Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Geneva conference attendance

December 21, 2001

MP Stephen Owen says Canada was in Geneva as an honest broker.

PAT JOHNSON REPORTER

Canadian government officials are defending their decision to send a delegation to a Geneva conference that perpetuated an anti-Israel bias. The Fourth Geneva Convention, which was held earlier this month, was officially boycotted by Israel, the United States and Australia. It was also unofficially snubbed by numerous other countries that simply did not show up. But Liberal spokespersons say that Canadian attendance at the conference provided an opportunity to register disapproval with the Arab bloc’s commandeering of the meeting.

The Fourth Geneva Convention was intended as an international gathering to set universal rules for the protection of civilians and acceptable actions during wartime.

In the House of Commons Dec. 6, Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray defended Canada’s presence at the conference and said Canada was not party to any anti-Israeli statements.

On the public record, however, any attendees of such a conference are perceived to be in accord with the declaration. The Geneva conference issued a declaration regarding Gaza and the West Bank that called on "the occupying power to immediately refrain from … willful killing, torture and unlawful deportation."

The one-sided terms were particularly offensive in light of the fact that the conference came just days after a spate of Palestinian terrorist attacks killed Israeli civilians.

Nevertheless, Gray told the House, Canada registered its disapproval through a statement of its own. Among the comments issued by Canada was a rebuke of the Palestinians for their use of terror.

"Canadians were outraged by the recent, indiscriminate attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, and offer their sympathy to the victims and their families," read the statement. "There can be no justification for these horrific acts. They serve only to demonstrate contempt for the universal humanitarian principles which have brought us all into this room today."

Opposition critics and some Jewish leaders complained that Canada’s presence there suggested support for the anti-Israeli majority. Stephen Owen, Liberal member of Parliament for Vancouver-Quadra, defended his government’s position in an interview with the Bulletin.

He said the perception that Canada was supportive of an anti-Israeli conference shows the effort that his government needs to go to in order to prevent misunderstandings. He said Canada’s policy is to attend such meetings in an effort to moderate the discussion.

"Canada has a multilateral approach," said Owen. "It goes to these multilateral meetings because, as a middle power – and we’re seen as an honest broker – this is the only way we can have an impact on moderating language, speaking out against declarations, having reservations."

The United States can make a statement by boycotting a conference, he said, but Canada does not have that luxury.

"The U.S. can boycott it, but it’s a large enough force that it can have an impact by boycotting. Canada, as a middle power, [might] boycott and nobody pays any attention." Owen said Canada’s intentions are misunderstood.

"Where we’re not cautious enough is in clearly, expressly and pre-emptively declaring why we’re there and what we’re trying to achieve," he said. "We would hope that the policy over time would be understood, but it isn’t…. We have to be more sensitive and clear about the mediating, moderating role that we play."

Owen said there should be no doubt where Canada stands. "The government policy is, and it has been since 1948, to be wholeheartedly in support [of Israel]," he said.

Owen has become a frequent spokesperson on Middle East relations, perhaps because he represents a riding with a relatively large Jewish population. But he said Middle East peace has always been a concern for him. He was a consultant with the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, which he described as a Bethlehem-based think-tank dedicated to finding innovative approaches to peace.

"I’m very interested in peace studies and conflict negotiations," said the first-term MP. "But I also have a great admiration and sympathy for the struggles that Israel has been under and also a great concern for what I see as the abandonment by the Palestinian people by Arab countries over the last 50 years, without absorbing them into their own countries, without meaningfully dealing with the horrible conditions in refugee camps. I think there’s a lot of responsibility to be shared around."