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Canadian legend Chapter V: Caught in Middle East quicksands

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Just a few months into his reign, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds himself embroiled in Middle East politics. New to the heady world of governance, he jumped into the Syrian refugee crisis with a generous offer of asylum for 25,000 victims of the civil war, to praise from all except a few malcontents at home pepper spraying some refugees in protest. But more serious protests have arisen over two other government policies -- the $15 billion sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and government attempts to quash BDS, the popular campaign to boycott Israeli goods.

Arms for civil rights

Harper's swan song was the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which Harper boasted would provide 3,000 jobs (kind of expensive job creation) by selling weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The combat vehicles with machine guns and anti-tank cannons are clearly intended to 'protect' the Mideast kingdom’s monarchy from internal threats. The proposed sale is now being protested in a class action law suit by University of Montreal professor Daniel Turp. Turp and his group's challenge--Operation Armoured Rights--points to how poorly Saudi Arabia treats its own citizens (47 executions in January, mostly public beheadings) and their horrific bombing campaign in Yemen.

A poll by Nanos Research showed that 60% of Canadians feel it is important to ensure arms go only to countries “that respect human rights” vs providing short term jobs to a few Canadians. The Quebec and Federal Court challenges argue that the Canadian government is violating its own arms-export rules by permitting the armoured vehicles to go to Saudi Arabia. The law states shipments cannot proceed “unless it can be demonstrated there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”

The Trudeau government has rebuffed repeated requests to spell out how it justifies export of these arms, saying this might hurt the “commercial confidentiality” of the deal. “The idea that military equipment made in Canada could contribute to human-rights violations against civilians in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries is immoral. But we also believe that the authorization to export armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia is illegal,” Turp wrote in an open letter.

Protest = anti-Semitism

Then there is the violation of Canadians' rights, implicit in a Conservative motion which was floored last week to condemn Canadian organizations which support the "boycott of Israel", though it fell short of Harper's vow last year to label such criticism of Israel as a "hate crime". As always happens when you violate laws (freedom of speech), you draw attention to the very thing you want to suppress. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign,  now in its eleventh year, cites UN resolutions and echoes the anti-apartheid campaigns against white minority rule in apartheid era South Africa, calling for "various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law".

Ironically, Canadians freely pursued this campaign against Israel under the slavishly pro-Israeli Harper government, and now are faced with the more liberal Liberal government passing a law condemning them. Supposedly the Liberals are doing this reluctantly, merely adding support to the Conservative motion.  But Trudeau is actually carrying through on a rash election promise made while courting fencing-sitting Jewish voters, calling BDS “an example of the new form of anti-Semitism in the world.”

Justin's Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion disagreed with the law, but was forced to defend his boss. "There is no doubt," Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion declared in the House of Commons, that "most of the organizations and individuals supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement are doing so in good faith." He denounced the Conservatives' opposition day motion, which would "condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad", as just more "politics of division." The Tories, Dion whined, are just "bullies" who want to turn the defence of Israel into a partisan issue. They'll portray anyone who votes against their motion as "dissidents."It's not us who wrote this motion," Dion complained, "but we have to vote yes or no."

So what's wrong with a polite "No"? The campaign in Canada is widely supported, including  by the United Church and the Quakers. In 2014, the Canadian Federation of Student's Ontario branch, representing 300,000 students, joined BDS unanimously. The latest campaign is in Trudeau's Montreal, where McGill BDS was formed in February 2016. McGill's Office of Investments shows that the University holds investments in at least four companies that profit from activities in the occupied territories (less than 1% of investments).

The Board of Governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility forbids investment that causes "social injury", a classic reason for disinvestment in Israel. BDS is growing across the border and Europe too. In January, the United Methodist Church in the US divested from five Israeli banks implicated in Israel’s illegal settlements, and French telecom giant, Orange, recently pulled out of Israel.

Then there is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which just filed a lawsuit against the Israeli government junket planned for this year’s Oscar nominees. Musician Brian Eno summed up the irony of sending celebrities to Israel at a time of increased repression against Palestinians: “Visit Palestine! Enjoy a tear-gas filled weekend in an East Jerusalem ghetto!”

The movement has some of its strongest support from within Israel itself. In his acceptance speech in Berlin, Israeli film director, Udi Aloni, winner of the top audience at Berlin Film Festival for Junction 48, labelled the Israeli government "fascist" and urged Germany to cease its military support of the Jewish state, calling Israel a "democracy of white people". Must BDS protesters migrate to Israel to protest Israeli actions?

The BDS parliamentary motion (passed by 229 to 51) will have no legal impact, but it will have a chilling effect on free expression. A similar attempt last month by the Conservative government in Britain raised a loud protest and fizzled. A sad continuation of Harper's slavish support for the pariah state. Another law to be ignored.



Update
: The first casualty of the new 'law' is McGill, where the Board of Governors nixed the student BDS motion shortly after. Not deterred, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) President Thomas Woodley continue their campaign, and launched a new campaign “Go Ahead, Make My Day, Condemn Me.” The group’s Facebook says, “Lets see if [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] lives up to his word and condemns thousands of us standing up for human rights.” They are distributing free “Boycott Israel” sticky notes to post at local stores on Israeli merchandise.

The new 'law' against the BDS did not stop Israeli Apartheid Week events across Canada March 24--28. The University of Toronto Divest Campaign featured presentations by Kwara Kekana (BDS-South Africa) and Amanda Lickers, curator for Reclaim Turtle Island. The University of Toronto divestment campaign continues to gain support from faculty and students.





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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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