Wednesday, September 10, 2008

elections (III): Canada

According to polling done for the CBC just before Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor-General to issue the writ to dissolve Parliament and have an election on 14 October 2008, the three most important issues on the minds of Canadians were: 1) healthcare; 2) the environment; 3) the economy.

Fourth on the list, being of most concern to only 5% of those polled, was the Afghan war. This is, to my mind, very disappointing. My reasoning here is fairly straightforward: in an election a country can consider those issues that affect the citizens of the country, and make a judgment as to which political party is most likely to address their concerns. What directly affects Canadians? Healthcare, our environment, and the economy.

Alternatively, in an election a country can consider those issues through which the citizens of a country directly affect the citizens of another country, and make a judgement as to which political party is most likely to address their concerns. Where in the world is Canada most directly affecting the citizens of another country? Afghanistan.

Much of what Canada is doing in Afghanistan is entirely laudable: supporting the education system, supporting the healthcare system, supporting the economy--issues of which Canadians know the importance, because we face similar issues, although of a different magnitude. Where what we are doing is different, however, is obvious: the military mission.

Today the Prime Minister has said that Canada's mission in Afghanistan 'as we've known it' will end as agreed by Parliament in 2011. Presumably, that means reducing the military role and increasing even more the developmental role. To my mind, that date is too far away. It is not too far away because of the numbers of dead Canadians: 97 soldiers, 1 diplomat, and, of course, 2 aid workers. Terrible as that is, it is too far away because of that other matter which the media tends not to report: the number of dead innocent Afghan children, women and men. No one seems to accurately know how many civilians have been killed in the Afghan war. It is a statistic that, if known, is not released. Human Rights Watch, a respected New York-based non-governmental organization, has offered a number of figures for civilian deaths in recent years, most of which are inconsistent with previous reports. Thus, in its most recent 8 September 2008 report on civilian bombing casualties Human Rights Watch suggests that in 2006 116 Afghan civilians were killed in 13 bombings. In 2007 321 Afghan civilians were killed in 22 bombings, while hundreds more were injured, and more Afghan civilians were killed by airstrikes than by US and NATO ground fire. In the first seven months of 2008 at least 119 Afghan civilians died from airstrikes, according to Human Rights Watch.

While we do not know how many innocent have died, this is clearly too many. Moreover, one cannot hide from an inescapable fact: Canada is an active perpetrator in these civilian deaths. We do not know how many innocents Canadian soldiers have killed, but let us not forget that on 28 July 2008 cannon fire from a Canadian troop carrier killed a 2 year old boy and a 4 year old girl--children killed because their father's car came within 10 meters of the troop carrier. What makes this case unique is that most civilian deaths by Canadian troops go unreported (although not for lack of trying--I am sure The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith would report it if he could obtain such information). These 2 deaths are not only 2 too many, but are also in all likelihood the tip of the iceberg, in terms of civilian deaths and injuries directly attributable to the activities of the Canadian Forces.

The response of the Department of Defence to those lamentable deaths is a keen indication of how this war is being fought, and its attitude to civilian deaths, most notably amongst the Department of Defence: the Department has hired Blackwater, the US company that supplies 'contractors' (for which read mercenaries) to train Canadian troops in better understanding Afghan culture and society. This is the company which in 2007 killed 17 Iraqis, of whom at least 14 were killed 'without cause'. Blackwater's training is to enhance force protection, not reduce the numbers of dead civilians.

Canadian soldiers are killing innocent non-Canadians in a land that is far away: our country is doing harm to families, to communities in a place that we do not know. Surely this should be what the election is about?

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