The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: internationalism

Paris and Avoiding the Human Cost

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THOSE MEETING IN THE ONGOING SESSIONS at the climate change summit in Paris have a number of impending tragedies hanging over their heads. They talk in urgent terms about floods, drought, heat, cold, ocean currents, wind directions, and desertification, but the ultimate concern they face in the next few decades is really about people – millions and millions of them. Worst of all, global leaders still don’t know how to handle the coming onslaught.

We’d be foolish think this will be a future phenomenon. Already a few million such souls are migrating over the earth in search of sustainability and security. It’s just that their numbers are about to get a whole lot bigger … and troubling.

We talked about this before, but it bears repeating. The legal classification of refugees comprises those forced to flee to another country because of conflict or persecution. This is the traditional definition of “refugees” as we know it and they have a whole terminology built around them: quotas, at risk, attacked, insecurity. The United Nations also succeeded in getting the nations of the world to agree on a kind of legal architecture for these individuals and families that has operated for decades.

But climate change refugees aren’t protected by any such privileges. Since they had to leave their ancestral homes because the wells dried up, the rains stopped coming, their region flooded, or the migrating herds moved away, they fall through the gaps of the international legal framework. Worse, there is no clear legal consensus emerging yet as to their status. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that those gathering in Paris in recent days won’t even consider ways to grant protections, status, and rights to those on the move because of the incursions of environmental degradation.

Surely we can’t be surprised at the condition of such refugees. They have lived on the edge of extinction for years, hoping that weather patterns would change to more historic norms. But at last there is no water. Finally their rising sea levels have eradicated their homes and land. No nutrients remain in the soil for crops. The end has come for them in the current place and all that is left is to wander, sometimes for thousands of miles by foot, auto, boat, even just swimming.

While experts have mulled over the intricacies of such refugees for decades, protection and resources will be hard to come by unless they receive legal classification. Leaders thought they had covered all of that back in the 1950s, when the United Nations defined a refugee as one forced to flee because of persecution for a number of causes – religion, ethnicity, race, even owned land. It just didn’t occur to people over a half-century ago that terms like drought, famine, flooding, and storms should have been added to the list.

Central to all of this is that effects from climate change are destined to get a lot worse, even if solutions could be found in Paris this week. What will that mean? According to the International Organization of Migration, some 180 – 200 million climate change refugees will be roving the planet by 2050 – a mere three decades from now!

So, while world leaders ponder terms like parts per million, carbon, flooding increases, degrees centigrade, it is really the term “human” that carries the most pressing urgency for the near future. The problems for climate change refugees won’t be solved by the Paris talks because they aren’t even being included in the negotiations. So count on it: we’ll soon be hearing of tens of millions of desperate people in search of survival. Climate change isn’t all about scientific challenges. Its effects have a human fallout already playing out before our eyes. If we are to alter that future, Paris this week would have been a good place to start.

Election 2015: What in the World?

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IT WAS SUPPOSED TO REMAIN CONFIDENTIAL, and was even marked “secret” on its cover page, but the contents were obtained by the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was it inconsequential.

In a presentation prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a high level meeting two weeks ago, the analysis could be wrapped up in one sentence: “Despite Canada’s reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat.” It wasn’t a conclusion the government would have liked to hear, and so it sought to keep it quiet.

And yet we know it; Canadians have felt the slippage over recent years, but because these issues are at a global level they have felt there is little that they, as citizens, can do. And it appears they may have been right – until now, that is, when their vote could make the difference to whether Canada reclaims its traditional place in the world or continues in its decline.

It’s likely that those senior officials who have held the vital responsibility for diplomacy and international development have been the most aggrieved in recent years, as they have witnessed Canada’s influence erode and struggled to get the Harper government to fulfill and build on its responsibilities. The Globe and Mail states that Foreign Affairs officials put it all plainly:

  • There has been a “loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables
  • Canada is not a “partner of first choice” for foreign countries
  • We have a “declining market share in emerging markets” with fast-developing nations
  • Canada’s “official development assistance is declining,” as other countries like China enhanced their interests through foreign aid

This has been an electoral campaign full of issues that are vital to the Canadian identity. And although such contests tend to repeatedly focus on domestic issues, sometimes the world breaks in through realities that can actually affect how we live here, within our own borders. In the last few weeks we have faced an ongoing refugee crisis, tremors in the world economy, a sluggish major trade deal with Europe, a minor role in military action, and the urgent reality of climate change. In all of these things it is only by partnering with other nations that we can hope to overcome such challenges. And yet we are failing on this key point, opting to chart our own course and veer away from our tradition as a solid trade/development/diplomatic partner.

Last night a debate between the party leaders focused on international affairs, but the reality is that global challenges are part and parcel of every day of this long campaign. It is impossible for domestic politics to rule supreme during an electoral contest when the world is facing challenges on so many fronts. In such a setting, a secret report from highly qualified people telling of our global failings in this crucial hour is hardly comforting.

Canada has historically been a true international country and it’s time we starting act like it. As we lose track of time and our place in history, other nations in the world are emerging.  Perhaps the upcoming election will provide the impetus for us to recapture our status and effectiveness in the global arena once more. As Albert Schweitzer put it: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” It’s time that we, as citizens, helped Canada get back to a place of international influence.

“Election 2015: The World is Watching”

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“WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT,” Jesus asked his generation, “if you gained the whole world but lost your soul in the process?” It was a timely reminder, but there are increasing numbers of Canadians who wonder if their country might be in the process of losing both.

There’s no better time than an election to focus on what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. While it seems like everyone is focused on jobs, the middle class, debt, and taxes at present, we need to remember that a world is watching and that the stakes are higher that just the domestic arena.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark has provided a timely reminder of just what our nation has lost in the past few years. His new book, How We Lead, comes with a certain sense of urgency. “There is a clear disjuncture between Canadians and this government on foreign policy,” he writes, reminding his readers that Stephen Harper “aggressively narrowed” our foreign policy to two issues: trade and military action. He goes to considerable pain to remind us that our history of adroit diplomacy, peacekeeping, and the hearty support of international institutions has been largely swept away in favor of narrow-mindedness, rigorous ideology, belligerence.

“Canada possesses a palpable identity … Our characteristics as a country – diverse, respectful, constructive, modern – are significant assets abroad,” Clark notes. But those days are ending as the Harper government uses diplomacy, development, and defense as wedge issues that serve to divide constituencies at home and abroad.

Clark’s observations found support on the weekend from an article in the New York Times titled, “The Closing of the Canadian Mind” – an article we’ll return to in a later post. Written by Stephen Marche, a novelist and writer for Esquire Magazine, who happens to live in Toronto, the article opens up with a frank declaration:

“The nine and half years of Mr. Harper’s tenure have seen the slow-motion erosion of that reputation for open, responsible government, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”

Ouch, and yet it’s true. We might choose to ignore it, but leaders and parliaments around the world know that Canada has changed, and narrowed in its interests. Contacts that this author has nurtured over the years in the international cooperation and development field confirm this repeatedly, with leaders both in the diplomatic and development communities expressing their desire for the day when Canada returns in respect to the family of nations.

Yet that might not prove as easy as we think. Joseph Hall noted that, “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack is.” Our nation’s present reputation as a more mean-spirited and narrow version of its former self has already had debilitating consequences, as when we were turned down for a spot on the UN Security Council, or the global shaming we repeatedly face for how we avoid effective action on climate change. Whether one agrees with such actions or not, the effect on the global community has, and continues to be, chilling. Harper’s recent decision to close down the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), through which most of our international aid and development dollars were channeled, has only made things worse.

Now that the government’s commitment to military exploits is in decline, it was perhaps inevitable that the Harper government would be called out repeatedly for how it treats its returning veterans. With military actions now sidelined, all that is left for this present government is its voice in the economic arena, and even there it is losing its reputation for prosperity mixed with social responsibility.

It is likely that most citizens around the world are hardly aware of this country’s decline in stature. Yet for those individuals and organizations Canada must partner with in numerous fields around the world, the wish for this nation to return to its previous exploits in diplomacy, foreign service, international development, and, yes, an economic policy that takes into account our global responsibilities, is more poignant than ever. They are waiting for us to show up again on the world stage, but first we Canadians will have to show up in the ballot box.

Taking Civil Society Global

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SO, THE WORLD DOESN’T SEEM TO BE DOING SO GREAT. As Henry Kissinger reminds us in his latest book, World Order, the dominant governance system developed during the Cold War is giving way to outright confusion around the globe. No one knows quite how to pick up the pieces and fashion something more equitable and prosperous.

Brazil, China, Russia, even Iran, are challenging the status quo in everything from nuclear power to climate change. The traditional players, like Canada itself, seem to be in some kind of holding pattern, preferring to hold their cards close than actually get out there and assist in developing a better global order.

The European Union has 28 members, dismal economic growth, a troubling economic decline, and a badly fraying network that at times seems doomed. There is Spain, with its 27% adult unemployment and a deeply disturbing 52% youth unemployment. No one yet knows what kind of bankrupt Greece might have on the world economy.

And that hotbed of global complexities that has been with us for decades – the Middle East – appears more unstable than ever.

The governing elites appear constantly flummoxed with a world in change, just as the markets and their investors remain jittery over what lies over the horizon for the global economy.

All this means an opportunity for civil society groups around the world to develop a different kind of architecture, where human values, mixed with economic and political reform, might shine a light on a better way forward. “Pie in the sky,” some will surely say, but they’re wrong. The United Nations has never witnessed more activities around citizens engagement and is reformatting many of its funding formulas to resource the efforts. This isn’t just about grand protests or rebellion, but about a teeming amount of examples where people are organizing to reshape policy, to recapture those places where people actually live, and to develop ideas where “wealth” isn’t merely the paradise of the few.

All this is happening when the civic space is actually in decline. One organization, CIVICUS, monitors global threats to the public space and has concluded that 193 countries are, in fact, undergoing civic decline through. This civic renewal isn’t happening as a matter of course, but as a distinct response to what millions of citizens are regarding as the threat to the way of life they want. And that danger is coming from powerful forces that can never be defeated without global cooperation among civil society groups themselves.

The shutting down of open media, the refusal to allow civic gatherings, dubious imprisonments, the pulling of charitable status of charity and non-profit organizations who speak out against what is going on in many Western nations – these and so many more injustices are now producing an opposite and, at times, and equal reaction.

These organizations aren’t stupid; neither are they naïve. Refusing to merely blame spineless governments for these lack of protections, they are also going hard at the financial sector for attempting to make billions out of all this confusion and mess.

All this isn’t about just specific issues like climate change, poverty, conflict, war, and unemployment. Ultimately it’s about whether civil society groups can join hands around the globe and count on one another to guard each other’s backs and to work together at serious ideas of reform. Europe is far ahead in such matter, with Americans now increasingly showing signs of stirring.

Which leaves us with Canada. All these things bring angst to us as well, but Canadians remain docile in the face of media monopoly, government obtuseness, environmental decline, and a new poverty class that threatens to undermine much of what is prosperous unless we take the problem seriously. Canadians are not an apathetic people, but they are distracted and increasingly check out of those things that might bring about the needed reforms.

The technological tools are our disposal would instigate the envy of every generation that preceded us, and yet we can’t seem to marshall them to capture the public space back and guarantee individual liberties in the process. Yet all the technology means little if there is no political will, and right now Canadians are less inclined to engage in official political exercise than they have been since Confederation. They are engaged, but just not in those areas what change must happen the most – the hubs of power.

“Security is not a license for people in authority to hide tactics they would never openly admit using,” says John Hemry, and yet we are seeing everywhere and globally. One lantern won’t shed enough light, but millions just might.

A Woman’s Place Is In The …

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IN A COUPLE OF DAYS, JANE HEADS TO SOUTH SUDAN with two other formidable women to oversee our projects in that troubled region of Africa.  It happens every year, regardless of circumstances either here at home or over there.  Commitment like Jane’s knows no irregularities.

I was asked for coffee by someone last week who wanted me to know that I wasn’t fulfilling my role as a husband because I was letting my wife head into a conflict region.  “She needs you there to take care of her, Glen, in case something happens,” he observed.

For the next 30 minutes I took him through Jane’s remarkable exploits around the world, in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia.  I told him of when she travelled for days through the mountains of Turkey in order to drop into Iraq during the First Gulf War.  She came down out of those cold elevations only to land at a military camp that was struggling to assist thousands of refugees.  When Jane offered to assist, the ranking officer asked, “Do you anything about distributing food?”  She smiled and nodded (she didn’t inform him she directed a food bank) and he put her in charge of the entire operation.  The thought of it still inspires me: a camp of very strong, dedicated and capable men turning to a woman they didn’t know to take the lead – truly remarkable.

I finally put my hand on the man’s shoulder in that coffee shop and said: “If you were ever in Sudan with us (as so many have been), you would quickly understand that it’s Jane that hits the ground running and that it’s me who looks to her for guidance and not the other way around.”

Jane and I have literally been through the wars in numerous regions around the globe and I’ve come to understand one of the secrets to her effectiveness.  Rather than talk endlessly about a woman’s place in the world, she just lives it.  She always finds it deeply troubling that so many people aspiring to full equality fail to show any interest in those regions of the world where women have no advantages or access whatsoever.  And so she journeys to those regions and fights for women’s rights in places where it’s remarkably difficult to achieve any such victory.  There is action to her words and the women in places like Sudan know that they have found someone from the West who can reach out past her own confines to help in those regions where the darkness around women’s lives is the most pervasive.

But it’s not just about Africa, Asia, South America or Eastern Europe.  She dedicates herself to working at the food bank because she is fully aware that it is primarily women who suffer through the encroaching clutches of systemic poverty.  She always wonders why people who claim equality as a lofty goal don’t undertake greater efforts to assist women struggling on low-income or in aboriginal communities.

True equality between men and women will never come until we all apply our efforts to those very regions where women face the greatest struggles.  To seek equality in Canada while ignoring the developing world is to miss the point and, sadly, to miss the opportunity to assist two billion women who suffer for our lack of being able to extend our values to where they are truly needed.  For women in general, their community is far more vast that mere geography, and journeys wherever their solidarity is required.

We must always struggle for the right of any woman to lead, follow, run for politics or manage a company – wherever her dreams take her.  But surely her horizon can’t overlook women who can’t find water, suffer from HIV, can’t breastfeed their children, or protect their villages from violence.  One woman’s fight for equality is necessarily every woman’s fight, and this is something Jane just lives out in her life with no need to preach it.  Her life is her sermon.  Her actions are her policy.  Her faithfulness is her politics.  And her husband and children are her debtors.

I was to travel with Jane in a couple of days, but when a Sudanese woman expressed her deep desire to be with her people in their struggle, Jane and I both agreed that I should let her have my seat.  But we needn’t worry that in that male-dominated part of the world that Jane will be all the poorer for the lack of her husband’s presence.  She will debate, woo, charm, and fight with those leaders to get the schools built, our water projects functioning, and in keeping the woman’s micro-enterprises in the solid ownership of the women themselves.

It will be me who will the poorer for her absence.  I will feel slightly lost and somewhat incapable of overseeing our remarkable amount of responsibilities.  But I will know that this one remarkably capable citizen will be reminding everyone that a woman’s ultimate place of effectiveness is in the world – shaping it, loving it, confronting it, elevating and refining it. Jane is a constant reminder that a woman’s world must include all women, especially those on the margins.  A man married to such a person captures his own hope through such an example.

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