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April 19, 1999
Kosovo ‘Hawks’ in Canada

By Don North

It was a crisp sunny morning on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The last trace of grimy snow was melting fast.

The day reminded me of another spring morning in 1969 when I covered a clash between more than 2,000 anti-war protesters and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounties had formed a protective cordon around the Parliament, but the doves held the streets with their popular protests against the Vietnam War.

Thirty years later, however, as Parliament began debating Canada's participation in the NATO assault on Serbia, there were few voices of dissent to be heard. The war hawks circled both inside and outside the tall central building of Parliament, called the "Peace Tower."

Anti-war protesters were few in number. A dozen Serbian-Canadians held a sign that read, "Stop Bombing." Across the street, a small group of doves held a press conference based on the theme, "Bomb for Peace: The Greatest Oxymoron of the 20th Century." But they acknowledged that they were "crying in the wilderness."

Canada's Defence Minister Art Eggleton even shocked Washington by beating the drum for a full-scale invasion by ground troops, including Canadians, a position that drew broad popular support across Canada.

As the war in the Balkans heated up, the surprising pro-war sentiment in Canada matched equally unusual attitudes in other NATO countries where citizens are traditionally skeptical of war as a means to solve differences. Often, the pro-war majorities in U.S. polls were lower than the numbers registered elsewhere.

In Germany, the government had not sent its military forces into battle since World War II, but committed aircraft to the NATO bombing campaign. The German public strongly supported the action apparently to demonstrate resolve against Serb-sponsored “ethnic cleansing.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, saw NATO’s intervention as moral and necessary in the face of a year-long Serb scorched-earth campaign against the ethnic Albanian majority in the Serb province of Kosovo.

“We are trying to contain the ongoing human catastrophe -- to stop the killings and deportations,” Schroeder said. Yugoslav President Slobodan “Milosevic started the expulsions [of Kosovo Albanians] a long time ago. It was a premeditated campaign begun before NATO became active.”

Still, Germany’s intervention was touchy because of its brutal occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, a concern that Schroeder acknowledged.

“It has been argued that Germany should not intervene in the Balkans because of the atrocities they [the Nazis] perpetrated there during the Second World War,” he noted. “One could argue exactly the reverse -- that we are now under a moral obligation to help stop new atrocities being committed there.” [WP, April 18, 1999]

Canada was another nation that has advocated mediation to resolve conflicts since World War II and the Korean War. For nearly half a century, Canada has favored dispatching its troops almost exclusively as peace-keepers.

As foreign minister and later as prime minister, Lester Pearson advocated a strong United Nations and restructured Canada's army into essentially a peace-keeping force. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau built on Pearson’s legacy, seeking a counterweight to superpower politics and demanding respect for international law.

"I felt it was the duty of a middle power like Canada, which could not sway the world with the force of its armies, to at least try to sway the world with the force of its ideals of justice and equality," said Trudeau. "I wanted our foreign policy to reflect similar values."

Cynics have suggested that Canada’s principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations has an element of self-interest. The dovish posture protects Canada from outside interference as it copes with the separatist movement in Quebec and Native Canadian land claims.

But the TV images of Serb brutality in Kosovo stirred the conscience of Canada and other Western societies. Serbia had mounted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against ethnic Albanian rebels in 1998. But Western public opinion was galvanized by the massacre of nearly four dozen civilians in the village of Racak on Jan. 15. The Racak massacre led to NATO’s demand for a peace-keeping force in Kosovo, the plan’s rejection by Milosevic and NATO’s bombing.

After NATO launched the first air attacks, Serb forces stepped up their campaign against the ethnic Albanians, driving hundreds of thousands into exile. Scattered reports from Kosovo indicate that Serb security forces also carried out mass executions of military-aged men.

With that backdrop, Canadians cast off their normally dovish sentiments. On the eve of the parliamentary debate on April 12, two national polls were released showing that 79 percent of Canadians supported the NATO bombing and 57 percent favored sending combat troops.

Aware of those poll numbers, representatives of the opposition’s four usually abrasive political parties voiced no dissent during the first parliamentary debate. No one opposed the NATO war policy. No one spoke against Canada's 12 F-18 fighter planes taking part in the air assaults. Not one member opposed the possible dispatch of Canadian ground forces if NATO were to call for that.

The unusual consensus in Parliament was all the more surprising since the ruling Liberals were ambivalent about the Gulf War in 1990-91. It’s normal, too, for parliamentarians from Quebec to object to whatever Ottawa adopts as foreign policy.
When he rose to speak, Prime Minister Jean Chretien represented a seemingly unified government. He declared that Canada had a clear duty to go to war in the face of Serb repression.

“These three elements -- our values as Canadians, our national interest in a stable and secure Europe, and our obligations as a founding member of NATO -- led Canada to take up arms with its NATO partners,” the prime minister said. “And it is because of our values, our national interest, and our obligations that we must see the job through."

Besides the jet fighters, however, the chances of deploying Canada’s scandal-ridden army to the Balkans seemed dim. With its army strapped for funds, Canada would have a hard time raising a single battalion for Kosovo combat.

In the days that followed the parliamentary debate, however, Canada began to show signs of second thoughts, a process occurring in other NATO nations, too. Amid the destruction from NATO’s bombs and the continuing suffering of Kosovo refugees, more voices were heard urging caution and renewed diplomacy.

Chretien expressed interest in a German-sponsored proposal for a NATO bombing pause if Milosevic would agree to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. Defence Minister Eggleton traveled to Europe for meetings with NATO leaders. The talks were simply “part of our ongoing effort to ensure that we stay the course and meet our objectives,” Eggleton said.

Still, with the civilian death toll rising, the number of dissenters seemed certain to grow, too. But most of the early Canadian doves were little-known politicians, labor leaders and academics, articulate but ignored by most Canadian media.

"The present program of bombing everything and anything including homes and workplaces that have nothing to with war capability is wrong militarily, politically and morally,” declared one dissenter, Sen. Nick Taylor, a wealthy oilman and Liberal Party member from Alberta.

Buz Hargrove, Canadian Autoworkers Union president, was incensed that NATO planes had destroyed Serbia’s only auto manufacturing plant. He urged Canada to “send a strong message” to NATO by withdrawing its fighter jets from the war.

Michael Chossudovsky, professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa, complained that the NATO attacks had only compounded the human catastrophe. "The degree of devastation and destruction in Yugoslavia is by all accounts the greatest since World War II,” he said.

Marion Dour, a former member of Parliament and spokesperson for Voice of Women, added, "We don't need any Canadians in the air or on the ground. We are forfeiting our characteristic of being peace-keepers.”

A recurring refrain from the war critics was the need to enlist the United Nations as a way to defuse the conflict. The Milosevic government has indicated some willingness to cooperate with a UN peace-keeping force in Kosovo, while rejecting a NATO military presence.

"Every effort must be made to build and strengthen [the] United Nation’s capacity to act in such humanitarian disasters,” said Debbie Grizwald of Physicians for Survival.

David Orchard, a farmer, was appalled “that no member of Parliament has stood up ... and spoken against what Canada is doing.” Orchard founded the Committee to Stop the War in Yugoslavia, he said, “to speak out on behalf of all Canadians who are ashamed and outraged about what our country is doing.”

Distrust of the Western news media was prevalent, too. “If truth is war’s first casualty then the media is the artillery,” said Michael Mandel, professor of international law at the University of Toronto. “You [the journalists] are showing yourselves to be little more than a propaganda arm of the Pentagon.”

As the bombs fell, this fledgling anti-war movement stirring in Canada was searching for new “rules of engagement” that would reduce the violence. But, so far, most Canadians -- like most Americans and Western Europeans -- appear to agree that the NATO attacks were a justifiable response to the Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Don North is a veteran war correspondent who has covered conflicts all over the world since the Vietnam War.

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