Thursday, July 30, 2009

Conservative political staff quietly making significant foreign policy changes

Embassy Magazine is reporting that the Conservatives are quietly making significant changes to longstanding Canadian foreign policies: "Leaked DFAIT Memo Documents Struggle Between Conservative Political Staff and Foreign Service." Here's an example of a major change that's been made that has significant implications for Canada's position on seeking legal punishment for the worst kind of violence against women overseas:
In the email, the departmental adviser outlines a number of significant changes made to policy language by political staffers recently. Among them are changes to the "standard docket response" of Canada's position on the violence in Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Suggested changes to this letter include removing the term "impunity" in every instance," he writes. "E.g. "Canada urges the Government of the DRC to take concerted measures to do whatever in necessary to put and end to impunity for sexual violence..." is changed to "Canada urges the government of the DRC to take concerted measures to prevent sexual violence.""

These type of linguistic alterations have become commonplace, the message says.

"Furthermore, the word 'humanitarian' is excised from every reference to 'international humanitarian law.' References to gender-based violence are removed. And in every phrase 'child soldiers' is replaced by 'children in armed conflict.'"

These changes, the adviser implies in the email, have major policy ramifications.

"For example, sentence cited above changes the focus from justice for victims of sexual violence to prevention."

He adds that he doubts whether the political staffers fully understand the significance of their language changes.

"It is often not entirely clear to us why [the minister's] advisers are making such changes and whether they have a full grasp of the potential impact on Canadian policy in asking for some changes to phrases and concepts that have been accepted internationally and used for some time."(emphasis added)
The formalization of the new death penalty policy by Conservatives after it had been struck down by the Federal Court (they created a handbook and a nifty website) suggests that they know what they're doing when making such changes. They want to put their own policy stamp on foreign affairs and apparently one of the things they wish to change is no longer seeking "justice for victims of sexual violence" in nations such as the DRC. That is an important and shocking lessening of the severity of Canada's policy on this issue. As suggested by the staffers at DFAIT, it likely takes us offside of international agreement on the issue.

In terms of what this change addresses, a quick search will turn up information such as this report in the Washington Post: "Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World."
The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are "almost unimaginable," the top U.N. humanitarian official said Saturday after visiting the country's most fragile region, where militia groups have preyed on the civilian population for years.

John Holmes, who coordinates U.N. emergency relief operations, said 4,500 cases of sexual violence have been reported in just one eastern province since January, though the actual number is surely much higher. Rape has become "almost a cultural phenomenon," he said.

"Violence and rape at the hands of these armed groups has become all too common," said Holmes, who spent four days in eastern Congo. "The intensity and frequency is worse than anywhere else in the world."
More, "Churches Support Victims of Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo:"
"We saw the first case of a woman who had been raped and her organs mutilated in 1999. We had never seen anything like this before. Other cases started coming in soon after," explains Bishop Jean-Luc Kuye Ndondo, the South Kivu president of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC).
Within 10 years, there have been over 500,000 such cases, according to Dr Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which specializes in treating women and girls who have become victims of sexual violence.
More here. Our own government website also recognizes such threats.

Why on earth would the Conservative government want to ease its stance on sexual violence against women in the DRC by dropping language in our policy that seeks legal redress? What a terrible signal to be sending to that government and others in the world that see Canada stepping back here. Perhaps Minister Cannon might wish to explain this one.