You Can't Always Get What You Want

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1985-03-01 12:00:00

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney surprised many Canadians by appointing former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. Members of the peace community have wondered how Lewis would reconcile his strong disarmament beliefs with the requirements of his new position as a Conservative appointee. We asked Lewis about his issue and others in a telephone interview conducted in January of this year.

CANDIS: I'd like to ask you several questions. And I'd like to start off with a question about the freeze. The vote that you had to cast must have been a difficult one for you. Did you find it as painful as many people assumed you must have?

Stephen Lewis: Yes and no. Obviously, I don't ever like voting against a measure that I am for. But I think that every vote requires a context. And the context of the freeze vote for me was threefold.

Number one, in terms of all the other items, the strong pro-disarmament position Canada has taken in the First Committee this last session would have made it, from my view, desirable to round it out with a position in favor of the freeze. But I don't think the freeze vote should disparage or otherwise diminish our positions, such as (our position) on the Comprehensive Test Ban, on the banning of chemical and biological weapons, our vote against weapons in outer space, the position we took on the Nonproliferation Treaty, on all of those equally important initiatives.

The second context, I guess, was my sense of my role as a whole. I did not want to engage in a confrontation with government over the freeze in a way which would prejudice what I think was a pretty significant intervention on Canada's part in the African debate, on the work we did on human rights, the work we did on the convention on torture, the very significant work we did in helping rally Ethiopian relief. That complex of events counted very strongly with me ... because my job is not confined to one issue. My job is applicable to the whole United Nations system, and for me all those other issues are of immense importance.

The third factor is that there is a foreign policy review. I take that seriously. There will be an opportunity to argue strongly for changes of position to the parliamentary committee. So, although in personal terms, I cast a vote to convey government policy, I did it fully conscious of all the other factors that I have mentioned. And I don't feel in any sense that there is impotence involved because on one matter I voted one way where I would have wished to vote another: when on all of those other things of equal importance to me, and I think to Canada, my vote was consistent with my conscience.

CANDIS: I've heard some discussion in Ottawa about the possibility of a different kind of freeze proposal - one that would ban testing and deployment but forget about trying to freeze production, mainly because it's supposed to be too hard to verify. Would you say that the chances are positive that Canada might support a resolution of that type in the future?

Lewis: I genuinely don't know. Doug Roche would be much closer to it. We have already supported the Comprehensive Test Ban, so obviously on one half of that, Canada already has its position.

CANDIS: And has been favorable on that for a long time.

Lewis: That's right. Co-sponsored a resolution. So ... the question becomes how will we feel about questions of deployment, and I don't know the answer to that.

CANDIS: Mr. Mulroney has recently stated that his approach to influencing other governments, especially the US, is through quiet diplomacy. There are pluses and minuses to this. One minus might be that the Americans are probably getting a lot of solace from the show of Canadian support, and another is that the public here can't know what's going on and can't hold the government accountable. Do you think that the pluses are enough to offret the minuses? Do you think that there's any evidence that Mr. Mulroney is succeeding with this method?

Lewis: I don't know how to answer a question like that. I don't know whether the Americans are receiving any more solace now than they were before.... There's been no explicit shift in the policy. Indeed, with Douglas Roche and I saying things pretty strongly, I would think that on balance Canada's position was more vigorously put forward than before.

CANDIS: I would question that with regard to the Star Wars issue, though. I think Mr. Mulroney said the other day something to the effect that there's no harm in developing a research program, and I remember hearing Mr. Trudeau say rather hard things about the Star Wars project.

Lewis: The other part of the quiet diplomacy question that you asked me about -- "the public here can't know what's going on and can't hold the government accountable" -- I don't know how to measure it and I don't know how you measure it. It's certainly not quiet in the House of Commons, is it? In the House of Commons, if Mr. Clark says something about Star Wars, there are immediate questions. If there is a nuclear freeze resolution at the United Nations, there are immediate questions in the House of Commons in which all of the parties put their position. So there is obviously quiet in terms of dealings with other countries - and every government engages in that. But it isn't quiet in the sense that people don't know what the positions are, because obviously they are subject to public debate.

CANDIS: Okay, let me ask you an even harder question. Some peace activists use the term "co--option" to describe your appointment, saying that the Mulroney government lust put you and Mr. Roche there to give the appearance of attending to the concerns of the peace movement, quieting the opposition. In fact, peace activists often remind each other not to be too critical of your accomplishments to date, since they should be supporting you in doing the little bit of good that you can accomplish. Do you worry that your presence may be keeping the peace movement from being as insistent as it ought to be?

Lewis: No, and I would be sad if that were the case. And I don't think of it in terms of co-option, although I perfectly understand that people would attribute the appointments to that. I can understand that some of the people in the peace movement obviously do feel deeply and passionately about these things, and feel grief and dismay if Doug Roche and Stephen Lewis do something like voting against the freeze. But again, let's put it in context. What was expected?

When I took the job, I knew that I would end up voting against it (the freeze motion) unless the government changed its position. So I knew in advance of taking this post that there would be moments when I disagreed. Obviously, it didn't come as a shock to me.

On the other hand, I didn't take the post purely in terms of the peace movement. There are other international issues that are sometimes as compelling. I know that peace is the overriding issue in the world, but for several million Ethiopians, the overriding issue is survival until tomorrow. We have to pay some attention to that.

So the peace movement shouldn't write us off on three counts: First, Roche and I are people with reasonable instincts and we will fight hard both inside and outside for the strongest disarmament policies possible. Second, neither of us is given to co-option. We've lived lives of strong conviction and we don't jettison convictions easily. And third, there is that whole complex of other matters, which are compelling and to which attention must be paid. Frankly they matter as well, and that's my job.

CANDIS: I'd like to ask you about the International Satellite Monitoring Agency. As of now the superpowers are the only ones with the technology to monitor military activities around the globe. There's a proposal - or was -for an agency to set up an international system through the UN and I understand that's come to naught, mainly for lack of sponsors. We understand that here, too, Canada has refrained from supporting the idea because of pressure from the US Would you care to comment on that?

Lewis: No, because I don't know. Again, there was, I remember, in one of Doug's speeches, a mention of satellite monitoring. As a matter of fact he raised it quite positively.

CANDIS: I had heard that Costa Rica was going to sponsor a resolution asking for a global referendum for disarmament, along the lines that Operation Dismantle has been promoting. Did anything come of that?

Lewis: I don't think so. But I do know that Operation Dismantle has been pressing its case for a global referendum with Ottawa. Again, I'm sorry, I don't know where that stands, but they certainly were here to see me, they certainly were here to see Doug, and they certainly are pressing their case. I would think that that is exactly the kind of issue that ought to be put forward in the foreign policy review where it can seek all-party support.

CANDIS: I understand that you're very keen on strengthening and reforming the UN Could you tell mesome ofthe proposals you have in mind?

Lewis: Within the United Nations there is a desperate need to streamline debate in the General Assembly and its committees. I know that that sounds like a technical matter, but it was always true in legislatures that I participated in that if the rules worked well, if things worked efficiently, a lot more got done, and many more subjects got raised in a way which was more thoughtful. What I think has to happen in the UN in its fortieth anniversary year is to see whether it's possible to get resolutions off agendas where they are no longer relevant or are merely repetitive. We're going to group resolutions together in a much more thoughtful way than has previously been the case, so that the debates can be more focused.

We'd like if possible to cool some of the rhetorical spleen that can destroy useful resolution debate in the United Nations, and as well, see if we can exclude some of the destructive amendments which prejudice the passage of useful resolutions. We're trying very hard, in conjunction with other groups, to see that the debates are more genuine.

CANDIS: I understand that there's a Special Committee on the Charter and on Strengthening the Role of the Organization, and that Canada's not on it. lalso hear that the US and USSR are on it, but all they do is dig in their heels and try to prevent any changes that would threaten their own power.

Lewis: But that's the question of the Security Council vote and the way it works. I think that to be involved in what is called the "Preparatory Committee for the 40th Session," which we are on, gives Canada an opportunity to speak to the way in which the organization works and the Charter operates.

CANDIS: Well, Canada could get on that committee (i.e., on the Charter and on strengthening the Role of the Organization.) Would there be any interest in doing so?

Lewis: Getting the Charter changed would take 25 years. But on the other hand, getting the Security Council, where so much power lies, to meet informally with the Secretary General, to alert the Secretary General to incipient confrontations around the world, and to give to him the right to engage in independent negotiations, as he is doing in Cyprus, or to sponsor negotiations, as he is doing in Lebanon, so that potential world problems are dealt with in advance - that's a far greater contribution than an effort to change the Charter, which you and I know carries within it the seeds of endless generations of delay.

CANDIS: Many people in the disarmament movement think that disarmament may not be possible until alternative institutional arrangements have been built up to provide true security for nations. The thing you've just been pointing to, about the use of the Secretary General's good offices, is one example. Others would be strengthening the World Court, and creating a workable system of peacekeeping forces.

Lewis: Yes, there's been a lot of discussion of an international conference on (Security), which Canada is deeply involved in.

CANDIS: Yes, I think William Epstein and George Ignatieff have both proposed a Continuing Security Conference to work on things of that sort. And it might arise out of, say, a special UN session on security. Do you think that there might be such a session? And what might Canada do to promote it?

Lewis: Well, I don't preclude for a moment that there might be such a session. I think that it's a question of initiatives. These ideas were put forward by William Epstein and by George Ignatieff in a session in Ottawa on the UN and they are being actively explored. We haven't had an international conference on peace and security before.

There was an extraordinary occurrence on New Year's when, for the first time in memory, the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish community spent the evening together in a decidedly amicable atmosphere - sponsored, I think, by the Cypriot League of Journalists - and espoused the same thing - a call for reconciliation. Something is perking, remarkably, under the aegis of (Secretary-General Perez) de Cuellar. If something happens in Cyprus, the world will shift its interest, I think, to the question of peacekeeping in Lebanon, peacekeeping in Namibia, peacekeeping in Central America if, by chance, the Contadora mission is successful.

It may not be as fancy as peacekeeping; it may be monitoring or surveillance, or however you would describe it. But Canada's role has always been so strong, we are so highly regarded, and it's such an important initiative to put out fires before they become conflagrations, that it seems to me a pretty obvious initiative for us to take. The details, the way it's done, those are being (thought about).

CANDIS: The Parliamentarians for World Order have called for a standing UN peacekeeping force, to be recruited individually by the UN itself instead of having, say, a French platoon, a Canadian platoon, and so on. Do you like that idea?

Lewis: What do you mean by "recruited individually?"

CANDIS: The UN would hire its own people, and they would not be sent as a group by particular nations and under the control of particular nations, but be organized as an international group individually, so that various nationalities would work together.

Lewis: In theory it sounds good. In practice, I suspect it wouldn't work very well. I guess a strong reason why it wouldn't work very well, is that it would cost so much, and the UN doesn't have the money.

One of the truths about the present peacekeeping operations, of course, is that they are hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears. Hundreds of millions for Canada alone. And that is because all of the countries that contribute the troops, contribute them on the understanding that they will one day be paid back the costs. But the costs that were incurred in the early 1970s are being paid only next year. In other words, there's a huge continuing liability for the countries, and they understand that. And they continue to sustain that liability as a principle.

If the UN went out to hire its own people as an international peacekeeping force - which I can't imagine people would object to - there would have to be a budget for it obviously, and how that would get done would take so long to negotiate that we're better off maintaining the peacekeeping formula that's been devised.

CANDIS: You've mentioned this review of defence and foreign policy this tear, a white paper. Personally, what do iou hope most will come out of this process that will help Canada's functioning in the United Nations?

Lewis: Well, I don't know what to expect. Obviously, there are going to be many submissions and committee hearings, and an eventual report. Or maybe a majority and minority report. I don't know what it will be all about until Mr. Clark announces it. I hope that there will be a confi mation of the strongest possible kind for multilateral activity ... and I must say that the multilateral commitment, which I've seen since I've been involved, has been pretty darned strong. I'm also hoping for a very strong affirmation of the United Nations.

On issues relating to other matters, I'm hoping that there will be a strong affirmation of the matter of foreign aid and in particular, of its desperate applicability to the African continent. I hope that the foreign policy review will allow us to be stronger still in our criticism of, and response to, South Africa. And obviously in matters of peace and security, I hope that there are some inventive and useful, agreed initiatives to be taken here and elsewhere. When I say that, I'm not entirely sure what I mean, but I hope it will happen. I'm thinking of it as an individual.

CANDIS: Another question along the same lines. The peace movement here is definitely re-grouping and trying to find what its agenda is going to be for the next year or so. Obviously we want to put maximum effort into campaigns that are most likely to bring results. What, from your vantage point. are the most promising issues to shine the spotlight of public attention on?

Lewis: I'm not inclined to offer advice. I have no doubt in the world that the peace movement will continue to work on the question of cruise missile testing and the freeze vote. I hope that the peace movement will give ever more exposure and emphasis to nuclear winter, because I think that, in a fascinating and significant way, the impact of nuclear winter is beginning to get through. I think it's almost a morbid fascination - but something seems to be making a connection, just as the feminist movement suddenly managed to connect ... and there was a revelation of the implications of what was being struggled for. The nuclear winter issue carries with it a sense of educating international society in a way which builds pressure. I may be wrong about that, but I don't think so.

CANDIS: Well, I think it also cuts through the numbers game, because it's almost like saying, "Any at all, and that's it !"

Lewis: Yes. And the scientific stuff that's emerging, and the way that it's being disseminated, builds a tremendous power, a sort of consensus for change, a pressure on government which is very, very strong. I'm not entirely sure why it's happening anew from nuclear winter. It may be that it's an area that people have just never thought about and therefore it has about it an intense fascination and interest.

CANDIS: You see it coming up in discussions where you function?

Lewis: Absolutely. It comes up at the United Nations quite frequently.... But I expect that that is a theme which will build in momentum here, as individual nations and delegations understand its impact. The impact is astonishing. I don't know whether people cannot comprehend the effects of a blast, but can comprehend somehow, or struggle with, what happens when there isn't sunlight and the temperature drops and whole environment collapses. I don't know what it is about the human mind which veers to one and not the other, but I sense a momentum building around nuclear winter, which we should be in the forefront of. And both Doug Roche and I are committed to that. I've never seen a theme which carries with it so much feeling and impact.

CANDIS: That's very informative.

Lewis: You want to concentrate your forces where you're most effective. The emphasis on the nuclear winter does that, even to the strategists. So, for what it's worth, I hope you put the emphasis there. And I think I can say that at the United Nations there will be a strong emphasis placed on it. I believe that as Doug Roche and I speak increasingly around the country over the next number of months, it will be one of the central themes of what we have to say.

Peace Magazine March 1985

Peace Magazine March 1985, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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