Jaramillo: Canada has a duty to do more for innocent civilians in Gaza

Published in the Globe and Mail, November 9, 2023

Cesar Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares and the chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group.

The horrific Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 took the world by surprise. Hundreds of innocent people were massacred at a music festival; many residents of border settlements, including babies, were also brutally murdered. In all, about 1,400 were killed; more than 200 have been taken hostage. These are war crimes.

Now Palestinian civilians are enduring unacceptable and unprecedented suffering at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces. With devastation worsening by the day and no end in sight, today Canada has the opportunity – and the duty – to defend the innocents.

After a month of increasing violence, it is past time for the Canadian government to rise to the occasion. As the leader of one of the great democracies in the world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must speak out against what appear to be egregious human-rights violations and do everything he can to end the slaughter of innocent Palestinian children, women and men.

Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks has included practices that are inconsistent with the most fundamental precepts of international humanitarian law, including the principles of distinction, precaution, and proportionality. Israeli military and political leaders have boasted of acting without restraint, including Israel’s defence minister (“I have removed every restriction – we will eliminate anyone who fights us, and use every measure at our disposal“), the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (“Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction”) and the army’s spokesperson (”The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy”).

In Gaza, more than 10,000 civilians – almost half of them children – have been killed, according to Palestinian health authorities. So have scores of journalists and UN aid workers. Amnesty International has pointed to “damning evidence of war crimes” by the IDF. Refugee camps have been attacked and ambulances have been bombed. “Nowhere is safe,” the UN Secretary-General recently observed. In the view of the International Committee of the Red Cross, “the instructions issued by the Israeli authorities for the population of Gaza City to immediately leave their homes, coupled with the complete siege explicitly denying them food, water, and electricity, are not compatible with international humanitarian law.”

Mr. Trudeau once said that upholding international humanitarian law and the rules-based international order should be “at the very heart of foreign policy.” Now Canada must show what this means in practice. The true value of espousing such principles is only realized when they are defended with rigour, consistency and determination.

The rules-based international order is not an ethereal concept; it is grounded in specific norms and principles that have been crafted over generations. And Canada must always protest, loudly, whenever those rules are transgressed, especially when innocent civilians are forced to pay the price. Only by doing so can Canada remain true to the values that it has long held dear, and be a beacon of hope for those who depend on those values to promote and protect their human rights.

This government has also long championed a feminist foreign policy, recognizing the gendered impacts of armed violence and acknowledging that women often bear a disproportionate burden in times of conflict. How should such a champion respond, when attacks on civilian areas in Gaza are leading to mass casualties, with women and children representing nearly 70 per cent of the reported deaths so far?

Canada’s commitment to a feminist foreign policy must not waver. It must remain consistent with our broader commitments to justice, equality, and the well-being of all, particularly those who are most vulnerable in times of conflict.

It is incumbent upon Canada to challenge all countries, including allies, to live up to the same high standards that it has set for itself. Canada’s enduring friendship with Israel must be built on a foundation of shared values. Mr. Trudeau himself set this out in 2020, congratulating Benjamin Netanyahu on his election and noting the importance of the countries’ shared commitment to international law.

Merely adding the phrase “in accordance with international humanitarian law” to acknowledgments of the right of self-defence falls short of what is required. The extensive harm suffered by Palestinian civilians as a result of Israel’s response to the insurgent attacks is not theoretical, but a grim, continuing reality, supported by mounting evidence of concrete violations.

Upholding international humanitarian law and standing resolutely for the protection of civilians is not an option, but an obligation that defines Canada’s character as a nation. In this critical moment, Canada must do more to respond to the needs and pleas of innocent Palestinians. Now is the time to prove Canada’s principles – and this Prime Minister’s, too.