challenges of cyber warfare and terrorism.”

The Cold War might be returning for another round of global freezing, but this time it’s different. Where the United States and its partners made direct military interventions in places like Vietnam, Korea, even Bosnia, you’ll see nothing similar in Crimea or the Ukraine, where Russia roams with menace. And as China brandishes its might in the South China Sea, we seem to have entered a period of great uncertainty where Canada, like other nations, must reassess the manner of its own engagement in such a turbulent world.

With a fractured Western coalition and a surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic that is frequently isolationist in nature, Canada is seeking to walk a fine line between playing a global role for progress and keeping its own domestic house from fracturing. Of the two, the latter is more subtle and likely more dangerous.

Former American diplomat George Kennan, who wrote much of the book on how to contain the old Soviet Union, threw out a warning that Canada, like every other nation, must abide by if the present world isn’t to fall into a new era of threat and darkness: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Communism isn’t the greatest threat to peace in this new Cold War, nor is it Putin. Rather, it is the embedded nationalism that threatens to turn peaceful and tolerant nations into narrow and irreconcilable ones.

History’s Most Troubling Chapter

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.


Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation.
The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity’s troubling journey towards peace and security.

Refugees: Are Solutions Possible?

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THE FACES OF GOVERNMENTAL LEADERS flashing across our screens from the United Nations in New York in these last few days caused many to think it was just another gathering where prime ministers and presidents, ministers and bureaucratic head honchos were merely networking at the opening of the new UN season. For those listening to the delegations on television, however, it became pretty clear that the world’s nations were coming together to confront perhaps the greatest challenge of the last decade: refugees.

We learned some fascinating new statistics. In 2015 alone, some 20 million documented cases of refugees moving across the planet were posing challenges everywhere. Add up the totals of refugees for the last few years and it comes to 65 million people. We knew the number was many and the solutions few. Escaping persecution and seeking asylum presents so many challenges to the receiving countries, the international response mechanisms, and ultimately to the refugee families themselves. And so the world opted to come together in New York this month for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The media spent a lot of time focusing on the former, but often overlooked was the sheer rise in mobility going on around the world for those migrating in search of opportunity.

The summit learned that by the end of 2015, some 244 million people were living in a country other than where they were born – a total up from 173 million in 2000, according to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

All of this is saying something, but I’m not sure we fully know what it is. Is the world increasingly on the move because of economic decline or greater economic growth – or both? Is it a sign that the world is coming together, or breaking apart? Could it be that we are becoming more of a world community as a result of all this movement, or is it more likely that there are now tears in the fabric of humanity that reveal millions of individuals and families lurching for security and prosperity in only a few prosperous nations?

All of this likely means that we aren’t prepared and that the UN conference was the first real attempt at assessing and shaping a tidal wave of humanity that might soon redefine how we function as a planet, as individual nations, and as citizens.

And it’s not all challenge and gloom. The conference was informed that in just one year – 2015 – migrants sent home $432 billion to developing countries to help their families with challenges like food security, education, new business ventures, and healthcare. That is a huge amount of money, triple the totals of foreign aid sent through Official Development Assistance.

I watched many of the speeches from the lectern this week and found myself thankful to see the world come together to face the challenge. But many present in the sessions got the impression that this is clearly a work in progress and that we’re only at the beginning of it. And complicating it all is the growing insecurity in places like the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the vast border regions around Russia. Should these get more out of hand, it will be inevitable that millions more will be cut loose from their cultural homelands and begin making plans to find peace and prosperity elsewhere.

While acknowledging the increasing scope of the refugee challenge, this week’s meetings decided to take some concrete action in at least attempting to build a coordinated response around the migration problem. Another summit is to be held at the United Nations in 2018 specifically on that issue.

Can there be breakthroughs? Are solutions possible? If we’re talking about assisting countries to accept more refugees and migrants, then perhaps more can be accomplished, but only to a point. If the real problem is the decline of nation states through economic turbulence and regional conflicts, how might the tap of human migration be stopped, or at least lessened? If many of these problems can’t be solved at the source, then just developing broader responses to the outflow of humanity from these regions can only go so far. Some of the problems, like an imploding Syria or an exploding Russia, remain unsolvable at present and keep real solutions from being easily discovered.

We aren’t talking about the fate of millions of people in search of hope, but, ultimately, about the condition and welfare of the planet itself. So many refugees is primarily a clue to all of humanity that something is seriously wrong in our world and unless we apply ourselves to the sources of such conflicts, the sea of desperate human souls will only become more desperate.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

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AS JUSTIN TRUDEAU MOVES THROUGH A SERIES OF SUMMITS that will surely have an effect on global direction, I thought of John Kennedy describing the turbulent first few months of his presidency:

“I knew that this country faced serious challenges, but I could not realize – nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office – how heavy and constant would be those burdens” 

Both men were the second youngest to be elected to the highest office of their respective countries – Kennedy was 42, Trudeau one year older. International crises defined their first year, and, like Kennedy, Trudeau has fielded no shortage of opinions concerning how he should respond to the Paris attacks. Some think he should ramp up Canada’s mission, while others believe he should stick with his original promise to bring the planes back home.

Putting aside our personal opinions for a moment, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the situation the newly elected Prime Minister finds himself in. The pressures on Trudeau to ramp up the military option are fierce, and yet he rightfully points out that he was elected on a mandate to place resources on other vital aspects of Canadian influence, like diplomacy, international development, and peaceful conflict resolution.

Trudeau knows well enough that the West has been bombing regions of the Middle East for three decades and that there is little to show for it. Yet neither can he wash his hands of the affair. He’s in a bind, and at the end of all the opinions, pro and con, it is he who must decide.

The new PM doesn’t think along the traditional lines of conflict management. As Obama reminded the world yesterday, the real issues lie in the miserable conditions that caused so many refugees to flee their homelands. In a few more years, the Arab world will replace Africa as the world’s poorest region. Left in that condition, we can only expect more turbulence. Any military response must be coupled with far more effective efforts in diplomacy, education, women’s empowerment, and micro enterprise – initiatives that underwent significant cuts by the previous government.

And then there is the reality that few wish to talk about: ISIS, as a broker of world calamity, is highly overrated. This feels counterintuitive, but it merits further discussion. Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, among others, reminds us that the main weapon brandished by ISIS is fear itself:

“The biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.”

He reminds us that one fallacy would be straight out appeasement – acting as though nothing serious has happened. Another would be stripping most of the liberties and rights of Western citizens in an effort to promise a security that can’t be guaranteed. There are some things that can’t simply be bartered away, like personal liberty and the case for a universal sense of human worth and dignity. As Krugman concludes: “The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of.” Paris makes it feel like they are capable of so much more, but in reality it is the fear their actions breed within us that carries the greatest danger.

Trudeau is of the belief that cooperation among nations must be more permanent than just responding to occasional emergencies. The roots of terrorism lie in poverty, ignorance, and closed societies, and in this surely the nations of the world, and the private sector along with them, can provide resources other than mere weaponry and military intervention.  Each nation can play its own unique role, Canada among them.

Harsh reality broke in on Justin Trudeau’s entrance onto the world stage and will surely test the fortitude of his convictions and his belief that the Canadian people voted for something other than ongoing warfare. Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry IV’s leadership as, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” is hauntingly real at this moment. The rhetoric of only a week ago, maintaining that, “Canada is back” is no longer sufficient for this vital moment in time. What is required now is a Canada that is different – in how it approaches the status quo, in its belief in the power of a woman’s role in the world, and the vitality of education, health, and a sustainable natural order. A PM that believes in the power, compassion, and fortitude of his own people might very well prove more effective than any jet armed to the teeth.

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