The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson


It’s Not All About Bombs

Lieutenant (Navy) Melanie Espina, doctor for the 1st Canadian Field Hospital, Petawawa, and member of the Canadian Armed Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team, examines a local baby during Operation RENAISSANCE, in Sara, Philippines on November 21, 2013. Photo: MCpl Marc-Andre Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS2013-2006-058

OUR FAMILY HAS BEEN WATCHING THE REFUGEE CRISIS with interest, and with good reason. Our one daughter was a southern Sudanese refugee and her brother and sister internally displaced persons (IDPs) before coming to Canada. Our work in South Sudan entails providing essential needs for refugees flooding into the area from surrounding nations. So, yes, the fate of millions with no home (11 million from Syria alone) draws us to our screens.

For Canadians, the discussion on what to do about ISIS has formed the dilemma easily into two parts: keep our military forces in attack mode or pull them out. The focus of hopes and fears has fallen on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and which option he will choose.

It’s likely he will opt for neither exclusively because, as President Obama himself acknowledged, there remain numerous options that the various countries of the 65-member coalition can play. Some pundits presume the experienced president gave the young prime minister a pass, but it could just as easily be that Trudeau provided him a broader array of options.

Not all that long ago the term “smart power” carried a certain appeal. Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, consistently maintained the only a correct balance between “hard” and “soft” power could make any headway in broken states. But with ISIS altering its tactics, transitioning from desert killings to metropolitan onslaught, and the bloody attack on Paris, the needle has tipped decisively in favour of an aggressive Western military response.

Justin Trudeau reasons that numerous countries carry diverse specialties other than mere military might. That was true with both NATO and UN actions in the past and nothing has changed. The coalition intuitively knows they are in for a long struggle, not against a nation with military supremacy, but a group of almost invisible vigilantes that have the potential to strike into the heart of the Western world.

But as with any terrorist organization, their life is made easier in any setting with the pervasive reality of poverty, lack of education and resources, and an enduring sense of hopelessness in the future. It remains virtually impossible to maintain any direct humanitarian effort in Syria itself at the moment, but the role Canada could play, not merely in training soldiers, but in assisting refugees in neighbouring nations could be significant. Our present contribution of fighter jets represents 1% of the overall military strength of the coalition; Canada can clearly contribute better by the using the diplomatic, humanitarian, training, and, yes, military expertise it has gleaned and perfected over decades. That hand is strengthened if Canada isn’t seen as being in the vanguard of the military attacks.

Virtually no leader of the multi-tiered coalition responding to the Paris attacks believes ISIS can be defeated by bombing alone. It will take the seizing of financial assets, likely ground forces, cyber guardianship, working with opposition groups, and a successful outcome of the Vienna talks, which now show a real sign of potential for stabilizing the Syrian homeland. But to that must be added the acceptance of refugees, the struggle against poverty in the region, the use of every diplomatic channel, and the ongoing fight of empowering women in the region. Close to $100 million could build an armed navy vessel. Conversely, it could equip 1,000 diplomats, 10,000 peacekeepers, or a giant water desalination plant.

This is the way Trudeau thinks, and he’s not wrong. The question will be whether he can deliver on soft power in a way that strikes at the very heart of terrorism by removing some of the conditions that breed it. Henry Kissinger noted that diplomacy is the art of restraining unbridled power. To the necessary military response to ISIS must be partnered an accompanying smart series of actions which recognize that military power without humanity is perpetual war.

Those claiming Canada’s response should be to stay in with the jets or get out of military action are greatly underselling Canada’s potential for response. We have a key role to play over the long haul – Obama knows it, as does Trudeau. As war is waged, efforts at peace are the only way to end it effectively.

Standing Still as Humanity Moves


THE FRUSTRATION ON HIS FACE SAID IT ALL, and his emotions weren’t unlike our own. President Obama, like other political leaders, is in a pickle – not because there isn’t the need to help refugees, but because their constituencies are divided as to how to respond. The Paris attacks changed everything, filling the refugee conversations with an intensity and sense of urgency that has made dialogue more difficult.

When reminded that Republican governors (three of whom are running for president) claimed they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, and that even many Congressional Republicans agreed, Obama showed visible pain on his face, believing that America couldn’t abdicate global leadership at a time he believed the country’s compassion was so required.

The purpose of this post isn’t to delve into the many sides of the refugee situation, but to consider the implications of the refugee phenomenon itself and provide something of a longer view.

When we are informed that the past few years have seen more refugees than at any time since World War Two, we get that, and it’s worrying. But it’s revealing when we consider where many of those fleeing that conflict ended up. Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians fled to deepest Africa to escape the horrors of Nazi death camps and deportation. Conditions were brutal and dehumanizing on the journey. Official recognition of their plight was all but impossible – they were on their own. Abysmal refugee camps were established but were soon filled to overflowing, with approximately 35,000 Polish refugees alone. Many came from other beleaguered countries in Europe.

It was revealed later by historians that a number of Jews were travelling in this group. For Jewish refugees themselves, the need to flee their homes was immediate and, in many cases, death-defying. Those attempting to get to Britain came in for something of a shock when movements of citizens wanted to bar their entry. Historian Thomas Harding wrote that, “In Britain, these Jewish refugees were greeted with a mixture of grudging acceptance by some and open hostility by others.” As more and more landed on British shores, Harding adds, “The British government had become fearful of how its citizens would react to a wave of Jewish refugees from Germany, and had clamped down on immigration.”

We know, of course, how Jewish refugees were refused entry to the United States on a number of occasions, but what of those biracial Americans who attempted to escape slavery in America by fleeing to Paris, France, as refuge? In their midst were some of the great artists and musicians of the age and in Paris they found a home they could never enjoy in Harlem.

This is all a reminder that how to respond to millions of refugees isn’t only complex, but frequently ironic. The flowing movement of a desperate humanity from injustice and death is hardly new, nor does the current merely flow one way. Obama knew all this, of course, and his frustrations only grew as a result.

As did those of Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees: “It’s absolute nonsense to try to blame refugees for terror attacks when they were the first victims of such attacks and can’t be held responsible in Paris, Beirut, or elsewhere.” But he wasn’t done. “It’s not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

There is an essential truth in this insight, but it is unlikely to sway those Canadians speaking out against accepting Syrian refugees into Canada. Our country is under strain from a human dilemma that we didn’t ask for but have been forced to confront. The ability of thousands whom we have never met to divide us is a real threat, but the potential for such divisions have come from within ourselves, not from that sea of humanity seeking refuge somewhere … anywhere. The solutions will not prove easy, but will never be possible should we fail to find some kind of consensus, even compromise. We are Canadians, after all, and like it or not, the world prefers to view us as compassionate and accepting.

Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security, delivered a compelling and unexpected challenge to his fellow citizens:

“Civilized nations should see the violence in Paris not as a moment to question our long-held ideals but as a chance to reaffirm them and embrace the most vulnerable among us. It is not just the ethically correct thing to do. This embrace of humanity’s deepest values is itself a rejection of the tortured ISIS worldview.”

ISIS isn’t going away anytime soon, but their duration will extend as long as we give in to the fear and insecurity that undermines the very best of who we are as a people. It is likely that most of us have a refugee somewhere in our ancestry, as many have discovered in recent years. To turn our back now is to deny our very existence and identity. The decision is now ours to make and it will carry an impact far greater than any bomb.

Kayla Mueller is Free


Note:  The blog post is actually from my Huffington Post piece today on Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who died recently.  Her courage and example are just so palpable that I wanted to send it out as a blog post. You can get to the post directly here.

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it,” said Ernesto Guevara. If indeed true, then Kayla Mueller would have spent her final hours in deep assurance and firmness of conviction.

Mueller’s death while under ISIS captivity was a situation full of irony. When ISIS officials, in a letter to her family, claimed that their daughter died from a Jordanian airstrike, the world looked on in disbelief since she had been held captive by ISIS forces since 2013. Her tragic death was due to their barbarism first and foremost, and the fact ISIS officials confirmed Mueller’s death through photos only reminds that one party alone is responsible for a senseless death and a tragedy almost too deep to bear.

The greatest irony of all is the manner in which this courageous young 26-year-old out-reasoned and out-championed her captors till the very end. For one so young, her sense of compassion, commitment, and desire for justice for all people showed a remarkable maturity. She was a brave woman come to terms with her plight and yet proclaiming the need for the freedom of all people. We know all this because we have it in her own words and insights.

“I have been shown in darkness, light, plus I have learned that, even in prison one can be free,” she wrote in her final letter. “I have a lot of fight left in me,” she continued, “and I am not breaking down. I will not give in no matter how long it takes … I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.”

These were the words uttered near the end of her life. Just as revealing were those she wrote to a friend just prior to her capture over a year ago. They represented her reason for being in Syria in the first place and stand in direct opposition to the values of her captors.

“Every human being should act. They should stop this violence. People are fleeing. We can’t bear this. It’s too much. I hope you (her friend Kathleen Day) can tell the entire world what I’ve said here and what I’ve seen.”

What her life couldn’t fulfill, her death has accomplished — we are reading her challenging insights now and her passing is gripping an entirely new generation. Responding to her friend’s words, Kathleen Day noted, “They tried to silence her. They locked her up. They kept us silent out of fear. But now she’s free.”

For those relief and development workers serving in anonymity in some of the world’s most troubled areas, Mueller’s death is a sobering reminder of their own tenuous circumstances. And yet they are there, acting out a compassion and sense of justice that most of us will never discover.

Mueller herself was no novice. More than most, she committed her life to helping others. At home in Arizona she volunteered in a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Then she branched out overseas, working with humanitarian groups in Palestine, Israel, and northern India. She was captured attempting to rescue troubled families in Syria.

In a phrase, Mueller knew what the consequences could be. And yet she went and she thrived in serving humanity in some of its deepest places. She “showed us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on,” said President Obama upon hearing the news of her death.

This world will never get better if we merely observe. In Kayla Mueller we have discovered the very courage it will take to make this world better for our children and other people’s children. Her religious faith helped to carry her through until the end. Whatever it is that strengthens and inspires us, we must now use it to act on this remarkable woman’s words: “We can’t bear this. Every human being should act.” Those who respond to her clarion call have now been given a most marvelous example of human dignity, conviction, and compassion. God bless every memory of you, Kayla Mueller.

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