Aligning with Bush’s axis of evil and violating international law is no laughing matter

By Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the Official Opposition

Again today we are debating the Prime Minister’s military adventures. The Prime Minister is again preparing to ask our brave troops to risk their lives overseas. This issue has come before the House a number of times already. As the official opposition, we have asked the questions that needed to be asked.

Many of these questions remain unanswered, but others forced the government’s hand. They forced the government to do or redo its homework. For example, not six months ago, I specifically asked the Prime Minister whether Canadian soldiers would be involved in directing air strikes in Iraq and painting targets on the ground. Hon. members no doubt remember that.

In fact, I asked him the same question twice. Both times, the Prime Minister answered with a resounding no. Now we know that was simply not true. I also asked the Prime Minister whether Canadian soldiers would be on the front lines. Again, the Prime Minister answered with a resounding no. Unfortunately, again, we know that was simply not true.

The very foundation of this House, the foundation of everything we do here, is prescribed by law, not just the laws of Canada, but international law as well. These laws are put in place precisely to guide us to reason in the face of danger, to protect us not just from those who seek to harm us, but from our own missteps. To abandon the law so recklessly for the sake of political expediency, as the Prime Minister seems eager to do, threatens the very principles we were sent here to defend.

Last week, the Prime Minister stood in the House and sought permission to extend the misguided war in Iraq to a dangerous new phase in Syria, a country already torn apart by years of bloody civil war, ruled by a brutal dictator and war criminal. I asked the Prime Minister repeatedly what his legal basis was for this dangerous new escalation. As members will remember, he thought his lawyer answer was quite clever and funny. I put it to members that was, in fact, his “whip out your CF-18” moment. I can assure the House that the families of the brave women and men whose lives he seeks to put on the line do not find this a laughing matter.

Depending on the day, in fact depending on the time of day, the government gives differing and contradictory legal grounds for expanding the Prime Minister’s war: maybe it is criminality; maybe it is the genocide convention; maybe it is section 51 of the UN charter; or maybe, as the Prime Minister suggested, international law does not apply to us at all. That is simply ludicrous.

The Conservatives’ propensity for attacking the United Nations has led to extraordinary improvisation by the Prime Minister, his Minister of National Defence— the number of blunders he has made this week is incredible—the Minister of Foreign Affairs and various parliamentary secretaries. The NDP, the official opposition, has had to ask specific questions, and I have had to personally expose the Prime Minister’s ridiculous position in order to force the government to do its homework and to inform the UN in writing of its intentions.

Here is what we know. Canada does not have permission to conduct air strikes in Syria, a basic requirement under international law. Let me say that again, because contrary to what the Prime Minister thinks, this is vitally important. Canada does not have the legal grounds to conduct air strikes in Syria, full stop. “But our friends are doing it” is actually not a legal defence. That sort of childish reasoning is more suitable to the schoolyard than it is to the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister should know better.

The fact is that what the government is proposing will put our Canadian Forces in the dubious position of acting outside of international law. The New Democrats will not stand for it.

As I outlined last week, our view is that this is simply not Canada’s war to fight. It is not a UN mission. It is not a NATO mission, despite the government’s attempts to give it that aura with a visit last week. The United Nations Security Council has passed three resolutions dealing with the situation in Iraq, and not one of those resolutions authorized military action.

The fact is that the Americans have been fighting in Iraq for over a decade with very little success. Canada should have no part in it. We were right to stay out of that fight in 2003, despite the Prime Minister’s objections at the time when he was in opposition. He wanted us to be there, and he wrote in United States’ newspapers that Canada should have been involved since 2003. He is trying to grant his own wish today.

It did not make sense for Canada then and it does not make sense for Canada today. That does not seem to matter to the government or to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is intent on sleepwalking Canada into this war, and he is misleading Canadians to get his way.

Remember, this operation began as a 30-day mission. That transformed into a 6-month mission. Now we are looking at a year or more. Just last week, officials from the Department of National Defence said that they expected the mission in Iraq and Syria to last for many years, not one year but years. That the Prime Minister has not said a word about that is most troubling.

Members will recall that Canadian forces were only supposed to advising and assisting Iraqi troops, not accompanying them. The Prime Minister said that there would be no combat role for us on the front lines. Now we know that not only are Canadian troops on the front lines, but they are exchanging gunfire with ISIL militants. The death of Sergeant Doiron is a tragic reminder of the kind of danger they are in.

The Prime Minister also said that Canadian forces would not be painting targets for air strikes, something that even the U.S. military is unwilling to do. Of course, we now know that they are doing exactly that.

Military strategists tell us that to be successful a mission requires two specific things: a clear objective and an exit strategy. The Conservatives have neither for the deployment in Iraq and Syria. They simply do not have a plan. They have no strategy other than their domestic political agenda, and everything they say betrays it. This jeopardizes not just Canada’s credibility, but also the safety of our troops.

Our soldiers are exchanging gunfire with the Islamic State in the theatre of operations, contrary to what the Prime Minister himself promised here in the House of Commons. The fact that the Prime Minister continues to deny that Canadian soldiers are involved in combat is simply ridiculous. Soldiers deployed to the front are very much at risk. The death of Sergeant Doiron reminded us that the risks are all too real.

At the same time, our allies are not even going near the front lines. Canadian soldiers have to go to the front to identify the targets for air strikes. Americans are not doing that. U.S. headquarters will not allow them to go there.

Why are the Conservatives allowing this, despite all their promises? They have never given a reason.

It is difficult to have faith in anything the government says when everything it has told us so far has been false. When the Minister of National Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Prime Minister contradict each other on an almost daily basis, how is the public to judge?

It is clear that the government has no plan and no long-term strategy, yet it is asking our women and men in uniform to shoulder the burden of its improvisation.

Today, one of Canada’s most respected defence journalists, David Pugliese, wrote an extraordinary article in the Ottawa Citizen with the heading, “General Tom Lawson tries to dig” the Minister of National Defence “out of a bomb crater of his own making”. It is quite extraordinary because what he proves black on white is that the Minister of National Defence has made statements to the Canadian people on mainstream television that are demonstrably patently false. Canadians deserve better. Our brave women and men in uniform deserve better.

There is simply too much at stake for this type of utter mismanagement. The decisions we are making here are literally life and death decisions. It is time the government started taking that job seriously.

The fact is that after 12 years of war, more bombs are not the answer. Worse still, going into Syria could backfire. Civilian casualties could be higher because Canadian pilots would not have the ground support to direct precision bombings. ISIL would only use any civilian casualties as another recruitment tool.

Air strikes in Syria implicate Canada in Syria’s civil war. Bashar al-Assad has brutally murdered masses of peaceful protesters. He has used chemical weapons against his own people. He has been using snipers against women and children. He deliberately fuelled the rise of violent extremists in order to weaken the moderate Syrian opposition. We know that he co-operated with ISIL. He released its prisoners. We know that he is benefiting from air strikes to seize more territory in Syria. That is why his foreign minister said that Assad and the west are now aligned. Let us not forget that this was a charter member of George W. Bush’s axis of evil. Who else is aligning with us other than Syria? Iran, which is another charter member. All we are missing is North Korea.

This is a serious ethical problem for Canada. Dismissing it betrays the government’s lack of knowledge about a region that could suck Canada into decades of conflict. The Prime Minister tells Canadians that we can either bomb Iraq and Syria or sit on the sidelines. That is another of his false choices. Over 60 countries are united against ISIL. The vast majority of our allies are not taking part in air strikes. There are only six, the United States and a small group of Arab countries, that are bombing Syria. Surely the Prime Minister would not want to suggest that all other allies are sitting on the sidelines.

Our choice is not between bombing or nothing. The NDP has put forward serious alternatives, a plan that emphasizes what Canada was asked to do, a plan that emphasizes what we can do best and most effectively. Our limited resources can be much more effective in fighting ISIL and its ideology if we avoid sleepwalking into an ever-expanding military conflict and focus on a robust humanitarian mission.

Security Council resolutions on ISIL require action to prevent the flow of foreign fighters, financing and resources to ISIL. Canada can take leadership to meet these international obligations. The government has completely failed to do so. The NDP amendment would change that. Canada should finally sign and ratify the arms trade treaty to help end the flow of weapons to illegal armed groups. Canada remains the only NATO country that refuses to sign this important international agreement. That is a black mark on Canada’s record. Canada should also partner with domestic communities to develop a strategy to counter radicalization.

Above all, there is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support. A quarter of Lebanon’s population is in fact Syrian refugees. The crisis is pushing an already fragile country to the brink.

A majority of UN humanitarian appeals for Iraq and Syria remain unfunded. The World Food Programme has said that its operations in Iraq are only financially viable until May. The same program had to suspend food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees just last December.

On the governance front, Canada can also help build sustainable governance in Iraq. Sunni frustrations with the central government in Baghdad facilitated the rise of ISIL. Iraq needs inclusive and representative governance to remove the conditions for violent extremism to take root.

Local frustrations led to the increase in radicalization. Only a competent, inclusive and representative local government that is in a position to communicate effectively can put an end to the extremist threat in this region. Obviously, a strong campaign is needed to counter the extremist messages, either here at home or over there. However, this will be impossible to achieve with the Prime Minister targeting the Muslim community and using Muslims as scapegoats instead of reaching out to them.

Canada can play a positive role in the region. We can help our Turkish ally, a NATO member, take care of 1.5 million refugees. We can use the diplomatic, humanitarian and financial channels at our disposal to strengthen the political institutions in Iraq and also in Syria. We cannot simply say that we will do something. We must take action. However, it is not a matter of choosing between combat and inaction. That is yet another false choice from the Conservatives.

People are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. We know that children died of cold this winter in refugee camps, which is completely unacceptable. These are Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish children who had fled the Islamic State. Canada has the expertise and could have helped winterize these camps. We are no strangers to winter. We could have saved these children. It is a matter of priorities. A matter of choice.

Our choice is not between bombing or doing nothing. Our choice is between the Prime Minister’s ever expanding war or the New Democrats’ focus on a robust and effective humanitarian role. Canadians will have that choice, a new government, a new mandate in October 2015. The New Democrats will immediately end Canada’s participation in this war.