From Bombs to Diplomacy: the Parliamentary debate on Libya

The importance of diplomacy to resolve the Libyan crisis received prominent attention in this week’s debate on extending the protection mission in Libya,[i] but the Government still hasn’t bought into one basic reality – that right now the more urgent work in Libya is for diplomats, not bombers.

All the Parties (Conservative, NDP, Liberal, Bloc, Green) used the June 14 House of Commons debate on Libya to emphasize the importance of diplomacy.

Foreign Minister John Baird started it off with the unambiguous statement that “we must
also take a more robust and principled approach diplomatically if our mission is truly to succeed.” He then announced that “Canada is embarking on an enhanced engagement strategy with the national transitional council of Libya, or NTC. As part of this strategy, Canada will recognize the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people going forward. Our government will engage with institutions and representatives of the NTC.”

And that, just as unambiguously, illustrates the problem. As the Minister presented the diplomacy initiative, the Government has in effect made a decision on regime change. Declaring the NTC as “the” legitimate representative of the people of Libya uses diplomacy as an instrument for promoting and strengthening the NTC, one party to the conflict. This was confirmed by Manitoba Conservative MP James Bezan who referred to diplomats providing “instruction on governance in helping the Libyans transition as they go through this change, we hope, away from Colonel Gadhafi and his regime.”

These may all be worthy objectives, but they are not for Canadians to define or decide. The
Liberal amendment to the motion used more appropriate language to describe recognition of the NTC – as “a,” not “the,” legitimate political entity and representative of the Libyan people. That amendment was accepted, but it will likely not change the Government’s designation of the NTC, not as one legitimate representative of Libyans, but as “the” and, implicitly, only legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

The fact that other countries have done the same does not alter the fact that there is no
evidence that Canada or anyone else has the knowledge to know with such certainty who represents the Libyan people. The point of promoting democracy is to emphasize and recognize that multiple political entities are legitimate carriers of the interests and expectations of the Libyan people. The point of diplomacy is to engage with key entities and centres of power, that must obviously include the NTC and the Gadhafi regime, to work toward a process by which all political entities have the opportunity to be part of forging Libya’s future without risking violent attacks and recriminations.

The diplomacy that is most urgently needed is the pursuit of a ceasefire and a follow-on
process to set the stage for free and fair political engagement by Libyans through whatever political entities and processes they prefer. It is not up to Canada to decide that the NTC is “the legitimate” entity, even though it is legitimate to offer it and other potential political entities support.

The Reuters news organization is reporting today that Col. Gadhafi is ready to accept
elections in Libya.[ii] Now that is something for the diplomats to pursue.  How real is this offer? How does the NTC respond? What are the preconditions? Would it involve impunity for those charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity? What would be the nature and conditions of the ceasefire preceding elections? What guarantees could be
put in place to ensure the safety of Libyans in the interim?

One thing that was made very clear in the House of Commons debate, right now there is
much more work in Libya for diplomats than for bombers.

Thus, opposition speakers generally emphasized, in their discussions of diplomacy, engagement and dialogue toward ending the violent crisis, not the promotion of one particular party.

NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar: “It is not a crisis that will be solved by Canada, by
NATO or by more bombing, but by diplomatic and humanitarian pursuit and making sure that the UN is in the lead and is coordinating matters…. If we are to pursue the UN resolution in a way that is meaningful, we need to strengthen diplomatic support.”

The NDP amendment to the Government’s motion included a reference to increasing
“support for the diplomatic efforts outlined in UNSCR 1973 to reach a ceasefire leading to a Libyan-led political transition,” and throughout the debate the NDP linked humanitarian assistance and diplomacy.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae: “First, we should not make the mistake of believing that military intervention on its own represents a diplomatic and comprehensive solution to the challenges that we face in the world. It is very important for Canadians to have the understanding that while Canada deeply appreciates and respects the work that our military is doing in Afghanistan and in Libya, as it has done in many other conflicts, the resolution of these conflicts requires more than simply a military effort. This is the first principle that we need to observe.”

Jean-Francois Fortin of the Bloc Quebecois: “Canada and NATO should demonstrate support more openly for diplomatic initiatives intended to achieve a ceasefire as soon as possible and to initiate a genuine dialogue in support of the efforts of the United Nations special envoy, Abdul Ilah Mohamed Al-Khatib.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: “In order to meet the goals of UN resolution 1973,
our primary goal should be ceasefires, negotiated solutions and diplomacy.” She then made reference to African Union diplomacy efforts and the lack of support for them by NATO, adding, “I must be very clear here as well. I deeply desire the removal of Colonel Gadhafi, but not by military means in what appears to be a civil war in which Canada has taken sides. An immediate ceasefire is needed, yes. Protection of human life is required. We have a role within NATO to be the nation that stands and says, enough of the aerial
bombardment, now is the time to send in the diplomats. Let us work with colleagues who have some chance of reaching the illegitimate government of Mr. Gadhafi. Let us work with colleagues in the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations, and be the country that says we do not continue to give a blank cheque to a mission that has no exit strategy.”

Conservative Chris Alexander, commenting on May’s speech, said: “…as a former professional diplomat, I can assure the hon. member that now is not the time to send in the diplomats in the absence of military support and in the absence of military
operations that are continuing.” He was not rejecting diplomacy, but saying it had to be pursued in the context of continuing military action.

Toronto Liberal John McKay questioned that approach when responding to Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s speech: “NATO is not an entity that is well positioned to forge a
political consensus to create democratic institutions. That may be part of it, but it is not its primary focus as an alliance. The question I have of the minister is whether it is appropriate to consider a pause in the bombing in order to facilitate some consensus or developments or discussions among the Libyan people.”

The Defence Minister responded to say now is not the time to stop bombing, adding: “I would suggest there have been talks at the highest levels to ensure that we do have a
strategy going forward that will allow us to move quickly from military intervention to humanitarian and political progress.”

In his speech, John McKay said supporting diplomacy should be a priority: “The
mission in Libya will hopefully come to an end sooner rather than later and measures should be in place to transition to democracy. This cannot be done with bombs and embargoes, but rather through genuine political dialogue.”

Hélène Laverdière of the NDP affirmed the importance of the “responsibility to protect
doctrine,” emphasized that “the main goal is protecting civilians rather than trying to change the regime or meet any other objective,” and then added: “It is important that Canada, all the other countries involved and NATO work with intermediaries who are currently on the ground and are trying to establish a dialogue, as well as with the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy, Abdel-Elah Mohamed Al-Khatib. We hope that all conflicts eventually end through diplomatic negotiations. We need to work towards that goal immediately and prepare for the future. It is also time to think about peace operations after the conflict and about ways to support the people of Libya to resolve the
situation and find more peaceful solutions to the existing conflicts.”

Dominic Leblanc of the Liberals: “From our perspective, the focus cannot only be on
military action. The effective work of our diplomats, our non-governmental organizations and development agencies, obviously the Canadian International Development Agency, can play a critical role in protecting the people of the great country of Libya.”

Jack Harrris and Joe Comartin of the NDP both advocated support for diplomatic efforts by other states, Turkey and Norway in particular.


[i] The June 14 amended motion, as passed with NDP and Liberal amendments (not official):That, in standing in solidarity with those seeking freedom in Libya, the House unanimously adopted a motion in the Third Session of the 40th Parliament on March 21, 2011 authorizing all necessary measures, including the use of the
Canadian Forces and military assets in accordance with United Nations Security
Council Resolution 1973; and given that the House unanimously agreed that
should the government require an extension to the involvement of the Canadian
Forces for more than three months from the passage of the said motion, the
government was to return to the House at its earliest opportunity to debate and
seek the support of the House for such an extension; therefore, with the
objective of protecting civilians, the House supports another extension of three
and a half months of the involvement of the Canadian Forces in accordance with
UNSC Resolution 1973; the House supports an increase in Canada’s humanitarian
assistance to those affected by the crisis and efforts to strengthen Canada’s
support for the diplomatic efforts outlined in UNSCR 1973 to reach a ceasefire
leading to a Libyan-led political transition, that the government of Canada
engage with the Libyan National Council (LNC) based in Benghazi as a legitimate
political entity and representative of the Libyan people; that it provide the
LNC with advice and assistance in governance, including women’s rights, and
supports the government’s commitment to not deploy Canadian ground troops; that
the House deplores the ongoing use of violence by the Libyan regime against the
Libyan people, including the alleged use of rape as a weapon of war by the
Libyan regime and supports Canada’s participation in the international efforts
in investigating, preventing and prosecuting these alleged crimes; that it
ensure that Canadian citizens, landed immigrants, or visitors to Canada are not
subject to any threats or intimidation by representatives of the Qaddafi
regime; that the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International
Development and the Standing Committee on National Defence remain seized of
Canada’s activities under UNSC Resolution 1973, and appreciates the government’s
full and continued cooperation on committee meetings and the sharing of
information in accordance with the highest levels of transparency practiced by
our partners in the operation; and that the House continues to offer its
wholehearted support to the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces who
stand on guard for all of us.

[ii] James Mackenzie, “Gaddafi would agree to supervised election, says son,” The Independent, Reuters, 16 June 2011.

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