Canada clarifies its stance on a ‘humanitarian truce’

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OTTAWA, Ont. — Canada now wants a “humanitarian truce” in the Israel-Hamas war three days after it abstained from a U.N. resolution calling for one.

The shift is the latest sign of foreign policy incoherence from Canada, which abstained from Friday’s U.N. vote even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had backed the idea of “humanitarian pauses” just days earlier.

“Time is running out,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday during a speech that attempted to define Canadian foreign policy in an era of geopolitical crises.

“We need an agreement from all parties to get foreign nationals out, including Canadians. To release all hostages. And to allow food, fuel and water into Gaza,” Joly told a Toronto business audience.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that “the second stage of the war” had started, and violence in Gaza is expected to ratchet up.

The United Nations adopted Friday’s resolution calling for the protection of civilians while upholding “legal and humanitarian obligations” during the unfolding crisis. Fourteen countries including Israel and the United States voted against it. Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom abstained while France voted in favor.

Canada tried unsuccessfully to amend the U.N. resolution to “unequivocally” reject and condemn “the terrorist attacks by Hamas,” though not the violence unfolding in Gaza.

Truce vs. pause

On Monday, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was championing the call for humanitarian pauses.

“These would be localized, they would be short duration,” he told CNN. “There may be a need for multiple of them to get humanitarian aid in, but also to see if we can't negotiate for the release of hostages, and find a way to get them out safely.”

A senior Canadian government official clarified that “truce” conveys the same meaning as “pauses,” and that Ottawa’s position hasn’t changed. But Joly is currently using the word “truce” because people were confused by the meaning of “humanitarian pauses.” The official, granted anonymity to speak freely on internal discussions, said both terms are likely to be used interchangeably going forward.

Deliveries of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip have been limited since Israel imposed a total blockade on the enclave in response to Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7 that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead.

Israeli airstrikes since Netanyahu’s declaration of war on Hamas have led to the deaths of at least 8,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Global Affairs Canada said as of Monday it is in contact with 460 Canadians, permanent residents and family members in Gaza who have reached out to the government for help.

Trudeau’s government is under fire from advocacy groups for its steadfast support of Israel and its reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire. Some members of Trudeau’s Liberal caucus also want the prime minister to support a ceasefire.

Canada’s reluctance to condemn Israel for violence and civilian deaths in Gaza has shaken diaspora community members.

Ottawa-based Imam Sikander Hashmi warned Trudeau and his Cabinet against sleepwalking their way toward a moral and policy failure in the Middle East. He urged leaders to call for an immediate ceasefire.

“Your silence and inaction is shouting out loud that our blood and pain are worthless,” Hashmi said in a Monday press conference on Parliament Hill.

‘Pragmatic diplomacy’ put to the test

In her speech, Joly pledged more “forward-leaning engagement” with new partners.

She announced Canada’s foreign policy will be guided by two principles: a vigorous defense of the country’s sovereignty, along with the use of “pragmatic diplomacy” to mediate and mollify international conflicts.

“We are not naive about what engagement will accomplish,” Joly said. “But if we refuse to engage, we create additional incentives for those whose actions we strongly oppose to join together.”

She blamed Russia’s war in Ukraine for spiking gas and grocery prices at home.

Joly, who has been foreign minister for two years, has few wins on successful international engagement beyond Canada’s involvement in Ukraine.

Ottawa disentangled itself from pressure to lead a multinational military intervention in Haiti, despite calls from Washington to get more involved on the ground.

Earlier this fall, Trudeau cited “credible allegations” and suggested agents of India’s government may have been involved in the murder on Canadian soil of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. It has made it tricky for Canadian diplomats dealing with nations that are vying for closer ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To add to the pile, Joly told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last October that Canada wants in on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. Global Affairs Canada confirmed to POLITICO that talks about Canada’s membership in U.S. President Joe Biden’s trade club are ongoing.