3. Human Security (1994 – 1999)
It was common in the ‘90s to refer to the “peace dividend” generated by the end of the Cold War. Resources previously devoted to building nuclear weapons and simultaneously deterring their use, in a balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union, could now be deployed to foster peaceful growth. Even the nuclear armaments themselves could be put to use by converting their weapons-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors.
The immediate post-Cold War years were certainly the most optimistic era for international relations in my lifetime. Fears about global warming did not figure in public consciousness as widely as they do today. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was not the dreaded scourge that would lead to the bolstering of physical security in public places everywhere. China, notwithstanding the political repression laid bare at Tiananmen in 1989, was charting a course toward economic growth that the rest of the world wanted to participate in. The time had come for Russia and the West to shed their adversarial pasts and become partners. One could envisage Russia becoming a “normal” European country.
The Canadian foreign affairs minister who tried the most to craft a new foreign policy taking advantage of the peace dividend was Lloyd Axworthy. Appointed by Prime Minster Chrétien in 1996, he advocated in his four-year term at the department’s helm a new approach to foreign policy which he described as the “human security agenda.” It was an inventive way of trying to reconcile “interests” and “values.” Diplomatic realists contend that a country’s interests form the foundation of its foreign policy. Idealistic pursuit of a policy based on values, such as promoting democracy and human rights, can never prevail over a country’s security or commercial needs. Axworthy sought to bridge the gap by arguing that promoting values enhanced the pursuit of our interests.
Axworthy’s turn as foreign minister was not the opening act in the Chrétien government’s foreign policy performance, however. Chrétien’s first minister after 1993 was André Ouellet, the Liberals’ Quebec kingpin who had uninterrupted service as an MP since 1967. Ouellet had little experience in, and less affinity for, international relations. His focus seemed to be primarily how he could use his position to better cement Quebec’s attachment to the Liberal party.
Ouellet’s ministry proceeded in a desultory manner, with the minister generally following a traditional agenda of bilateral and multilateral engagements without articulating any particular vision. Tellingly, my chief recollection of Ouellet’s tenure was an uncomfortable exchange over the appointment of the department’s “advertising agent of record.” Most departments name an agency that will carry out any necessary advertising to promote its programs and services. The competition had more-than-the usual attractiveness to a would-be contractor since the winner would have access to funds set aside for a so-called, government-wide “jobs and growth agenda.” A large portion of this “envelope” would be used to raise the profile of federal services in Quebec. The object: to sway Quebec voters and soften support for sovereignty. Foreign Affairs was implicated in the sense that we were responsible for trade agreements that stimulated trade and boosted the economy, as well as for our trade commissioner service helping firms get access to world markets for goods, services and investment. The “jobs and growth” fund would later come under scrutiny by the federal auditor general and, later, by the Gomery inquiry into the “sponsorship scandal.”
Holding a competition for the foreign affairs contract fell under the responsibility of the trade communications division, of which I was acting director at the time. My deputy, Paul Fortin, managed the competition which involved three bidders, and on selecting the winner, Vickers & Benson, in partnership with a Quebec firm Groupe Everest, I advised, via memo, minister Ouellet’s office. Shortly thereafter, I was told that Ouellet was not happy with the choice, would not endorse the recommendation and would prefer to hold another competition. Fortin, consulting officials at Public Works and Government Services, informed me that, in accordance with government guidelines, the minister did not have the right to second-guess a duly conducted tendering process. My job was to tell that to Ouellet’s office, which I did.
My advice was not happily received, and I was asked to reconsider. I said that, following the rules, I could not. I was expecting further pressure but received none. In the following years up until 1999, when the partnership of Groupe Everest and Toronto-based Vickers & Benson was the department’s agent of record, the company received contracts for “creative services” amounting to $636,572, and up to $93,000 in commissions for placing advertising, some of it disbursed, under the “jobs and growth agenda”. Groupe Everest would be one of five communications agencies named as taking advantage of the funds in the sponsorship program. Gomery saw “no evidence of abusive practices such as billing hours not worked, exaggeration of time charges and over-billing.” However, the firm did contribute $194,832 to the Liberal Party of Canada between 1996 and 2003 from revenues at least partly derived from its government contracts. So, irrespective of the probity of the tendering procedure that I had to defend, the delivery of Groupe Everest’s contract was not without its issues to the degree that Gomery found its management “at best dubious and at worst unethical.”
I never learned what would have been Ouellet’s preferred advertiser, or even if he had one. It was noted by the Gomery inquiry that Groupe Everest had a particularly close association with Finance Minister Paul Martin who, with little effort to disguise it, was already manoeuvring to unseat Prime Minster Chrétien as Liberal leader. Ouellet, a Chrétien ally, would not have wanted to give material support to a Martin ally. But what I did learn was that a civil servant can draw the line, where warranted, against ministerial wishes. If the result was no gleaming achievement, it was a turf war win under Marquis of Queensbury rules, and the strict procedures that I had followed protected me and my office against any allegations under the sponsorship scandal.
We were soon spared further involvement with Ouellet’s curiously domestically focussed foreign policy agenda with the appointment of Lloyd Axworthy to the ministry in January 1996.
Axworthy brought a fresh and innovative approach to the role, predicated on his human security agenda. As a member of the parliamentary press gallery between 1985 and 1990, I had frequently covered Axworthy who, as an MP for Winnipeg, was at the time the lone Liberal voice from western Canada, other than Liberal leader John Turner (Vancouver-Quadra). Axworthy was frequently vilified by his Conservative opponents as having views far to the left of most Canadian voters. But he bristled at this criticism. He maintained his views on foreign policy were founded on the view that individual liberty was paramount, arguing that foreign policy should seek to champion a world order that fostered the safety and prosperity of all citizens. In this he placed himself, he contended, at the heart of classical liberalism which privileged the interests and rights of individuals over the impositions of authoritarian states.
In a speech on human rights and Canadian foreign policy at McGill University in 1997, Axworthy said: “Mature democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, unleash waves of refugees, create environmental catastrophes, or engage in terrorism. Jobs and growth at home are increasingly dependent on trade and investment abroad. States that protect human rights and the rule of law are more likely to honour their commercial commitments. The health of the international economy is linked to issues of stability and security. All of this means that respect for human rights is an imperative of living in a global society.”
In the numerous news releases and backgrounders which the communications section churned out for Axworthy, the link to the human security agenda was a unifying theme. Taken to its limit, this agenda incorporated the “responsibility to protect” which postulated, in a major theoretical innovation in foreign policy, that the international community could be permitted to interfere in a country’s domestic affairs if its government was trampling on its own citizens’ human rights. This new doctrine did not arise just from philosophical musing. The world had witnessed two horrifying genocides that were grotesque affronts to the peaceful hopes of the post-Cold War era. Neither in Rwanda nor Bosnia did international institutions or other individual states do much of concrete value to save those two countries’ citizens from mass murder. The climate was such that another crisis in the Balkans persuaded concerned countries to put the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to the test.
In Kosovo, a province of Serbia, armed forces attempting to suppress the separatist movement of the Albanian-speaking majority had widened their efforts to round up and kill civilians. The same techniques that the Serbians had deployed against Bosnia were now being used against the Kosovar population. The massacres of Sarajevo were too fresh in people’s minds for a reprise of these events in Kosovo to be ignored. In October 1998, the United Nations Security Council approved resolution 1203 (with abstentions from Russia and China) that called on the Serbian government to reach a peaceful agreement with Kosovar authorities to provide the province with greater autonomy and accept a NATO and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission.
NATO’s action began on March 23, 1999. I was summoned to represent the communications bureau at the daily Kosovo interdepartmental task force meetings that would be held daily during the war. (I had recently been re-assigned from trade to foreign policy communications.) The task force was headed by Paul Heinbecker, assistant deputy minister responsible for international security. Tall, calm and serious, with occasional glimpses of wry wit, Heinbecker oversaw the daily proceedings, conducting a tour d’horizon with officials from all departments present, in particular defence and the solicitor-general’s department (before the post-9/11 creation of the more powerful public safety ministry). Also included was the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), whose resources could be called upon to offer humanitarian relief. (Heinbecker would later be appointed Canada’s ambassador to the UN, where he would have to handle Canada’s stance in opposition to the US-instigated war in Iraq in 2003.) His right hand was Jim Wright, director-general in the security branch. Wright possessed a kind of youthful sincerity, and was always articulate and measured in speech, which made him the perfect candidate to give the daily press briefings he had been tasked to deliver, alongside spokespeople of the armed forces, at department of national defence headquarters. He and Heinbecker elicited from task force members the latest situation reports and then summarized the state of play. It was then my role to work with my communications officers and department policy experts to develop the day’s key messages for delivery at Wright’s briefing. Stewart Wheeler, who would much later become the department’s chief of protocol, worked then in the media office and was the liaison between Wright and the communications team.
NATO troops launched a bombing campaign based on a UN resolution despite Chinese and Russian abstentions. This represented a communications challenge throughout the conflict. Resolution 1203 demanded that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (at that time essentially the government of Serbia) comply with previous resolutions giving autonomy to the people of Kosovo and refrain from violence in suppressing them. Unlike the UN resolution that gave authorization in 1989 to intervention in Iraq, the Kosovo resolution contained no reference to the use of “all necessary means” – the code for taking military action. Nonetheless, Canada took the view that NATO’s action took political, if not technically explicit, legitimacy from UN authority. This position was principally inspired by the desire – and in fact the humanitarian necessity – to protect the Kosovar population from forced exile and murder by Serbian forces. Recent history was on NATO’s side. NATO bombings of Serb forces surrounding Sarajevo in 1995, after years of handwringing about what to do to protect Bosnians from clearly genocidal attacks, pushed back the Serbian force and led at last to a peace deal in the Dayton Accord. The slaughter was stopped in Bosnia then. It could also be in Kosovo.
My recollection of those days evokes a dissonance between the atmosphere in Ottawa and the reality of what was happening in the theatre of war. The task force would gather daily in the eighth floor conference room of the Pearson A tower. The room has a panoramic view of the Rideau River, surrounding greenspace and the church towers overlooking the historic Bytown market. Spring was early that year and the morning sun flooded the east-facing conference room uplifting spirits after what had been a typically grey Ottawa winter. Normally, there would be a sense of renewal and optimism. Yet we were dealing with a situation where lives were in the balance, not only the Kosovars’, but also those of their Serbian foes and the NATO and allied forces deployed to the region.
As in the case of the Persian Gulf War, the main Canadian contribution to the Kosovo campaign was from the air force, which had deployed 18 CF-18s to the theatre. Their role in this case was purposefully aggressive, unlike the support role to which they were consigned in the Gulf. The aircraft would be directly involved in attacks on the Serbian forces. In a two-and-a-half-month campaign the Canadian fighter-bombers made 678 sorties into Kosovar and Serbian airspace. Using precision guided bombs of either 500- or 2000-pounds, the aircraft attacked Serbian ground artillery and critical Serbian-controlled infrastructure. In keeping with a NATO agreement, the nationality of the NATO aircraft in each identified sortie was kept secret with the purpose that in theory at least, all participating countries would share collective responsibility. The campaign ended on June 10 with Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian government agreeing to withdraw its troops from Kosovo and accept the establishment of a UN-backed OSCE mission to assume administrative powers over Kosovo and organize a civilian government.
From a communications perspective, our readiness to respond to negative public reaction to the war served us well. Wright’s daily briefings were forthcoming and informative. He was always well versed on the events of the day and tied them always to Canada’s “human security” perspective. Ultimately, we were to encounter little public pushback during the 58-day campaign. Few celebrated the pictures of precision-guided bombing that destroyed bridges, roads and military ground squadrons. They were a sobering reality of the war. The most controversial event was the misdirected bombing of the building housing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US aircraft, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring 20 others.
Still, the war stirred little resistance among the majority of the Canadian public. The policy of not naming the pilots who carried out the daily sorties into Kosovo and Bosnian airspace made it difficult for the military spokespeople to underline the contributions Canada made to the campaign. Still, opinion polls conducted by Compass, Angus Reid and Environics at different stages of the war showed that 60 per cent of those polled backed the government’s position and its actions. The demonstrated impotence of the international community in the face of the Rwanda and Bosnian genocides had prepared the way for the public’s endorsement of definitive action in the face of a clear humanitarian threat to a civilian population. In addition, the past success of the 1990 Persian Gulf War had shown that military actions could achieve clearly defined results.
This would be perhaps the high tide of support for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine. A subsequent bombing campaign over Libya during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 invoked the R2P doctrine, but its results were a years-long civil war resulting in widespread bloodshed and a refugee crisis that had stretched Europe’s ability to cope with a wave of uncontrolled immigration. Although not waged under R2P, the quagmire of the war in Iraq (in which Canada famously did not participate), the unending conflict in Afghanistan and the horrors of the civil war in Syria, made the public leery of armed interventions, whether or not “responsibility to protect” could be justifiably invoked. This innovative doctrine has become a suspect instrument. As urgent as is the need to protect civilians, the means of doing so is vexed by political and military realities, including the relative strengths of states and their militaries, and social and geographical conditions. Responsibility to protect is a doctrine that must find its way through the realpolitik of the day.
If R2P failed to duplicate anywhere its qualified success in Kosovo, there were other initiatives that Canada undertook to enhance human security in the post-Cold War world. Perhaps the most significant of the accomplishments of Axworthy’s ministry was the successful negotiation of the Convention on the Prohibition on the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, otherwise known as the Ottawa Convention. Not all initiatives share such success, while others well-intended do not achieve their initial promise.
Today, it seems almost bitterly nostalgic to invoke it, but the emergence of the G8, adding Russia to the existing G7 comprising the United States, Germany, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada, provided the forum for previously unheard-of cooperation. For example, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals and destroy unwanted warheads.
Canada was able to play a part. During the Moscow Summit on Nuclear Safety and Security in April 1996, Prime Minster Chrétien announced that Canada had agreed in principle that plutonium from dismantled US and Russian nuclear weapons could be tested for use as fuel in Canadian reactors.
The practical application of this agreement would take time. But in due course, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL) would propose to take small quantities of Russian and US enriched uranium for tests in the CANDU nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario. The tests would be the precursor to larger imports of plutonium, in a mixed oxide form known as MOX, to be used to power the Ontario Hydro’s Bruce Nuclear Reactor.
I was drawn into the communications planning for the experimental MOX test. Our role was to ensure that the foreign policy aspects of this undertaking would be clearly understood by the public. The project must be seen not as a purely commercial transaction but having a higher purpose in aiding nuclear disarmament. We were to emphasize that the fuel was coming from nuclear missiles or bombs which were being dismantled to reduce their numbers in both US and Soviet arsenals, to further the long-term goals of arms control.
Worthy goals notwithstanding, controversy always stalks anything to do with nuclear material and the real dangers associated with radioactivity. AECL and NRCan had identified the routes along which the MOX fuel would be carried to Chalk River. The US material was to cross the Canadian border at Sault Ste-Marie, Ontario, and the Russian material, shipped by sea, would enter Canada at Cornwall, Ontario. From those two ports of entry, the MOX would be carried along a variety of Ontario highways to reach Chalk River.
The two agencies launched a detailed process to consult all the communities along the route with the objective of assuring them that the shipments would be safe. Those assurances rested largely on the manner in which the material would be physically sealed. Larry Shewchuk, the spokesperson for AECL said: “The shipment will contain 528 grams of weapons-derived plutonium contained in 14.5 kilograms of ceramic MOX fuel pellets housed inside 28 Zircaloy (zirconium alloy) seal-welded metal tubes.” The message was that the fuel was fully sealed in impenetrable containers that would not break apart even in the most violent highway accident.
During the summer of 1999, we awaited word of the arrival of the material and the imminent transport by road across Ontario.
There are many dedicated federal employees who have devoted their careers to public affairs, and to its subset of strategic communications. The best exhibit a sang-froid that helps them respond coolly to the eruption of unexpected controversy. They show flexibility before sudden shifts in policy, especially with changes of the political party in power.
From the time I entered the government, I knew that public policy itself – as distinct from the explanation or the promotion of it – offered different challenges. Communications staff need to find the best ways to articulate what the government is doing, but do not have the opportunity to shape it. And at times there can be the sense that communications are not clearly explaining government policies and actions as much as they are offering an often-insincere gloss to them.
In late 1999, we were still waiting for instructions to initiate communications for the transport of the MOX fuel to Chalk River. NRCan and AECL had advised that the shipment might not take place that year, due to the early winter closure of the St. Lawrence Seaway. We were preparing to put the information campaign on hold. Then with no notice, all team members were informed that AECL had received approval for the shipment to be flown by helicopter to Chalk River, an action for which there had been no prior consultation.
I have never been able to determine whether the air transport option had been under consideration all along. But I had the sense that the elaborate plans for road shipment and the extensive public consultation with the various communities affected was a ruse to divert attention from the actual plan. I have had it subsequently confirmed that false leads and decoys are commonly used in plans to transport hazardous materials. In any event, I had participated in a process that – for good or ill – had misled many of my federal colleagues, activist organizations, and the public at large. In the end, after some initial experiments the MOX initiative was suspended. There were considerable technical challenges to adapting it to use in Canadian reactors. In fact, scaling up the process to produce viable quantities of MOX fuel would require major capital investments at Chalk River that would prove to be economically prohibitive. That, along with the mostly public affairs vulnerabilities associated with transport into and out of Chalk River, led eventually to the quiet shelving of the project. Despite this anticlimactical ending, the plan to convert weapons uranium to reactor fuel has not been entirely abandoned. Despite the now-fractious relationship between Russia and the United States, some American reactors are consuming some decommissioned Russian material. Canada’s SNC Lavalin, which took over AECL, has proposed building CANDU reactors in the UK to help rid Britain of 140 million tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium that was produced in surplus to the small nuclear arsenal that that country still possesses.
When the MOX flight took place, I had already negotiated my next career move to the department’s trade policy branch. I was moving from communications to what is sometimes referred to as “policy operations” and was looking forward to the new role. The sudden change of plans for the MOX flight to Chalk River helped me not to regret the change. In the years to come, I would be dealing not with geopolitical outcomes of the post-Cold War, but with the evolving role of trade policy under the prevailing free-market order governed by internationally negotiated rules.
The Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities headed by retired judge John Gomery confirmed that funds set aside to raise awareness of federal programs in Quebec were diverted to the benefit of several Liberal Party operatives. ↑
Question Period briefing note, BCD 0038 ↑
The Gomery Commission Report, “Who is Responsible? Principals, Contracts and Interactions,” p. 66 ↑
Lloyd Axworthy as cited by Andre Lui in Why Canada Cares: Human Rights and Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012, p.71 ↑
See Bergen, Bob, Scattering Chaff, Canadian Air Power and Censorship during the Kosovo War, University of Calgary Press, 2019 ↑
Martin, Pierre & Fortmaun, Michael, Support for International Involvement in Canadian Public Opinion after the Cold War, Canadian Military Journal Vol. 2, No.2, 2000; www.journal.forces.gc.ca/Vo2/No3 ↑