Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button

Canada’s Position on the Use of Force Internationally

Nancy Gordon
Senior Vice-President of CARE Canada


I work for an international development and humanitarian relief agency, CARE Canada. Increasingly we work in conflict zones – pre, or post, or sometimes, active. Our experience, and thus my remarks today, are field-based – we know what we know because of the type of work we do and where we do it. We continue to confront the issue of force, in its various guises, as we do our work, and these discussions, regrettably, occur more and more often.

At the entrance to the CARE Canada headquarters building in Ottawa are two granite plaques inscribed with the names of the employees of CARE who have lost their lives in service. It is a sad commentary, but a telling one, that we have will have to add another plaque to pay tribute to more CARE workers who have been killed in the line of duty – the name of Margaret Hassan will be added to the others.

You are all undoubtedly familiar with the guiding principles and protocols which humanitarian relief agencies embrace – we are neutral, impartial, deliverers of assistance to those in need. The best of this work takes place over decades of continual presence at the local level, with the employment of national staff – ratios of 100 nationals to 1 expatriate, for instance. We are dependent on the acceptance of our presence and our work by local people; we live “on the economy”. Our best contribution to dampening down conflict and thus lessening the need for force is to continue our long-term, low-key humanitarian work using as our guideline the principles that have been developed over years of experience – independence, neutrality, impartiality, humanity. This is the preventative work of which Ernie Regehr spoke yesterday work which if successful in the long term leads to peaceful conflict resolution as opposed to the outbreak of violence and the need for forceful intervention.

During the past fifteen years, the demands for our services have grown at the same time as the context in which those services are provided have become more and more dangerous. Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Causcases are places where our presence is needed at the same time as it is threatened. In the face of the violence in those states, the use of force has become essential to protect our staff, our beneficiaries, our assets.

At the time of the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans fled to neighbouring states – Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi. Included in those throngs of people who crossed borders were many of those who had caused and implemented the genocide. CARE Canada was running several large refugee camps, including one of 200,000 people just outside Goma, in what was then Zaire. As is our usual practice, we recruited community leaders to provide some of the services required for the population – distribution of food, water, tents, blankets etc. It soon became obvious to us that those same community leaders were implicated in the murders in Rwanda, and that they were undermining our principles of distribution – that is, that everyone in need, regardless of beliefs, is entitled to their fair share of the goods. Instead, the leaders in the camp, who were armed, were rewarding their friends and punishing those who did not support them. We then hired an impartial group – former Rwandan Boy Scouts – to patrol the camp and ensure that everyone was included in the distribution. One morning 20 or so of those Boy Scouts were found dead. The camp leadership were not about to accept the challenge to their authority which CARE was asserting.

Security was an obvious problem. We asked the Canadian Government for help through the UN. None was forthcoming. The Government of Zaire provided some gendarmes, but they hadn’t been paid in years, were not terribly effective, and would only show up for work in return for extra money.

In the end CARE pulled out of that camp – a very tough decision for a humanitarian agency – and UNHCR found another implementing agency. But I mention this experience to underline the necessity to think through carefully issues of force and intervention. The experience caused us to question some of our practices, and indeed to engage in some intellectual work which combined our field experience with literature reviews and academic analysis, and resulted in a paper entitled “Mean Times” which the University of Toronto published.

It also caused us to engage with the Canadian military in discussions about coordination of effort and activities in the field. We understand the importance and necessity of the military presence in conflict situations, and think it is possible for us to coordinate our work. The military can and does provide security – something humanitarian agencies cannot do in the same manner. We each need to know where the other is and what we are doing. But it is not advisable for us to be a part of military action or for the military to engage in our work. Demarcation of responsibility according to function is what we think is important.

Which brings us of course to Afghanistan, and the current deployment of the Canadian Forces to the Kandahar region. General Leslie will speak in a few minutes about that mission. Let me give you the perspective of CARE Canada. And I must add there that much of what I have to say draws on discussions with and writings by my colleagues at CARE Canada, John Watson, the President and CEO, and Barbara Shenstone, currently our Country Director in Zimbabwe and a person with much experiences in post conflict situations.

I begin by saying that CARE has been active in Afghanistan since 1961, through some very difficult periods, including the chaos after the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban period, and the current complex and troubled times. In Afghanistan today CARE employs more that 900 staff – 99% of them Afghans.

The obvious core function of any military force in Afghanistan – whether it be in Khandahar or elsewhere – is to provide security, to help bring stability to Afghanistan. This is the added value of ISAF, operating as a peace enforcement force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

There are four major sources of instability and violence in the country:

  • anti US/anti Afghan government attacks
  • hostility and fighting between warlords
  • increased general lawlessness and banditry
  • violence associated with narcotics production and trade

None of these sources of violence are minor. They cannot be addressed by the normal methods of civilian policing, even if these existed in Afghanistan today. They are not going to go away on their own. They affect everything else, including the prospects for democracy and prosperity. They can only be dealt with by a concerted robust and largely military response, including of course, the “defined and restrained use of force” – a descriptive phrase used yesterday by Ernie Regehr with which I agree.

CARE, like everyone else in Afghanistan, is affected every day by these sources of violence. Where they are bad, we simply cannot work. We cannot travel, move supplies, do assessments, reach people who need help. For NGOs like CARE, access is key. If the Canadian forces can stabilize the environment in the Kandahar region and expand access, they will have achieved a major success.

The Canadian deployment takes the form of a Provincial Reconstruction Team or PRT which is made up of military, diplomatic and development personnel. By its very presence, the Canadian military can make a difference in the same way peacekeepers did in Bosnia – by being there, moving about, deterring trouble, giving confidence to the normal movements and processes of daily life. A PRT can also mediate with armed elements, can help train and professionalize the Afghan army, can anticipate trouble, deflate it, warn others to stay out of the way.

Agencies like CARE are not casual or helpless when it comes to protecting ourselves or working in insecure environments. We take security very seriously, employ security advisers, give staff training, close operations when necessary – as we did in Zaire, as we have done in Iraq. When we say we need the military, it is not because we take no responsibility for our own safety. On the contrary, like other NGOs, CARE works in many troubled environments quite successfully.

The way we do this is important to this discussion, because it leads to another important point about military interventions in internal conflicts – that point is not only about what it does, but how it does it.

Like other humanitarian agencies, CARE has three priorities in terms of security: to keep our staff, our beneficiaries and our assets safe – pretty much in that order. While we take security seriously, we do not protect ourselves in the way militaries do. We do not carry weapons, travel in armoured cars (at least we don’t do that usually, although there were times in Bosnia when we did), we do not have armed escorts and ambulances at the ready. We are not a self-contained entity as the military must be.

Our security strategy does and must focus primarily on acceptance of our presence in the local context. We have manuals, guidelines, internal and external protocols. We have our principles of independence, neutrality, impartiality. But essentially, our approach is practical.

In the first instance, we try to stay out of trouble. We try to keep away physically from the outbreak of violence.

Secondly, we try to show, in every aspect of our behaviour, that we are not taking sides, that the quarrel is not ours, that we are not a threat. We appeal to the innate humanity in the perpetrators of violence to say “we are here to relieve the suffering of ordinary people, the elderly, the young, the women, the non combatants, the vulnerable.” Surprisingly, this often works, excepting again the Zaire experience. But even the most hardened monsters of violence in places like the former Yugoslavia, where we worked in the territories of all three sides, each knowing we were also working in the others, came to respect us. Basically we work with the consent and assent of the people. In Afghanistan we worked through the Taliban years – supporting schools and learning for 20,000 girls, in direct contradiction of Taliban doctrine. We were able to do this, not by going head-to-head with the Taliban leadership, and not by “sneaking around”, but with the assent and consent of the communities concerned. They judged the risks and managed them, having decided on the importance of the schools to them and that they could trust our relationship with them. Much of our security comes from establishing this type of delicate and fragile relationship, which depends not only on the reality of our activities, but also on people’s perceptions of us, on our profile as neutral, impartial and independent.

You can imagine in the context of Afghanistan how difficult it is for us to stay out of the fray. But at the same time, how essential it is that we do so.

It will be difficult for the Canadian forces to build up an appropriate profile that is on the one hand tough and aggressive enough to dampen and deter violence, and on the other is gentile enough to be non-threatening, and that can convey a profile that is neutral in the sense of being above local rivalries and acting in the best interests of the general good of Afghans.

The Canadian PRT in Afghanistan is following the British model which focusses on security and tries to clearly separate itself from NGO activities. Whatever the Canadian PRT does, we as NGOs need to be separate. We need a line of demarcation. If we are too close to it, we are taking sides. This is dangerous to our staff and our beneficiaries. We need to be separate, not because we do not respect what the Canadian military is doing, but because we need to distinguish ourselves from military activities for fundamental reasons of security. It is important to remember that NGOs like CARE will likely be around for the long term, that the vast majority of our employees are Afghans who will live in the country for the rest of their lives. Their association with us must not endanger their lives now or in the future.

Demarcating ourselves does not mean that we should cut off all relations between NGOs and PRTs or maintain adversarial attitudes to each other. In fact, we need to cultivate mutually respective and complimentary relations. This can be done in a number of ways, including by choice of activity and location, and with protocols that enable NGOs to stay our of the PRTs way when it is engaged in forceful military activities. In addition, it is essential that the military avoid NGO-like behaviours and disguises – we do not want to blur the lines of demarcation or function. It is true that there are situations, especially involving the large transport of assets for instance, when the military has been very effective in delivering supplies in emergency situations. But we must be wary of “hearts and minds” projects that all too often have ulterior political and military motives. If the military undertakes projects that are meant to reward loyalty and local cooperation with gifts of relief, or if the military monitors groups whose loyalty is uncertain by “good works”, or if military commanders try to take advantage of the community-based knowledge that NGOs have as a result of their ongoing work, such blurring of function is dangerous for everyone involved.

We also need good consultation and coordination, done both regionally and nationally. This involves communications in two or more directions – we have to tell one another where we are and what we’re doing. We also think it important that the Canadian PRT cultivate a peacekeeping profile. The more the Canadian PRT can build and maintain a profile that is like a peacekeeping forces, rather than a combat force, the more comfortable NGOs can be in approaching it, coordinating with it, and sharing information. That is why the UK led PRTs have less strained relations with the NGOs in their areas. In this vein the remarks in July of General Hillier were not helpful. He seems concerned to depict the role of the Canadian forces as a fighting, as opposed to a peacekeeping force, perhaps to prepare the Canadian public for casualties, perhaps to begin the process of demonization in order that his own soldiers are prepared to kill, the subject of which Peter Bradley spoke yesterday. But the belligerent tone of his remarks and choice of words will not make it easier to deal with the non military components of the mission, or indeed with many of the people in the communities the Canadian military is in Afghanistan to help.


While the mission of a humanitarian agency such as CARE in a post-conflict zone does not include the use of force, it is obvious that our security is dependent on many factors, including the use of force by others. There are a number of actors involved in assisting societies which have been torn apart by war and conflict; we all have roles to play. We need to be cognizant of one another’s presence and respectful of one another’s work. Helping the people of Afghanistan, for instance, with the evolution of a peaceful society, a robust and legal economy, and a governance structure which suits their needs, is a mammoth undertaking. Those of us involved owe it to those we are trying to help to work together on the basis of clear rules, defined mandates and mutual respect.