Dialogue at Cornwall: Ambassador Roche and his Consultative Group on Disarmament

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1987-12-01 12:00:00

The lobby of the place we've come to resembles a hotel, but instead it's Transport Canada's Training Institute. The whole complex is much like a small, maze-like university, complete with dormitories, pub, and swimming pool. The "students" are uniformed pilots and managers, training or re-training in new technology. Only days before, the institute had been the site of the U.S. and Canadian free trade negotiations. Now we are the guests: 52 people invited by the Ministry of External Affairs to spend a weekend discussing Canada's Arctic military policy. We are the 1987 Consultative Group on Disarmament and Arms Control. The list has been composed with an eye to balance. About half of us -- "our side"- recognize one another as old buddies; we are the "peace people" That leaves our counterparts, the other hall, without a label, since one can hardly call them the "war people." They are strategic analysts in universities, bureaucrats in External Affairs, and even one submarine officer.

The dialogue between our respective groupings is courteous but hardly effusive. Surprisingly, nevertheless, we work together in discussion groups, and are able to come up with at least a few suggestions that reflect consensus. There is, especially, agreement that more attention must be paid to safety and environmental concerns in the early phases of military planning. No one disputes, for example, that the proposed nuclear-powered submarines will be ecologically hazardous. A spokesperson for the Inuit people reminds us of their worries about the environmental impact of the military build-up in the polar region. While recognizing that Canada must develop some method for monitoring potential intruders in Canadian waters, some of the participants prefer the use of passive sensors or submarines with alternative systems of propulsion. In fact, this has already been done in Norway. Some of us worry about the possibility that Canada may get committed to a "thickened" air defence in the North if Star Wars goes ahead but the military man reassures us: Star Wars will never get to that stage, so don't worry!

One morning, coincidentally, we read in the Globe and Mail about Mr. Gorbachev's Murmansk speech, which proposes making the Arctic a "zone of peace." The same suggestions have come up in our working groups and we refer to the idea with general approval in our report.

On October 2, near the end of the conference, I was fortunate enough to spend an hour talking with Ambassador Roche about his work and the Consultative Group. The following is an edited portion of that conversation.

PEACE MAGAZINE: How many countries have Disarmament Ambassadors?

AMBASSADOR DOUGLAS ROCHE: If you count countries that have Ambassadors go the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, it's forty. We have an Ambassador to the Conference. But going beyond the Conference on Disarmament, there might be four or five countries that have an Ambassador for Disarmament Australia has one, Sweden has one. And now New Zealand has a Minister for Disarmament,

PEACE: This Consultative Group is part of your portfolio as Ambassador, is it not?

DOUGLAS ROCHE: Yes. I spend seven months of the year at the United Nations at various committees and commissions, but a major component is the Consultative Group on Disarmament and Arms Control Affairs. When I was appointed to this job, the terms of reference specified that I was a link between the government and members of the public concerned with arms control affairs. I have always taken that to mean that I would take the government's views out to the country, but I would also take the views of the interested community back to the government The channel for doing that is the Consultative Group.

PEACE: Tell me about the history of the role of the Ambassador, and the Consultative Group.

The Consultative Group

ROCHE: The idea for the Consultative Group came out of UNSSOD I (U.N. Special Session on Disarmament I) in 1978. Geoff Pearson brought some people together to advise the government on foreign policy and react to what the government was doing. The Group grew slowly and was not very active in 1983-84. So, when I came in in '84, one of the first things I did was to call regular meetings. Now, we have a meeting at least once a year.

PEACE: Were you ever a member of the Group?

ROCHE: I went to a couple of its meetings when I was an MP, but MPs don't join because it is a nongovernmental organization (NGO). When I became Ambassador, I decided to regularize the Consultative Group by holding a meeting each fall on a specific theme. We held an extra one in 1985 when the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference was corning up. And in 1986,1 went across the country and held thirteen consultations with 198 people. I want the Group ID have the benefit of experienced people in it, and also new people who can contribute their experience and help to develop themselves. This year, of the 52 members of this group, 26 are new- were not in the ´86 meeting. I set up a steering committee of seven members; they have encouraged me to apply strict rotationality, but I don't want to get into a system where it's three years on and then off automatically, Some people have a lot to contribute and I don't want to lose them, so there's some flexibility. After being here, when participants go hack to their own communities, I think it helps them see things in a larger way.

PEACE: And your job?

ROCHE: My mandate has three components: First, to represent Canada at the UN, second to be an advisor, and third, to be a link with the NGO community. I have direct access to the Secretary of State for External Affairs when I want, and I meet with the Prime Minister from time to time. That doesn't mean that they always take my advice. Like a lot of people in the government, I have views and feed them in. I do the best I can. But government policies are based on input from several sources, so you don't get your way all the time.

PEACE: Who were the other Disarmament Ambassadors?

ROCHE: It started in 1980 in the Throne speech of the Trudeau government, Arthur Menzies was appointed and held the job until the end of ´82. Geoff Pearson was never the Ambassador for Disarmament, but he sort of did the work. The job had been vacant for over a year when I was appointed, George lgnatieff was appointed by Mr. Turner in August of ´84 but didn't want to work full-time. In ´84, when the Mulroney government came in, they decided they wanted to have a full time Ambassador for Disarmament.

Are Peace Activists Co-opted?

PEACE: So part of your job is to stay in contact with NGOs -- with "peace people."

ROCHE: Yes, I try help them. I am a great supporter of the peace movement, I realize what they're doing. I've just written an article on it for the Canadian Encyclopedia, I see what has happened: The peace movement has become intellectualized over the past few years; a deepening, a maturation has taken place, as we can see by the wide number of specialized groups. Lawyers. Physicians. Scientists. Educators. Religious groups. Women. A lot of politicians haven't caught up with It. They don't understand that this depth has come about, A growing number of people are sophisticated about the implication of the arms race in today's world, and about the need for Canada to play a strong role, working intellectually, pressing both superpowers who, of course, have 97 percent of the nuclear weapons.

PEACE: Last night, I mentioned in my little speech that Lloyd Axworthy, with whom I had been chatting at dinner, had asked me what has been happening to the peace movement, I'd said it has become more sophisticated and has a deeper analysis of the problems underlying the arms race' and that it has become more effective. Afterwards, several people took issue with me and said that the peace movement had been and was, less effective. They said we'd he better off out in the streets, as we were five years ago, because politicians don't know what we're doing now. Somebody quoted Mulroney as saying that the peace movement in Canada is dead.

ROCHE: I've never heard him say that. In fact, he came to the Consultative Group in l985 and gave a speech that had a lot of substance in it, In the House of Commons he has said, and I could show you the quote, that the peace movement is absolutely necessary, because the people in it are challenging assumptions and are committed to a world with reduced levels of armaments, a world that would be a more secure place. That is my under standing of what is happening. But I take your point that some people are concerned that because the peace movement's not protesting in the streets, the politicians and the media think it doesn't exist, I can tell you that the peace movement exists in great depth and is going to be more and more influential in our country. The politicians had better take note of it!

PEACE: My answer to the person who made that remark was that public opinion has been changing in the polls in just the direction that we would want it to. And I think the peace movement can take a lot of credit for that change.

ROCHE: Well, it's remarkable the number of people who are involved. I agree with you. The Canadian public is responsive. I think if we go back to the Pearson era, or even earlier, there's a feeling in Canadians -- we feel an obligation to the world.

There's always been strong support for the U.N., for example. There's never been a problem politically to support the UN, as there has been in other places, such as the United States.

PEACE: What about this question of co-option? It came up last night; someone here said he felt that people with leadership roles in the peace movement had been entranced by the opportunity to talk with politicians in gatherings such as this. Some, he implied, get so much pleasure from it that they mute their criticism. I'm sure that you've heard that concern a lot.

One important peace activist told some of us who were coming here, in effect, "Don't fool around with phony consultations anymore. Just write them off and oppose them. It's all a hoax." And indeed, judging from the White Paper on defence, we seem to have so little impact on the government that it might be better to simply stand outside and oppose meetings like this.

ROCHE: Well, I can certainly understand that, I don't know what to say. It's certainly not my intention to co-opt anybody to come to the Consultative Group. (1 don't think it's that great a thing anyhow, to tell the truth.) I want the input. It strengthens my hand. I can go to the government and say, "Look, there are these serious people out there across the country who think this."

Now, on the White Paper. It is the White Paper on Defence. What do you expect? People in National Defence don't have a large view of the world. They have a defence view. The important thing is that is not the foreign policy of Canada It's not even the security policy of Canada, The security policy of Canada is composed of defence, arms control and disarmament, peacekeeping, and conflict resolution. The government heard plenty on the preparation of the Green Paper -- the Hockin-Simard Joint Committee on Foreign Policy. The government heard it, and that policy, which is the foreign policy of Canada, was deeply affected by the presentations.

PEACE: But peace activists say, "How can they do this? They have the Hockin-Simard Report, [quite a constructive foreign policy document] which comes out and is just sitting there. Nothing is happening on it, Whereas over here, coming from a different place, we have something [the Defence White Paper] that totally contradicts it,"

ROCHE: There is certainly a different perspective. Look, Metta, I'm not going to defend the government any more than I have to but it simply isn't true that nothing's happening. The core of Canadian policy is to push for and extend the INF agreement, which is a manifestation for the first time of some reduction in nuclear weapons. look at the work on a chemical weapons treaty and confidence-building measures, through the Stockholm Agreement! There are also many professional and non-governmental organizational exchanges. Geoff Pearson just took a group over to the Soviet Union for serious consultations with certain counterparts -- Bernie Wood, Ernie Regehr, and three or four others. This is just one of many things that's going on. You're referring to people who are seeing, of course, the drama coming out of the White Paper- nuclear submarines, and so on -- as if this were the only thing that's going on. I started my answer to this question by saying that I certainly understand that, But for me, it's not a question of being co-opted I don't feel co-opted myself. I'm in there fighting every day, and as a matter of fact' I'm prohibited from saying publicly a lot of the things that I'm doing inside to advance things or to stop other things. Like every other politician, I have to weigh when I can get an advance and when I can't You have to keep weighing it and doing the best you can. I have no trouble looking at myself in the mirror and recognizing that' just because I can't obtain everything that my friends would like, it doesn't mean that I'm useless or that they are useless. Were it not for us, things would be a lot worse.

PEACE: At lunch I was in conversation with Jan Van Stolk, the president of the physicians' group, CPPNW. He said regretfully that his organization can't participate in certain things with other peace groups because CPPNW has more impact and recruits more physicians if it retains a little distance and dignity. Many of their members wouldn't join if they took part in marches, say, or demonstrations. On the other hand' I have friends in groups such as ACT, who think we're missing the boat if we don't have a demonstration every month with 100,000 people on the street, In terms of influencing people in government, how important is it to have very visible gatherings of peace people, as opposed to working in other ways?

Keep the Movement Visible

ROCHE: I think visible gatherings count, It's how most of the media and how most of the politicians measure it They're not there yet seeing the intellectualization. That's a long process. Visible presence is important,

PEACE: Your department assists peace groups.

ROCHE: Yes, we put out $12 million in three years to eighty-five peace groups. We've supported all manner of conferences. Our budget was cut, but that's because the government was cutting the deficit all around. They came to External Affairs and said they wanted $25 million out of the budget' so they had to run around the hallways to find that money. So we did suffer, but at the same time, the Peace Institute budget was going ahead. It's protected by legislation. I think Pearson's up to a million dollars in grants for this year. The peace community has a strong financial base on which to stand in this country.

There's a lot to be optimistic about! We have momentum on our side now. We cannot brush aside the changes in the Soviet Union, or the approach that Gorbachev is bringing to the international community. It's a new kind of Soviet Union that we re dealing with. The most creative people in the West now see the new Opportunities. It gives me hope that this momentum can be carried forward. Tint is the role for Canada'. It's a multilateral role, it's a constructive international role. There is not a military role for Canada.

Although we cannot print here the report of the Consultative Group, it will shortly be available upon request from the office of the Disarmament Ambassador, Douglas Roche, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pearson Bldg., Ottawa. (613) 992-5071.

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988

Peace Magazine Dec 1987-Jan 1988, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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