The Case for a Humanitarian Focus in Iraq
Five boys living in a refugee camp in Iraq, friends, arms linked and smiling despite the horrors they have escaped and the hardship that lies ahead. (Photo: Paul Dewar / Public domain)

The Case for a Humanitarian Focus in Iraq

As the Conservatives plan to take Canada into an ill-defined and ill-conceived combat role in Iraq, I look at a picture to remind myself of the context of this crisis. I took this picture last month in Iraq, at a refugee camp just outside Erbil. Five boys living in the camp, friends, arms linked and smiling despite the horrors they have escaped and the hardship that lies ahead.

Canada has a responsibility to these boys. I want them to be hopeful and believe in a better future, rather than living under a violent and intolerant regime. And most importantly, I want them to survive the coming winter.

Real lives hang in the balance. That's why New Democrats have been calling for Canada to do our share in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq in the best way we can, based on our unique experience and expertise.

Unfortunately, the Conservative reaction has been slow, inadequate, and misguided.

I first raised the humanitarian crisis caused by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq) in June, after half a million people fled ISIL's invasion of Mosul. I asked the government what Canada was doing to help with the Iraqi refugee crisis. The government expressed its condolences, but did not commit to any action.

Since then, we have lost four crucial months. We are all morally outraged at the human suffering in Iraq, and unreservedly condemn the violence ISIL has visited on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. But moral outrage is not a strategy. The government response has been a combat mission that fails to take advantage of our current and future ability to help on the humanitarian front and make a real difference now.

The Conservatives want us to launch airstrikes on targets in Iraq and potentially Syria -- but what has been lost in the discussion is that air strikes are not what Iraqi and Kurdish officials requested from Canada. Even military experts agree that airstrikes will not be enough, that the time for airstrikes may already be over, and that success could require the ground war that nobody wants. The Prime Minister himself admitted that "ISIL will not be eliminated" by combat operations.

Canadians are rightly worried about mission creep. In just a few weeks, Canada's military commitment has ballooned from 69 advisors to 669 troops. Meanwhile, the government has failed to answer basic questions, especially those that have demanded a clear exit strategy. And, despite the Foreign Affairs Minister's misleading comments, the combat mission lacks a clear UN or NATO mandate.

It's impossible to have confidence in a government that wants to conduct an unclear mission for an unspecified period in an undefined area with uncertain results, when we are not taking advantage of our clear ability to help civilian victims of ISIL violence right now.

New Democrats believe Canada should focus its efforts where we have a comparative advantage: supporting humanitarian efforts and democratic governance. It's the smart, responsible, and Canadian thing to do.

It is also what Iraqi and Kurdish officials asked Canada to do while I was in Iraq as part of a Canadian delegation with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird last month. I saw firsthand the critical situation in refugee camps that are bursting at the seams with the displaced. The capacity at these camps is reaching crisis levels, and things will only worsen as winter's harsh conditions approach.

This was my second visit to northern Iraq. When I visited the first time in 2007, the warning signs of a deep and prolonged conflict were apparent. Sectarian violence was engulfing the country. Just a year before, extremist groups had targeted ethnic and religious minority groups including Christians, Yazidis, and the little-known Mandaeans. Another wave of extremist violence struck in 2009. In just 20 years, Iraq's Christian population was cut in half to 700,000 from 1.3 million.

The long-term needs then and now were much the same. Iraq needs good governance. Its youth need hope and opportunity. And even back in 2007, the Iraqis were asking for Canada's help in democratic development and transitional justice.

With the Canadian diplomat Mokhtar Lamani, I co-hosted a conference in Ottawa that brought together experts and scholars from around the world to consider how to help build democratic and responsible governance in Iraq. There were clear steps Canada could have taken then to help prevent the conditions that have fostered the violent extremism we are facing today. But at that time, our hands were tied with another ill-defined military mission in Afghanistan and the Conservative government put little stock in democratic development.

Seven years later, our Iraqi counterparts are again calling for Canada to help. Specifically, they want assistance in four areas: building refugee camps, aiding victims of sexual violence, providing targeted assistance for minority groups, and investigating and prosecuting war crimes.

Minister Baird heard exactly what I heard. When we came back, I asked him at the Foreign Affairs Committee to do more in the four areas the Iraqis requested. His reply was simple: "yes, yes, yes, and yes." At long last, the government made a clear commitment -- but it took four weeks to see any action. While new efforts to end sexual violence in Iraq are an important first step, we are still waiting for concrete action in other areas, including the urgent need for camp winterization.

Rushing headlong into a combat role will mean fewer resources for humanitarian assistance. While the coalition's air power gets stronger every day, there is a growing gap in the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis -- a gap that Canada is uniquely well-suited to fill.

Thanks to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that have secured the refugee camps, it is not ISIL that threatens the lives of the refugees I met in Erbil -- it is the harsh winter conditions that will take over these camps in a few short weeks.

Let's focus our efforts on saving their lives.

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