Under friendly fire

Land mines and fish test Canada-U.S. relations

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 29 1997

Under friendly fire

Land mines and fish test Canada-U.S. relations

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 29 1997

Under friendly fire


Land mines and fish test Canada-U.S. relations


To better understand relations between Cana da and the United States, consider how two conflicting Canadian approaches can still pro duce the same result. When Brian Mulroney was prime minister, he liked to publicly stress the positive about relations with the United States-while working privately to smooth out any disputes. In contrast, Pierre Trudeau emphasized the differences between the two countries and played down similarities. Yet the over all state of relations seldom seems to change much no matter who is in charge. "You can always count on a cer tain ebb and flow in the tide between the two countries," says Dr. Victor Konrad, the Ottawa-based director of the Canada-U.S. Fulbright Program. "And you can also be sure that it will never lead too far in either direction."

Perhaps, but these days, even as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien affects a middleground stance somewhere between that of Mulroney and Trudeau, the gulf is unmistakably growing between Ottawa and Washington. Whether by land or sea—specifically, in disputes over the use of land mines and salmon quotas—the differences between the two sides have seldom seemed more acute.

The most damaging to Canada’s interests is the increasingly heated dispute over salmon fishing rights off the coast of British Columbia. Last week, the release of a stern letter from President Bill Clinton about Canadian actions raised B.C. hackles anew. Soon afterward, two separate subcommittees of the House of Representatives examined the issue—and succeeded only in adding to the confusion and anger surrounding it. Hie other friction point, which caused Canadian officials to react with disappointment but little surprise, was the U.S. refusal to join close to

90 countries in backing an international § treaty spearheaded by Canada that seeks to £ ban all use of antipersonnel land mines.

To those issues, add concern over a new American visa policy that could create border gridlock, as well as the U.S. approach to expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (page 28), and it is small wonder that Chrétien has recently been staying up later than his usual 10 p.m. bedtime, working the telephone to the White House. At various times during the past two weeks, the Prime Minister, said an aide, has exchanged late-night calls with Clinton on both the fisheries dispute and the land mines ban.

The salmon issue is the most difficult to resolve. It revolves around Canadian claims of overfishing by Ameri-

cans off the coast of British Columbia—exacerbated by a four-year deadlock in negotiations over quotas between the two countries. Last week, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski made public a letter from Clinton saying that the United States will “take appropriate countermeasures” to respond to any future harassment by Canadian fishermen. That was in response to an incident in late July in which about 300 Canadian fishing boats blockaded an American ferry carrying 300 passengers for three days in the northern B.C. port of Prince Rupert. Clinton’s letter described the incident several times as “very serious” and noted that the U.S. Senate has also passed a resolution condemning Chrétiens government

for “failing to accept its responsibility for the blockade.” The relatively harsh tone of the letter, and because it was made public by Murkowski, torpedoed hopes in Ottawa that the dispute could be resolved through quiet diplomacy. The letter, in fact, was released on the same day that Chrétien and Clinton spoke privately by telephone. It was bound to play into the hands of B.C. Premier Glen Clark, who has aggressively backed the fishermen and, against the wishes of Ottawa, is on their behalf suing the U.S. federal government, Alaska and Washington state for $325 million, alleging they have failed to abide by the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty. Ottawa, led by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, has taken a more conciliatory stance—and won the ire of many British Columbians for doing so. That has provoked a split within the federal cabinet.

Federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson, who represents a B.C. riding, has been much more outspoken on the issue than Axworthy, and Ottawa sources say the two men have had several sharp disagreements over it.

Yet the Americans are not immune to the kind of jurisdictional bickering and internal ^ GREECE disputes that Canadians find so wearying in ► INDIA their own country. Outside a House of Reprep/\N sentatives subcommittee hearing last week IRAQ in Washington, Dennis Brown, an adviser to British Columbia’s Clark, had an emotional ISRAEL

exchange with Alaska’s representative on the Pacific Salmon Commission, David Benton. After he challenged Benton to settle the issue through binding arbitration, Benton refused, citing the variety of states and interest groups who must agree to any deal. ‘Your fear of third-party arbitration suggests a weakness,” said Brown. “What have you to hide? 'What have you to fear?” Replied the Alaskan representative: ‘We don't have anything to fear. It’s just a matter of our law.” At another subcommittee hearing the next day, combative Alaska Congressman Don Young asked a state department official about rumors in his state that Washington might settle the salmon dispute on terms favorable to Canada so that Ottawa would then keep troops in Bosnia. “I hope that’s not true,” said Young, who is recovering from heart surgery, “because that’s really going to get my old heart pumping.” The puzzled official denied it.

There has been no disunity in Ottawa over the American position on antipersonnel land mines. By the end of last week, representatives of the nearly 90 countries meeting in Oslo, Norway, had agreed on a treaty that would completely ban the devices, which are blamed for killing or maiming up to 26,000 people every year. The document, which will be formally signed in Ottawa on Dec. 3, caps a remarkably successful 11-month effort by the federal government


A lthough more than 100 countries are expected to sign the Ottawa-inspired treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, nations that have so far stayed out of the pact include the world's top military powers and many of its regular belligerents. Major examples:



that managed, in the opinion of supporters from a variety of nations, to achieve results far beyond those originally expected. The most important consequence of the treaty, said lawyer Louise Doswald-Beck of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is that “this will be the first time ever that international humanitarian law has prohibited a weapon in widespread use.”

In fact, given diplomats’ penchant for writing all manner of escape clauses into international agreements, one of the most striking elements of the treaty is its blunt, unequivocal language. The first article declares flatly that each country signing the document “undertakes never under any circumstances ... § to use antipersonnel mines” and to I “destroy or ensure the destruction ¡2 of all antipersonnel mines” in their I possession.

I But it was that same commitment I to unequivocal language that ultimately resulted in Clinton’s refusal to support it—and that, indirectly, resulted in criticism of Canada by previous allies. Right up to the final hours of negotiations in Oslo, the Americans suggested they would endorse the document if it contained several changes, including a new clause that would allow it to be phased in over a period of nine years. As well, the Americans wanted an exception made in the world’s last Cold War zone—the Korean Peninsula— and an addition that would allow all signatories to abandon their ban if attacked by another country. Without those additions, Clinton said, American troops in combat zones could be exposed to “unacceptable risks” and

that “is a line I simply cannot cross.” At first, Canada appeared prepared to go along with the U.S. wishes in Oslo if it meant that Washington would then back the treaty. That, in turn, would have increased the pressure on other key, non-participating countries such as Russia, China, Pakistan and India to take part. But less than a day before the final wording was due to be approved in Oslo, Clinton phoned Chrétien in Ottawa at about 1 a.m. to ask for a 24-hour delay in the talks. Chrétien called him back an hour later and told him that Canada would support the manoeuvre. But, an aide said. Chrétien added that his delegation members in Norway “were sure the deal would go through even if Washington didn’t sign on.” Yet Canada’s willingness even to consider such concessions to the United States drew heated criticism from most of the other delegates.

In the wake of Washington’s refusal to sign, the pressure on Clinton to reverse his stand appears likely to become even more intense. A group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, wrote Clinton last week asking him to reconsider. They added that Mother Teresa endorsed their wishes several days before her death. Former president Jimmy Carter called the U.S. position “embarrassing.” And even as Clinton declared that he could not back the treaty in its present form, he announced a series of new supportive measures: they include a renewed commitment to help clear minefields and instructions to the Pentagon to develop alternatives that will allow the United States to join the ban within 10 years.

But supporters of the U.S. position point to the country’s responsibilities as the world’s sole superpower in explaining its reservations. For example, in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, mines play an integral role in protecting the 37,000 American troops stationed there. They and the South Koreans are vastly outnumbered by the one-million-strong North Korean army, sixth-largest in the world. And other countries with a demonstrated history of hostility towards the United States, such as Iraq, did not take part in the Oslo meeting. Even several nations that did attend—including Venezuela and Kuwait—indicated that their own concerns about security left them unsure whether they would sign the treaty in Ottawa.

Russia’s delegate, who attended as an observer, complained that the process was divisive, pitting ban supporters against “those who are not yet ready”—countries, he noted, that contain two-thirds of the world’s population.

Still, the result provides an enormous boost to Canada and, specifically, Axworthy, who is acknowledged as the father of what has become known as the Ottawa Process. In fact, the entire approach resulted from a spur-ofthe-moment challenge Axworthy posed to delegates at an international land mine conference in Ottawa last October. There was an immediate response—including, earlier this year, an announcement that Axworthy had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. The ban campaign also took a major leap forward when Diana,

Princess of Wales, endorsed the idea earlier this year, making much-publicized trips to Angola and Bosnia where she posed poignantly with land mine victims.

Now, Canadian officials are in the not-unfamiliar position of waiting and watching for the Americans to make the next move on both the treaty and the fishing dispute. On the issue of the land mines ban, said an adviser to Chrétien, “we think it is quite possible they will come onboard, but we’re not yet prepared to say probable.”

Similarly, a fishing consensus seems as far away as ever. Privately, federal officials on the Canadian side concede it is likely to be months before any new agreement is reached. And as with the land mines treaty, conceded a Chrétien adviser, “we are more wishful than optimistic.”

That description might also apply to Washington’s new ambassador in Ottawa, Gordon Giffin, who had the misfortune to take up his post officially last week just as the series of controversies heated up. In his first meeting with reporters, Giffin claimed to still be “on page 1” of the briefing book the state department gives new ambassadors—but has clearly learned some lessons well. Displaying perfect command of diplomat-ese, Giffin said of the disputes: ‘We’re having an active dialogue on a number of important issues.” Then, he laughed at his own reticence. In the latest ebb and flow between Canada and its closest but most frustrating friend, more such displays of discretion and humor might serve both sides well.