Tag Archives: Canada

The Shifting Politics of Climate Change

President Obama yesterday dealt a fatal blow to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, ending a seven-year review period with a decision hailed by climate activists as critical in global efforts to address climate change. Stating that “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said that “approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” The proposed project had been strongly backed by pro-industry Republicans and many Democrats in oil producing states like North Dakota. But environmentalists had sought to block the pipeline.

Rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have connected oil sand fields in Western Canada with refineries and ports in Texas and Louisiana. But the project became the focus of anti-climate change activists, who noted that the oil produced in Western Canada was among the most polluting in the world. For his part, President Obama’s rejection of the proposed pipeline was part of a broader effort to address global climate change, a key policy area for his final year in office. President Obama had previously announced new regulations to cut emissions from power plants across the country. And Bill McKibben, a noted American environmentalist, commented  that the decision was a “turning point” in the fight against climate change and observed that “President Obama is the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate. That gives him new stature as an environmental leader, and it eloquently confirms the five years and millions of hours of work that people of every kind put into this fight.”

What do you think? Was President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project the correct one? What are the environmental implications of this decision? What are the economic implications of the decision? Would you have arrived at the same decision? Why?

What Difference Do Electoral Systems Make?

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

The Canadian elections concluded this week, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada soundly defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party to take control of the country’s parliament. Most observers cast the election as a stinging rebuke to the Harper’s nine year tenure.  Indeed, the center-left Liberals gained 148 seats in parliament, stealing 60 from the center-right Conservatives and 51 from the leftist New Democratic Party, marking the swing in seats in parliament for any Canadian political party since 1984. The final results give the Liberals a ruling majority in parliament, with control of 184 seats (54% of the total number of seats). The Conservatives move in to the role of official opposition, with 99 seats (29%). The New Democrats fell to third party status, with 44 seats (13%). The Bloc Québécois will control 10 seats (3%) and the Green Party has one seat (0%).

Canada’s single-member district electoral system (sometimes called a first-past-the-post system) functions in a manner similar to that of Congressional electoral districts in the United States. The candidate that receives the most votes in any district wins that seat, and the party that controls the most seats in parliament chooses the country’s Prime Minister. But Canada’s multiparty system means that the party that secures a majority of seats in the parliament does not necessary win a majority of the votes in the electorate. Indeed, the single-member district electoral system tends to amplify the support of large parties and marginalize the role of smaller parties, leading many political commentators to call for electoral reform and a shift to a more representative electoral model that allocates seats in parliament in a manner proportional to the share of the popular vote received.

If the most recent election in Canada had been held under a proportional representation system, the Liberals would have held approximately 133 seats (39.5% of the seats in parliament, based on securing 39.5% of the popular vote. This would be more seats than any other party, but not the strong majority they currently hold. Conversely, all other parties would have received more seats in parliament than they received under the current model, with the Conservatives holding 107 seats (31.9%), the New Democrats holding 67 seats (19.7%), the Bloc holding 16 seats (4.7%), and the Greens holding 11 seats (3.4%).

What do you think? Should countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which all currently use a first-past-the-post electoral system—shift to a proportional representation system? Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each system? And which is more democratic?

Truth and Reconciliation: The Global Politics of Justice

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya's Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

The BBC is reporting that a long-awaited report investigating violence and human rights abuses in Kenya will recommend some prosecutions of key officials for their roles. The Truth Reconciliation and Justice Commission was established in the aftermath of post-election violence that rocked Kenya following the 2008 presidential elections. However, its mandate was broader and included looking at past injustices from the Kenyan independence in December 1963 through the disputed February 2008 elections. According to the BBC’s coverage, Ahmed Sheikh Farah, who sat on the committee, indicated that “victims would be happy” with the recommendations but also warned that “we have been centered on reconciliation—healing, unity, that kind of focus.”

The report comes at an interesting time in Kenya’s political history. About six weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidency and was sworn into office. However, Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating some of the violence following the last presidential election. That violence resulted in more than 1,500 deaths and displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are interesting instruments. They are generally charged with revealing wrongdoing rather than achieving justice per se. And they have been growing in popularity in recent

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

years. One of the earliest was Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP). CONADEP was established shortly after the collapse of Argentina’s military government in 1983, and was charged with investigating the fate of the estimated 30,000 persons who were “disappeared” by the Argentine government between 1976 and 1983. Perhaps the most famous was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and was charged with witnessing and recording the crimes and human rights abuses committed by both state and opposition forces during the apartheid era. Other notable examples include Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade, which is currently investigating human rights abuses by the country’s former military government, and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is currently investigating human rights abuses in the country’s residential school system for the Canada’s first nations.

Most truth and reconciliation commissions represent an effort to expand understanding rather that to achieve justice. They generally lack the power to prosecute offenders. Indeed, in many cases, like the South African TRC, individuals offering testimony before the commission were generally granted amnesty for any confessions they offered. The emphasis, in other words, is on promoting transparency and providing a historical record and testimony rather than on achieving justice in the traditional sense. But this also a source of controversy, as victims can sometimes feel as though the perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses can escape punishment.

What do you think? Do truth commissions represent an instrument of justice by witnessing and providing a historical record of human rights abuses? Or do they undermine justice by permitting human rights abusers to escape criminal prosecution? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Merging Missions: A New Commonwealth Foreign Policy

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

The British and Canadian governments yesterday announced plans to launch a network of shared diplomatic missions. This initiative is intended to expand the reach of both countries, to counter the perceived growing influence of the European Union in global diplomacy, and to reduce the costs of maintaining missions around the world. It is hoped that Australia and New Zealand will join the initiate to create a network of “Commonwealth diplomatic missions.”

The current proposal, announced by British Foreign Secretary (and noted Eurosceptic) William Hague on Monday, would see Britain use Canadian diplomatic facilities in locations where there is currently no British mission, and vice versa. Hague hinted yesterday that this could lead to closer cooperation between the two countries moving forward. Canada and Australia already have a similar agreement, known as the Canada-Australia Consular Services Sharing Agreement, under which citizens of one country can receive consular assistance from the diplomatic missions of the other country.

The US Embassy in Brussels

The US Embassy in Brussels

All of this raises the question: What exactly do embassies and foreign missions do, anyway? The Council of American Ambassadors has an interesting list, written by Philip Lader, the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James (Great Britain). Generally, these services fall into three categories.

First, diplomatic missions provide assistance to home country nationals. An American living in Belgium, for example, might visit the US Embassy to register the birth of a child, obtain a social security number, or renew a passport. The diplomatic corps also provides limited assistance to Americans detained for committing a crime while abroad. In crisis situations, the diplomatic mission may also be called upon to evacuate personnel from the country during an emergency.

Second, diplomatic missions provide assistance and information to foreign nationals about the home country. Again, the American mission in Belgium might provide information about immigration to the United States, process requests for visas. Its staff might also perform public outreach (sometimes referred to as public diplomacy) by, for example, meeting with local schoolchildren or hosting events on American holidays.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, diplomatic mission are expected to represent the interests of the home country in dealings with the host country. The US diplomatic mission in Belgium, for example, would engage in negotiations with the Belgian government across a wide range of issues, including trade, security, or other issues. US diplomatic staff would meet with personnel from the Belgian government to press US interests, and to hear Belgian concerns about US policy. In extreme situations, the US ambassador could be recalled by the US government (or expelled by the host government) to demonstrate dissatisfaction with a policy or decision.

What do you think: Does the proposed linking of British and Canadian diplomatic missions in selected locations sound like a good idea? How do you think it might affect British and Canadian foreign policy, if at all? Should other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, join the initiative? What dangers, if any, do you see in such a proposal? Let us know what you think.

The Politics of Parliamentary Systems

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Two parties fell from power last week, trigging election. In Portugal, the government of Prime Minister José Sócrates fell after a no-confidence motion was passed by the five opposition parties over spending cuts and tax increases intended to address the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A general election looks likely to take place in May or June. Meanwhile, in Canada, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell after three opposition parties passed a no-confidence motion in response to a finding in the House of Commons that found Harper’s government in contempt of parliament. Harper’s government was found to have provided falls information to parliament on at least three separate occasions. New elections are scheduled to take place on May 2.

The collapse of Sócrates’ government in Portugal and Harper’s government in Canada highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems. Unlike presidential systems, where legislative terms are fixed and elections are set according to a regular schedule, parliamentary systems usually only have a maximum length of time between elections, normally five years. Elections can—and indeed, often do—come earlier. The government may call an early election if it feels that doing so can give it a larger majority in parliament. And opposition parties may force an early election by passing a no-confidence motion.

Both country’s upcoming elections should provide interesting political theatre. In Canada, public opinion polling is suggesting that Harper’s Conservative Party will likely win a plurality of seats but be denied an absolute majority in the House of Commons, the country’s parliament. If this happens, it will either be forced to seek coalition partners to establish a government, or (more likely) it will try to rule as a minority government again. The problem is that minority governments are inherently unstable, as the government is forced to cobble together a majority vote on every issue from an unstable and often shifting group of Members of Parliament from other parties.

In Portugal, the stakes are perhaps even larger. There, the collapse of Sócrates’ government came just days before the European Union was scheduled to decide on a rescue package for the Portuguese economy. That package, which was conditioned on the government of Portugal enacting strict (and widely unpopular) austerity measures, now appears to be in jeopardy. But the ability of the E.U. to discipline the government of Portugal may be limited, as any spillover of the economic crisis from Portugal could endanger the stability of the euro, the common currency used in fifteen E.U. economies, including Spain, France, and Germany.

Does Canada Need a New Head of State?

Prince Charles, who will likely become the symbolic role of head of state [glossary] of the United Kingdom when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, passes, is visiting Canada this week. His eleven-day visit, which began on Monday in Newfoundland, will take him across Canada, from the Maritimes to Ontario, to Canada’s Pacific coast, and back to Quebec and Ontario for Remembrance Day ceremonies before returning to the United Kingdom.

But Princes Charles faces some challenges during his visit. On his first day in Canada, Charles called on Canada to exhibit greater leadership in the climate change debate. The Canadian government, currently headed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephan Harper, has been criticized for its foot-dragging on the climate change debate.

The visit comes at a time when the British monarchy in general and Prince Charles in particular face growing unpopularity in Canada. Like many former British colonies, Canada’s political system separates the ceremonial position of head of state and the position which yields real political power, head of government, [glossary] into two separate posts. In the United States, the two offices are fused into a single position, the president of the United States. But in Canada and many other former British colonies, the ceremonial position of head of state is occupied by the reigning British monarch (currently the Queen Elizabeth II), who is represented in Canada by the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the parliament.

But according to recent polling data, the British crown facing declining popularity in Canada. While Rosie DiManno criticized Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General Michaëlle Jean for their poor protocol during Charles’ speech in Newfoundland, most Canadians appear to be apathetic about the whole visit. According to the CBC, while 80 percent of respondents agreed that the monarchy had an important place in Canada’s history, more than 60 percent felt the constitutional monarchy at the heart of Canada’s political system was outdated. The Societe St-Jean Baptiste, an organization pushing for sovereignty and independence for Francophone Quebec, went even further, demanding that before he would be welcomed in the province, Prince Charles apologize for a litany of British offences, including acts of “cultural genocide” committed against Francophone Canadians during British colonialism. Based on the polling data, a plurality of Canadians (41%) would prefer to see Charles passed over for his son, Prince William, rather than succeed Queen Elizabeth himself, while a minority (31%) believes he should be king.

The polling data suggest that Canada’s political system may be in for reform in the future. Does an independent, ceremonial head of state have a role to play in the political system? In many states, such a position exists and often plays an important role. In Belgium, King Albert II lacks any real political power but has played a central role in efforts to maintain the fragile unity of the country amid efforts to divide the country along linguistic lines. In Germany, the President performs a largely ceremonial function, while real political authority is vested in the Chancellor. Japan maintains its Emperor, Luxembourg has its Grand Duke, and the Netherlands its queen, all reminders of the historical legacy of the monarchy and important cultural references for the people. But the model used in many states of the British Commonwealth is unique insofar as the head of state is not a national of the country itself. Can a British King serve as the ceremonial leader of Canada? It’s a question many Canadians seem to be asking.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The Nobel Prize Committee sparked considerable debate on Friday when they named President Barack Obama the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. According to the committee, Obama received the award for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples,” citing in particular his effort to reach out to the Muslim world and his push for nuclear disarmament. FT blogger Gideon Rachman commented, “while it is OK to give school children prizes for “effort” – my kids get them all the time – I think international statesmen should probably be held to a higher standard.” Qari Mohammad Yousof Ahmadi, a senior spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban movement said of the award, “Obama should be awarded the war prize, rather than the peace prize.” Daniel Drezner said the decision “cheapens an already devalued prize.” At Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf decried the decision as “the most ludicrous choice in the history of an award that has a pretty dubious history… It’s as if a freshman tailback were handed the Heisman Trophy as he ran onto the playing field along with a hearty pat on the back and the explanation that he’d been selected to encourage him to have a great year to come.”

But most of the criticism of the award seems to be reserved for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee rather than for President Obama. Indeed, while calling the decision a “ludicrous choice,” Rothkoph also praised Obama’s speech regarding the award. He wrote,

Short of deferring his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, President Obama could not have struck a better tone in his remarks this morning accepting the award. From saying he did not deserve it to framing the award as a “call to action” to citing others who merited such an award, he was pitch-perfect. And in reciting some of his key goals — from the elimination of nuclear weapons to combating climate change to bringing a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine — he raised hope that the award might be even further motivation to advance to what are, as noted above, worthy objectives.

In news from outside the Nobel Prize awards:

1. The security situation in Pakistan appears to be in serious decline. Over the weekend, a group of militants stormed the headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi, taking hostages and creating a standoff situation. The Pakistani military was able to retake the compound early Sunday, rescuing 42 hostages and killing most of the militants. On Friday, a car bomb exploded near a shopping mall in Peshawar, a city in the northern part of the country. The attack, described by Pakistani security officials as “one of the most daring attacks ever carried out by the Taliban,” killed 49 people and injuring nearly 100. The attack came just one day after a similar bombing outside the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, and may constitute part of a renewed offensive by Taliban elements operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Last week, the Pakistani government launched a renewed offensive against the Taliban in the Waziristan region of the country. But so far, the campaign has had few successes, and the increase in recent attacks, particularly the brazen attack against Pakistani military headquarters, cast doubt on the ability of the Pakistani military to effectively address the Taliban threat.

2. Despite reservations that the treaty would erode national sovereignty and transfer too much power to Germany, Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland, signed the Lisbon Treaty on Saturday. Poland’s accession make the Czech Republic the lone European Union member that has not approved the Lisbon Treaty. Despite Czech resistance, the treaty appears to be headed for adoption and thus a radical restructuring of the European Union. The treaty would make EU decision making more efficient, streamlining the current voting system in the European Council and strengthening the role of the European Parliament.

3. A number of trade disputes intensified last week. On Thursday, the United States announced an investigation into Chinese steel pipes, the culmination of which could result in a 98.7 percent duty on steel pine imports from China. The announcement follows the imposition of a 35 percent duty on Chinese tire imports last month and a longstanding dispute over Chinese currency values.  Meanwhile, the United States filed a complaint against the European Union with the World Trade Organization on Thursday. The complaint alleges that EU restrictions on the importation of chicken meat washed with chlorine and other chemicals constitutes an unfair trade barrier. Canada last week filed a complaint with the WTO alleging US country-of-origin labeling requirements in cattle and hog exports also constitute an unfair trade barrier.

4. Intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was able to help overcome last minute setbacks to the Armenian-Turkish peace treaty on Saturday. The agreement, which must still be approved by both country’s parliaments, sets out a timeline to restore diplomatic relations and open the border between Amenia and Turkey. While the agreement was difficult to reach, both sides stand to gain. For Turkey, resolving the longstanding dispute could smooth its path to membership in the European Union and increase its influence in the Caucasus. Armenia could see its economy improve access to European Union market. Despite the potential benefits, the agreement could still be derailed due to longstanding tensions between the two countries, which date back to 1915 murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, often referred to as the world’s first genocide.

5. On Tuesday, Idelphonse Nizeyimana, a key player in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, was arrested in Uganda. Nizeyimana was responsible for the organization of the genocide in Butare, a southern province in Rwanda. The arrest was the second high profile detention in a month, following the arrest of Gregoire Ndahimana in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the arrests highlight tensions between Rwanda and the United Nations over the handling of charges related to the genocide, in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus will killed. Both Nizeyimana and Ndahimana have been transferred to Tanzania to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, despite efforts by the Rwandan government to have them tried by the Rwandan government in Kigali.