The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: international development

A Unique Commitment With a Powerful Champion

Yesterday’s story by Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles on the possibility of Canada’s peacekeeping future being tied with the demilitarization of child soldiers could represent a clear departure for this country’s foreign agenda.

Two key influencers have come together to move Canada in that direction. The first is the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial forum to be held in Vancouver in November, and the second is the redoubtable General Roméo Dallaire.   The global forum, designed to gain pledges from the participating nations towards peacekeeping, will be interested in Canadian input since this country’s participation on that file has been under review for an extended time. Still, the idea of having a rapid deployment military unit that can move quickly and be trained on preventing the recruitment and mobilization of child soldiers would prove a unique and intriguing contribution to the global commitment to peace.

The international event comes at a pivotal time for Dallaire, the former military general, and senator, who launched the Child Soldier Initiative in 2007 and which is housed at Dalhousie University. In venues around the world, he has struggled to help decision makers come to grips with the growing immoral problem of using youth in combat and especially the increase in the use of girls for such a purpose. His 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, revealed his extensive understanding of the problem and his commitment to working on a solution.

While an MP, I worked with the General as he launched his initiative and watched in real time his increasing sense of urgency over the fate of youth in combat – he became a man possessed and a formidable global voice on the matter. At one point he wrote: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.” That’s a pretty strong commitment, and coming from Dallaire it is a binding promise.

There was a time when the use of kids under the age of sixteen as warriors was frowned upon and rare, but that all changed with the increase of regional conflicts across the globe, especially in Africa. Dallaire told me in my office one day that creating a child to kill was much like moving a product through an assembly line. The molding of the young mind towards hatred and violence is a complex arrangement and breaking down that process is no simple matter.

Should the Canadian government commit to the demobilizing of child soldiers it must understand the recruitment process in troubled regions. To assume that armies sweep through a village and forcibly mobilize kids to kill is something of a misnomer.   In South Sudan, as an example, idle boys with nothing to do gravitate to a military unit encamped in the area, often intrigued with the camaraderie of soldiers, fascinated with weaponry and hopeful of some kind of wage. Without urging, they follow along with the units, offering to cart supplies or undertake physical labour. In most cases, they are denied participation yet they continue to “track” the unit in hopes of joining forces.

“The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

For girls it’s different. Many have lost parents in the fighting or face famine and sickness. The military forces have their own food supplies, doctors, medical provisions and security, so they begin to shadow the soldiers in hopes of survival or protection. After a time they are set to work cleaning and cooking and, almost inevitably, take on something of a concubine status. Some are trained as killing units, while most remain in support roles.

This kind of recruitment wouldn’t transpire if medical and educational services were readily available in the regions. In addition, host governments, even rebel commanders, are conscious of the breaking of international legal protocols through the use of child soldiers. For these reasons, any effort on Canada’s part to launch anything to do with demobilizing child soldiers must be partnered with effective development. To incorporate one without the other can only result in ongoing enlisting. Canada’s development assistance must take this into account, especially for women and girls.

The possibility of Canada providing a peacekeeping component to effectively deal with child soldiers is a project worthy of both our past and future. As Dallaire said about the possibility: “To lead must be your aim … Bring your new-found depth of argument to the political elite of our nations and remind them of their enormous responsibility to protect, to assist, to intervene.” Sounds like an intriguing Canadian venture, one that we must enact with understanding and commitment.

Hope In An Age of Shadows

So often it feels as though we are losing the battle to better humanity across most fronts. The unpredictable nature of modern life has meant that we far more quickly hear negative stories of our future than positive ones. At times we don’t hear of any hopeful news on the global scale for weeks at a time.

A number of months ago we talked about how significant strides have been made globally to assist those in the direst of poverty. Now from the World Health Organization (WHO) we learn of some significant advances being made in the realm of health. In its annual World Health Statistics report (available here) we learn the following:

  1. The global under-5 mortality rate declined by 44% since 2000.
  2. Since 2000, new HIV cases have decreased by 35%.
  3. In 2015, about 60% of the population that is at risk for malaria had access to insecticide-treated nets, compared to just 34% in 2010
  4. 86% of children receive their DTP3 vaccine, and administration of all three doses of hepatitis B vaccine reached 84% in 2015.
  5. The risk of dying from one of the four major non-communicable diseases – diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease – declined by 17% among people ages 30-70 since 2000.

This is in every way a significant finding. The global effort on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has helped to coordinate international response on a number of issues that threaten the planet, including climate change, poverty, and the lack of gender equality. That collaboration is now having effect and the tangible results are now becoming apparent.

Nevertheless, WHO’s report also contains many sobering reminders of how far we have yet to journey to create a chance a wellness for everyone. Yet nations, civil society, health workers, NGOs, companies, the UN, and many other partners are coming together in a significant enough fashion that there is now a concrete chance that the SDGs can prove truly effective.

WHO’s annual reports contain world health statistics for the use of its 194 member states, and includes helpful data on life expectancy in nations around the world. The 2017 edition also includes, for the first time, success stories from several countries that are making progress towards the health-related SDG targets. The graphic below reveals how some of the member countries are faring.

Martin Luther King Jr. called it right decades ago when he proclaimed: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” The WHO’s 2017 report reminds us critical differences can be made when nations and their people understand the essence of King’s meaning.

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.

Promise Fulfilled

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THE WORK OF FOUR REMARKABLE Canadian women in South Sudan has been so inspiring that I am including my new London Free Press article here on their efforts.  Just link to http://www.lfpress.com/2015/02/26/pearson-a-london-groups-promise-14-years-ago-to-build-a-high-school-in-the-south-sudan-region-of-aweil-was-fulfilled-this-year-the-school-will-open-in-apriland see some great pictures, along with a description of their efforts.  This is inspiring stuff in a new nation struggling to find its feet.  Proud to know these four great champions.

Canada Abandons a Former Partner

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Jane with an observer from the European Union during the South Sudan referendum

The following in my Huffington Post piece regarding the news that the Government of Canada has opted to significantly remove its presence in south Sudan during one of that country’s worst crises.  You can view the original article here.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

It won’t be easy. It’s never been simple. But for over 15 years a large number of Canadians have been investing in such initiatives, even during some of the worst years of the now-concluded civil war. During those early occasions, Canada’s reputation had been sullied by the presence of a Canadian oil firm that, in Southern Sudanese eyes, was making a fortune out of their misery. Eventually the firm pulled out and we sensed a warming to Canada as our government invested more deeply in peace initiatives and relief efforts, and as it became clear that we weren’t just interested in financial gain.

Some very capable Canadian diplomats were of key assistance in constructing and funding some of the key efforts required to end the war between north and south Sudan following so many decades. And Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had provided such stellar service during the war years, assisted in helping the Southern Sudanese move forward as they peacefully achieved independence and became the world’s newest nation. For years, the Sudanese conflict had remained high on the radar for successive Canadian governments, who worked in conjunction with many of their international partners in that deeply troubled part of the world.

But being a new nation with limited resources doesn’t make for an easy transition into good governance. Tribes that had held together to fend off the incursions of north Sudan during the lengthy war have started to come apart over the problems of administering the peace. The recent troubles in the south that sprung up only a month ago, and the instability that has resulted, has pressed that African region to the precipice. Western nations that had so greatly assisted in early years but who had moved on to other regions are quickly returning with new initiatives to assist the south in holding itself together as it journeys towards adulthood as a nation.

Sadly, one of those countries will not be Canada. For well over a decade, Sudan had been a Canadian priority. But just this week, the Harper government, through its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has recommended, “that Canada consider downgrading its development program (in Sudan), or exiting entirely.”

CIDA correctly figured that it was going to prove difficult to administer aid in the south. But that’s the way it has been for decades. Some of Canada’s most effective investments occurred during the civil war’s costliest years. This country, along with the U.S., Britain, the European Union, and others, kept their eye on the ball, slowly but progressively nursing that troubled country into an era where peace became a possibility.

What’s the reason for Canada’s change of heart and focus? According to an internal reportacquired by the Globe and Mail, Sudan is no longer an area of “strategic importance” to this government. Both Foreign Affairs and CIDA have been instructed to implement a new era in international intervention, primarily focused on what’s best for Canadian business. At the moment, little such opportunity seems apparent in Sudan and downgrading this country’s historic investment has been recommended.

All this is transpiring just as Sudan requires not only Canada’s ongoing partnership, but its influential diplomatic expertise. The Globe and Mail’s release of the internal report reveals that all this couldn’t have come at a worse time. In preparation for our trip to South Sudan in a few days, we learned that numerous contacts at various levels have been taken aback by what for them is even more fulsome evidence that Canada has lost its way in recent years.

While the United Nations has put out an emergency appeal for one billion dollars from donor countries to assist the Sudanese effort, tongues have already begun to wag in capitals throughout the West about how Canada appears to have gone AWOL. As one American government official told me today, “It’s now difficult to know how to involve your country in these important security and development issues anymore.”

All this will be embarrassing and not a tad sad to speak about with the Southern Sudanese. But, as with those earlier times, we will remind them that the people of Canada will continue in their interest and investment in a troubled country even as our own government loses interest. But hanging over all of us will be the understanding that Canada is leaving the southern Sudanese to their own fate, in this, their adolescent years as a new nation. Some investment will continue, but our government’s imagination is gone. This is not our finest hour.

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