On Tuesday March 21, 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes Against Humanity (GPG) hosted its first major public event of the year on Parliament Hill from in Centre Block. The event, titled Canada’s Role in Conflict Transformation in Understanding Genocide Prevention and other Crimes Against Humanity – Cases including Syria and the Central African Republic, was unique to the parliamentary setting, featuring interdisciplinary panelists including parliamentarians, UN experts, veterans, NGOs, peace practitioners, and academics – all committed to careers in conflict transformation approaches. In special attendance was the Honourable Irwin Cotler, founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Moreover, over 12 survivors of past and ongoing atrocities from around the world were in attendance including Syria, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, and of Canada’s residential schools. Their presence surrounded the panelists including three who felt comfortable to share their experiences. According to MP Anita Vandenbeld of Ottawa-West Nepean, this was the largest attendance at an all-party parliamentary meeting she has seen yet. Over 10 all-party parliamentarians were in attendance including Ali Ehsassi, Elizabeth May, Garnett Genuis, Rob Oliphant, Hélène Laverdiére, Anita Vandenbeld, Anthony Housefather, Peter Kent, Murray Rankin, Michael Levitt, and Marc Miller. Also in attendance was Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International, Sevag Belian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada, Sylvia Smith, Founder of Project of Heart and Justice for Indigenous Women, Evelyn Korkmaz in representation of Edmund Metatawabin of St. Anne Residential School of Fort-Albany, Ontario, and representatives of Global Affairs Canada.
Three main conclusions come from this meeting:
1) Different cases of genocides continue to happen and it is only from learning and reflection from the shared experiences that we can progress both in prevention and reconciliation.
2) There was a common consensus among present experts military, NGO, UN and survivor experience that transformative approaches are strongly needed in dealing with the various phases of conflict and that involving the military, when absolutely necessary, must be done with wisdom and in conjunction with other peacebuilding strategies in order to best reflect our Canadian values.
3) There was an urgency for greater acknowledgement of what Canada continues to best excel in – Canada has the expertise and reputation to regain its leadership in conflict resolution around the world. What is needed is that more parliamentarians do their part to support and fund prevention of genocide and reconciliation programs.
The meeting began with an opening of indigenous elder Mary-Lou Ihatail and of Ali Ehsassi, chair of the GPG. Urooj Mian, Chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Human Empowerment (SHE Associates) and former founding Executive Director of Women In International Security (WIIS) Canada addressed the legal distinctions between crimes against humanity and genocide which parliamentarians admit is often not clarified in the House. She recognized the systemic killings of the Myanmar Rohinga Muslims is one such case that has not been addressed enough both through media and in parliament. Attendee Conservative member Garnett Genuis agreed with this, and that there must be more all-party effort to act to prevent further killings, far beyond International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Khaled Ibrahim, former Chief of the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) Section of United Nations Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and UN Project manager in Sudan, South Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali provided critical insight into Canada’s next strategies from his career at the UN. He explains that because single countries that take a stand away from being a bystander at UN hold enormous influence, Canada cannot afford to not take a stand.
Considering military and defence, the military has often been the major influence in decision-making and Canadian government spending regarding involvement in international conflict. Veterans also have lived realties in serving abroad, such as the GPG founder LGen Romèo Dallaire, and also encourage objectives that include ensuring parliamentarians do all that is in their power to halt and prevent and crimes against humanity and genocide through understanding long-term approaches. Paul Maillet, a retired Colonel in the Canadian Air Force spoke of the continual painful lessons of countless opportunities where spending could have been more effectively spent on peace operations and saving lives, rather than ammunition. Speaking of our participation in conflicts in the Middle East, the Ukrainian elections, building an Ethics Secretariat in Tanzania, and a Sri Lankan diaspora peace and reconciliation project, the Colonel advocated peace operations, community education and dialogue approaches that Canadian organizations have been initiating for decades. These represent a more human response to transforming communities in conflict to wellbeing and peace. The Colonel acknowledged the shift from war fighting to peace operations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “we’re back” comment with respect to peace operations and conflict. There is no doubt that we need greater political will, and the development of a federal peace institution, such as the proposed Department of Peace to make a real difference and advance the mandate of this parliamentary group.
It is learning from the horrific experiences of survivors and partnerships with conflict resolution professionals that give us the most greatest hope to move forward using transformative approaches such as that of the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution (CICR). Iman Ibrahim, Executive Director of CICR, explained that the CICR institute is a registered charity that has operated for 28 years and worked in over 13 countries providing conflict transformation via its community-based conflict resolution approach. She explained that conflict genocides and crimes against humanity are the tragic products of deep rooted conflict which impacts the core identity of the individuals and generates an on-going pattern of mutual harm and unmet human identity needs. This entraps the parties in ongoing cycles of violence and impunity as we see with Boko Haram, Burundi, Rwanda, Syria, Myanmar, and many other countries. Therefore, to break this vicious cycle and bring real reconciliation, we must deal with these unmet human identity needs and this is what CICR focuses on. Unmet human identity needs are the most common causes of individuals joining terrorist groups. The CICR uses community dialogue and training as intervention tools in its international engagements in addition to domestically delivering training to a wide range of participants including civil servants, police officers, lawyers, social workers, and change agents coming from violent conflict zones. The approach works because it effects transformation on the personal, relational, structural, and cultural levels, and because of its inclusive nature of all stakeholders designed to create champions for reconciliation and peacebuilding. The vast experiences and success stories of transformation demonstrate that Canada has the expertise and reputation to make considerable contributions in the world and what is needed is the political will to support programs for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Canadian citizens and survivors shared their experiences. Rasha Kaba, a Syrian Refugee explained the horror she’s seen when forced out of her home then working with humanitarians to ease the suffering and how she is now working with CICR to bring back training and dialogue that build capacities in Syria. Sandra Barancira, survivor of the first Burundi genocide, warned about the imminence of another genocide in Burundi as well as the urge for prevention. Philibert Muzima, survivor of spill-over Rwandan Tutsi genocide, had his whole family killed as a product of state influenced hate propaganda and shared the same understanding of the horror of state-instigated mass atrocities.
As Honourable, Professor Irwin Cotler addressed additional parliamentary members for the combined meeting with the Raoul Wallenberg All-Party Parliamentary Caucus for Human Rights, “we are on the eve of Canada’s Genocide Prevention Month”, pointing out the three main dangers recognized in (repeated seen in the study of ) genocide prevention in each country’s responsibility to protect civilians: the dangers in forgetting, the dangers of silencing those who speak out for injustice, and the dangers of a bystander community.
From the attendance of all-party parliamentary members, there was unanimous acknowledgement that it starts with empathy. Green Party’s Elizabeth May and newest member of the GPG provided compelling support for the importance of an all-party parliamentary for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Liberal Member Rob Oliphant defended the attending survivors’ courage to speak up. He recognized the need for more all-party collaboration rather than polarization, and emphasized the role of parliamentarians to encourage education, evaluation, and motivation of Canadians. Moreover, Mr. Oliphant mentioned that as part of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association he is co-chairing, he had recently the opportunity to be briefed on the Burundi crisis and the genocide warning signs with Amnesty International, CARE Canada, Oxfam Quebec, and Alliance des Burundais du Canada. He encouraged all concerned parties around the table but especially MPs to actually consider the current Burundi situation as a case-study for genocide prevention.
Conservative Member Garnett Genuis agreed that Canada’s role is not as a super power. He said, “we have a much more important role – promoting genuine efforts of reconciliation puts us in a very unique position internationally to be forthright and fearless in human rights”. Just as he comes from a background of a Jewish grandmother experienced the Second World War persecution, he recognizes that all persons and all parliamentarians must lay down their differences to recognize the same humanity and dignity.
April –Genocide Prevention Month equally recognizes the common horrors of genocides around the world including the Armenian, Ukrainian Holodomor, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, and now the crisis in Syria.
March 24 is UN International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.