Dion’s most recent blunder was an ill-considered Tweet questioning the appointment of respected Canadian professor Michael Lynk as the UN’s new Special Rapporteur to the Palestinian Territories.
Based on denunciations advanced by interested lobby groups supporting Israel, Dion asked the United Nations Human Rights Council to review their selection of Professor Lynk – a move that the Canadian Association of University Teachers said “damaged” the accomplished academic’s reputation. Dion made no effort to contact the man at the centre of the storm – Michael Lynk, before publicly questioning his qualifications for the job.
It didn’t matter. Despite Dion’s superficial intervention, the President of the UNHRC confirmed Lynk’s appointment. Interestingly, the minister’s office didn’t respond to a request from iPolitics for a response to the UN’s reaffirmation of Professor Lynk – a position endorsed by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and 40 other countries. Nor has Minister Dion given the “independent” reasons he tweeted his request for a review.
Bottom line? Dion has ended up looking petty, petulant and ill-informed. Worse, his meddling in a UN matter made the Trudeau government look a lot like its predecessor – an impression that will not help this country get a seat on the Security Council in 2020, or restore Canada’s battered relationship with the UN, left in tatters after a decade of Stephen Harper’s antipathy toward the world’s most important international institution.
This was not the first time that Dion failed to make good on the promise that Canada’s role in the Middle East, and in particular its relationship with the Palestinians and the Israelis, would not be a matter of partisan politics. The Liberals, including the Foreign Minister, supported a motion by the Opposition Conservative Party to reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The BDS movement sprung up in 2005 around the contention that Israel denies equal rights to Arabs both inside the Jewish state and in the occupied territories. It’s goal is to impose non-violent, punitive measures aimed at pressuring Israel into doing three things: ending its occupation and colonization of Arab lands; dismantling the wall cutting off Palestinian communities from Israel; and accepting UN resolution 194 which guarantees the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes.
And that is why the government’s, and Dion’s, support of the Conservative motion was so contradictory and disappointing.
Canada has traditionally been a staunch supporter of international law. Accordingly, it has adopted the policy that Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories are illegal. So how could a movement dedicated to redressing those illegalities be rejected as anti-Semitic or an existential attack on Israel? Is official Canadian foreign policy also anti-Semitic and a threat to Israel?
It gets worse. The Conservative motion put forward by Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel also called for the government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here and abroad.”
In one supportive vote, the Trudeau government agreed that trying to hold Israel to account for illegal acts was equal to “demonization” and “delegitimization”.
Again, the motion also said that anyone who didn’t see it that way would now be “condemned” by their own government. Perhaps that’s why Liberal MP Rene Arsenault told iPolitics that he voted against the Conservative motion:
“From my point of view, it restricts too much of freedom in Canada to criticize any state,” he said.
And of course he was as right in voting against the motion as Dion was wrong in voting for it.
And what was Dion thinking when he defended the disgraceful $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia by saying that if Canada didn’t sell weapons to one of the most repressive regimes on earth then someone else will? No wonder Louise Arbour, a former member of Canada’s Supreme Court and past United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced the minister’s argument as hopelessly weak.
Dion has apparently forgotten that in King Salman’s Saudi Arabia, women can’t even enter a Starbucks store; that the regime arrests, imprisons, tortures, and executes human rights advocates and government critics; and is conducting a brutal war against neighbouring Yemen in which 6,200 Houthis, half of them civilians, and 934 of them children, have been killed. Dion’s defence makes Canada a commercial accomplice of these practises.
The point is this: Whether human rights would have remained unchanged in Saudi Arabia if Canada didn’t sell the Sunni dictatorship weapons is irrelevant. The heart of the matter is what does Canada become by putting the weapons that kill into their hands for profit. In law, a person providing the weapon or driving the getaway car is just as guilty as the person who pulls the trigger if he had reason to believe that violence was planned. Dion, and the Canadian government, know full well what those armoured vehicles will be used and what they are intended to do.
Louise Arbour nailed the obvious flaw in Dion’s argument: “It is not infused with moral, ethical values.” And one of Dion’s own staffers, Jocelyn Coulon, was not far off the mark when he told the Globe’s Stephen Chase that Saudi Arabia had simply “bought the silence” of Western countries through lucrative contracts like the one negotiated by the Harper government and endorsed by its Liberal successor.
Now there are media reports that the Trudeau government’s response to flak about the Saudi arms deal is information control. A new government assessment of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record will be “sanitized” for the public.
The technical justification to one side – that such redactions will protect Canada and Saudi relations, can’t hide the obvious intention. The government wants to turn down the heat on the deal – and itself — by minimizing the Kingdom’s dire offences. While countries like Belgium, Sweden and Germany are declining to sell weapons to the Saudis, the Trudeau government is looking for ways to lull Canadians into the notion that they aren’t such bad business partners after all.
The puzzle in all this is how far Dion’s actions are from the new government’s stated mantra of real change, transparency, and a return to Canadian values compared to the Harper years. What happened to the Dion who has done such great services for the country in earlier years?
Dion was the lonely federalist who stood up to the hatred of Quebec nationalists and delivered the Clarity Act, a piece of legislation that made it much harder for separatists to break up Canada. He is also the man who got the Kyoto Accord extended beyond 2012, a visionary and principled stand that made him a hero to the Canadian environmental movement. What became of that politician?
Perhaps it is true of Dion what former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff once wrote of his own political career: “I pursued the flame of power and saw hope dwindle to ashes.”
“Fire and Ashes” is no substitute for the promised sunny ways.
Author: Michael Harris