No Way Out

No way out: Canada can do only so much for its citizens who get caught unexpectedly in war zones

The Ottawa Citizen Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Page: A11
Section: News
Page Name: Arguments
Byline: Martin Collacott
Source: Citizen Special

Israel's decision to attack Hezbollah positions in Lebanon should come as no great surprise. After unilaterally withdrawing its troops from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel hoped that the other side would regard this as a positive gesture intended to prepare the groundwork for a peaceful settlement. Regrettably, those who warned that concessions of this nature would be interpreted by organizations such as Hezbollah as evidence of Israeli weakness turned out to be right.

Even in the face of extensive international pressure, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will be disposed to accept any arrangements that limit its potential for attacking and eventually contributing to the destruction of Israel. A major reason for its resolve in this regard is the extensive backing it receives from Iran, which is equally dedicated to these objectives and which seems prepared to use any means available to exacerbate the Arab-Israeli dispute.

In the meantime, Canada's most immediate priority must be to assist its nationals in Lebanon. The federal government has come in for criticism because of its apparent tardiness in arranging for the evacuation of Canadians who want to leave the country as quickly as possible. Having been involved in a number of major evacuation plans myself while serving as head of Canadian diplomatic missions in South and West Asia, I can testify that this is sometimes easier said than done.

Prior to the start of the first Gulf War, when I was ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, we knew before hostilities began when we might have to put into action our evacuation plans for Canadian citizens. The coalition had given Iraq a specific deadline by which it had to withdraw its troops from Kuwait or face the consequences — and it was possible that the countries to which we were accredited could become embroiled in the conflict. We were therefore able to make a detailed plan and ensure facilities were available to carry out the evacuation should it become necessary.

Some years earlier I was high commissioner to Sri Lanka when ethnic disturbances broke out and we helped Canadian citizens to leave the country. In this instance we had no prior warning of the impending violence but, since the number requiring evacuation was relatively small, we were able to handle the situation without too much difficulty.

In the case of Lebanon today, there are a number of factors that make evacuation plans particularly challenging. One is the sheer number of Canadian citizens in the country, possibly as many as 50,000. To some extent this substantial figure reflects the changing patterns of immigrant resettlement in Canada. In earlier years newcomers from distant lands had to endure long, arduous and sometimes dangerous journeys by sea to reach Canada. They rarely returned to their countries of origin and, for better or worse, their commitment to being a permanent part of the Canadian scene was irrevocable.

With the ease, speed and safety on international travel today, this is no longer the case. Immigrants can arrive here, acquire Canadian citizenship and a passport in three years and return to live in their countries of origin — either on a permanent basis or for protracted periods if they wish to retain their Canadian pension benefits. As a result we have significantly larger communities of expatriate Canadians living in various countries overseas than in years past. While they understandably feel at home in the surroundings where they grew up, in times of trouble they become very conscious of their status as Canadians and expect the federal government to come to their aid without delay. While some of the Canadians caught in the conflict are visitors — such as the members of the El-Akhras family who were tragically killed in an Israeli air strike Sunday — it is likely that many of the Canadians in Lebanon are there on a long-term basis.

Another significant element is that the conflict began with almost no warning and our mission in Beirut had no time in which to arrange in advance transportation facilities to remove our nationals. To put in place evacuation arrangements — such as the leasing of vessels on a permanent standby basis in case trouble breaks out at some point — would be prohibitively expensive. Canadians who choose to live in areas where there could be turmoil of one sort or another must accept that this may entail risks and that there are limits to what our government can do to assist them in some circumstances.

Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador to Syria and Lebanon.