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Reflections on the Role of Non-State Actors in Canada-Asia Relations

by Randolph Mank

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, essentially a domestic peace agreement signed in England between King John and rebel barons in 1215. Their power sharing charter is viewed today as a starting point not only for modern rule of law, but arguably also for divisible sovereignty. Its real history is much more complex than that, of course, but there is little doubt that it unleashed a sense of empowerment among what we might today call ‘non-state actors’ in domestic politics.


In the international realm, over 400 years later the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, created the modern nation-state system, which in effect consolidated inter-state relations as an exclusive instrument of sovereign nation states and their governments. Modern globalization and technological leaps that were unimaginable even a century ago, mean that the post-Westphalian world order characterized by states with exclusive domain over international affairs, is under constant challenge today from non-state actors. Or perhaps more precisely, global connectivity has not so much diluted state power as it has blurred borders and added a new dimension of non-state actor empowerment. Mostly this is good, but at times it can be very bad, as in the case of terrorists and criminals.


My own observations as a Canadian diplomat, with a career focused largely in and around Asia, but also on much broader processes, such as Canada’s participation in the G-7 and our last foreign policy review, bear witness to the ever increasing role of non-state actors in our foreign policy and international relations everywhere. In this paper, I will limit my scope to presenting some personal reflections on how non-state actors have helped shape Canada-Asia relations, with brief and selective examples from my work in and on Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I will also offer some concluding thoughts on the significance of this phenomenon.




Though my first foray into Asia came as a mid-level diplomat assigned to the Canadian embassy in Jakarta in 1988, I had already been accustomed to seeing the enormous role of non-state actors elsewhere. During an assignment in Stockholm in the early 1980s, the steady parade of Canadian authors visiting in hopes of being seen by the Nobel committee, led to an interest in Canadian studies at Swedish universities. This increased the awareness of Canada well beyond what any governmental activities could hope to yield, and was especially welcome against the backdrop of the Cold War tensions playing out at the Stockholm Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which we were actively participating.


Later, working the Central America desk in Ottawa in the mid-1980s, it was clear that the Roman Catholic Church in such places as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were key players in working to protect human rights and extend aid in zones of conflict. In reality, while these non-state actors welcomed the support of foreign governments, their activities pre-dated such support and became instrumental in driving their own governments into both domestic and international dialogues towards reform.


As a result of these experiences, I certainly expected to encounter non-state actors in Indonesia as well. I was nevertheless surprised to see them at nearly every turn.


The first encounter was with McGill University’s Institute for Islamic studies, which had devised a remarkable programme in the 1960s to bring scholars to Montreal to study Islam. Among the first Indonesian students was Dr. Harun Nasution, who then transported the McGill model back to the Indonesian Islamic University system. Eventually acquiring funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, this programme became so successful that a significant cadre of Indonesian Cabinet ministers and religious leaders had already participated by the late 1980s. In fact, by my second tour in Indonesia, beginning in 2003, it was the first item that President Megawati raised with me at our initial meeting, lauding the McGill programme’s positive influence in Indonesia.


In another example, I was equally surprised by the enormous economic role played by Canada’s Inco Mining (now owned by Vale Mining of Brazil) in its nickel operations in the province of Sulawesi. Mining operations are never without controversy but, in this case, not only did Inco invest considerable sums in community development, it also had an indirect influence when it came time for the Canadian government to choose a geographic focus for our aid programme. Though there were many other factors involved, it was no coincidence that we selected Sulawesi.


In addition to these contributions from academe and the private sector, Canadian NGOs made enormous contributions to our relations with Indonesia. No example was clearer than the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which devastated the hitherto closed province of Aceh in Northern Sumatra. Despite the remote location, Canadian NGOs were among the very first responders. When we opened ‘Canada House’ in Banda Aceh and made it available as a platform for all Canadian responders, we were surprised at how many Canadian NGO workers had already arrived on the scene. I received regular plaudits about these collective efforts from Vice President Jusuf Kalla and the Minister in charge of the response, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. Not only did this strengthen our voice in shaping the Tsunami response, it also greatly increased our diplomatic access to the highest levels of the Indonesian government on a wide range of bilateral issues.


Finally, a non-Canadian example of how an individual non-state actor can shape events was that of Finnish businessman Juha Christensen. A longtime resident of Indonesia, he had become interested in bringing a resolution to the conflict between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement based in Stockholm. This group was led by Hasan di Tiro, whom I had also called on in 2000. Though a dialogue process was already in the works just prior to the 2004 Tsunami, the disaster propelled it forward and made it urgent. It was Christensen who identified Martii Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, as a mediator who could be accepted by both sides. Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace prize when an agreement was reached, but it was Christensen who had worked behind the scenes to make it possible and who stayed on in Aceh to work with the monitoring mission later on.




Our relations with Japan, with which I was involved throughout the entire decade of the 1990s both on assignment in Tokyo and subsequently in Ottawa, were dominated by commercial interests from the outset. Canadian businesses involved in shaping relations represented a veritable who’s who list of well-known Canadian companies.


Some of us at the time, however, were interested in broadening the relationship into the security sphere as well, given Japan’s enormous resources and potential to do more. In the field of peacekeeping, where Canada’s resources were stretched quite thin, Japan had shown a tentative willingness to participate, if only in their own backyard. Japan’s role in the UNTAC mission in Cambodia in 1992-03, as ground-breaking as it was, appeared at the time to have been a one off effort, highly circumscribed in scope by domestic pressures.


Given these domestic sensitivities, it was extremely difficult to engage the Japanese through traditional diplomatic channels in a conversation about doing more. So we turned to Professors Brian Job of the University of British Columbia and Masashi Nishihara of the National Defense Academy to see what dialogue and diplomacy among non-state actors might achieve. The results were very positive. The ‘Job-Nishihara Report’ of 1997 led to the launch of the first ever Canada-Japan Symposium on Peace and Security Cooperation the following year, and that dialogue remains an important component of bilateral relations to this day.


Even more concretely, the Japanese also decided to replace an outgoing rotation of Canadian observers in the UNDOF peacekeeping operation in the Golan Heights. For the first time deploying well outside of their region, the Japanese mission lasted a full seventeen years, only ending in 2013. Of course, in addition to the merits of participating in an important peace mission, Japan’s role also helpfully reduced pressures on our own peacekeeping resources.


Myanmar (Burma)


During the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’ in Myanmar in the fall of 2007, the Friends of Burma group in Canada became very active in denouncing the harsh crackdown on protestors by the military regime in the new capital Naypyitaw. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks had initially staged their protests against hikes in the price of fuel in the country. But the demonstrations quickly took on a broader anti-regime tone. Though the Canadian government denounced the crackdown, it is debatable whether or not we would have taken further measures, since some economic sanctions were already in place.


However, the Canadian Friends of Burma group encouraged the Canadian government to stiffen the response. As a result, in December 2007 the Special Economic Measures (Burma) Regulations were brought into force, which froze the assets in Canada of designated Burmese officials, prohibited most financial transactions, and strengthened the arms embargo.


Going further, we organized the first of its kind in Canada, ‘International Conference on the UN’s Role in Burma’, which was held in late March 2008 in Quebec City. This brought together some seventy scholars, along with Canadian Friends of Burma representatives, UN officials such as Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari and Special Human Rights Rapporteur, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, as well as Canadian government officials and Members of Parliament.


Whether or not these efforts had any effect in bringing about the reforms that later came to Myanmar, it was clearly better to do something rather than nothing. The concurrent decision to bestow honorary citizenship on Aung San Suu Kyi, though again a highly symbolic act, certainly made it clear where Canada stood.


Afghanistan and Pakistan


On the darker side of the coin, the clearest case of all to show how destructive non-state actors can be, was of course the horrific al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11. It also showed how dramatically and instaneously such actors can shape our foreign policy. The closure of Canada-US borders, with transport trucks queuing up for miles on either side, brought home the existential nature of our bilateral trade and security relationship with the US.


As a G-8 official at the time, the first effect for our work was a delay in that group’s annual foreign ministers’ September meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. By the time the meeting convened a month later, Operation Enduring Freedom had already been launched by the US in Afghanistan. Canada’s

participation, small at first, grew to some 2500 forces stationed in Kandahar in 2006.


By that time, I had taken on day-to-day management of the South and South East Asia bureau in Ottawa, which included Pakistan, as well as a light oversight role for the very small civilian task force for Afghanistan. Our foreign policy with regards to the region was being driven very much by the aftermath of the attacks and the complexities and horrors of war.


Ironically, it took other non-state actors to step in to help in the rebuilding process. Among the many NGOs involved, the work of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation stood out in particular for me during one visit to Kabul during the war. The Foundation was in the process of cleaning up and restoring historic buildings in Kabul’s old city, called Murad Khane, which had become little more than a rubbish dump during the long years of conflict. Foundation workers removed tons of refuse, restored over a hundred historical buildings, and installed water, sanitation and electricity to the area, all in conditions of great insecurity due to the ongoing conflict. Turquoise Mountain also provided education and training to Afghan artisans to help ensure the future preservation of cultural traditions and artifacts.


The Foundation’s Executive Chairman, Rory Stewart, brought a wealth of personal experience and passion that was critical to the task of rebuilding Afghanistan. His team and their local partners provided a crucially needed example of how non-state actors not only could play a constructive role, but were essential to building a future beyond conflict. Not surprisingly, it shaped our thinking and attracted funding support from the Canadian International Development Agency, among many others. It also caused us to shift more emphasis to small projects, which we accomplished by increasing the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.


In neighbouring Pakistan, we initiated the first ever process of face-to-face meetings between Afghan and Pakistan border officials. With the Taliban attacking our troops in Kandahar, we felt compelled to assist in strengthening border controls to try to prevent the insurgents from so easily slipping across the border to their places of refuge.


At the same time, we were aware of the fact that conditions of crippling poverty in the frontier areas were a large part of the problem. One particular non-state actor that had been quietly doing something about it for years was the Aga Khan Development Network. Working in some of the remotest areas, the scope of their contributions was breathtaking, providing everything from water and sanitation, to housing and education, to microfinance, agriculture and infrastructure. Their work also eventually attracted CIDA funding and became an important conduit for channeling aid to areas in greatest need.


In fact, so active and influential has the Aga Khan Foundation become in Canada that it has since built an art museum and peace park in Toronto, and is currently preparing a new Global Centre for Pluralism on the site of the old War Museum close to the Canadian foreign ministry in Ottawa.


Other cases


If these examples are representative of trends in international diplomacy, then it is clear that non-state actors are having tremendous effects on the global stage. Any list of cases will of course suffer from omissions. There are in fact even subtler examples of how non-governmental players can shape diplomacy. An entire group of such examples exists in the realm of technological development and is woven so deeply into the fabric of diplomacy as to be almost overlooked.


The Canadians who developed BlackBerry smartphones, for instance, played a large role in the instant communications revolution. In Indonesia, where we launched it in 2004, the BlackBerry quickly became the tool of choice for a large portion of mobile telephone users. The government and elites were early adaptors and the device became the most recognized symbol of Canada in Indonesia, as it did in many other countries around the world. Arguably, it also became one of the most important tools of global diplomacy as well. More than one G-8 meeting that I witnessed featured foreign ministers and officials using BlackBerrys for relaying secure messages during sensitive negotiations. And this remains true today.


Though less ubiquitous, the Canadian de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, (now produced by Viking Air), was the airplane of choice in the remote areas of Papua and we often found ourselves on board when travelling there. That some were flown by Canadian pilots as well, made this another potent projection of a positive Canadian image, as well as a tool for connecting people. Delivering assistance in remote areas, a key diplomatic and humanitarian activity, came to rely on this rugged aviation technology.


A further example, though one which featured extensive state support in collaboration with the private sector, involved our exports of Candu reactors. Four of the six countries that have bought the power plants are in Asia: India, Pakistan, South Korea and China. Not without controversy, these reactors have nevertheless driven intensive bilateral and multilateral diplomacy over such things as nuclear weapons safeguards and nuclear safety. Little known outside of the industry, the Candu reactor not only produces clean electricity, but it can actually burn weapons-grade plutonium as well, meaning that it has a potential role to play in global nuclear disarmament activities.




It is clear from these examples that non-state actors are not organized into one cohesive group and are therefore not in a position to demand a Magna Carta like accommodation, as the barons did with King John. But their influence in shaping foreign policy is nevertheless very real.


In the end, however, it is perhaps too obvious just to conclude that non-state actors shape foreign policy and international relations. For this seems like an incontrovertible truism. In fact, each and every individual is by definition a non-state actor. A state, by contrast, is a geographic entity, defined by a body of laws, whose borders and sovereignty are in turn defined under the Westphalian system by a body of international law, all of which is operated and defended by governments.


If this is so, then what is more interesting as a line of further academic enquiry, is to examine the actions of non-state actors vis-à-vis the state, how these actions can reveal a predictive typology, and how non-state actors can change their orientation over time. If we were to plot them along two intersecting continua - from unorganized to highly organized, and from acceptance to rejection of the state – we would begin to see non-state actors in a clearer light.


In this typology, it is not impossible even for unorganized individuals without resources to influence foreign policy from time to time. If they accept the state or are pro-state they might well attract resources from a government or even foreign governments and, in so doing, shift along the continuum to a higher level of organization and influence. These are the Juha Christensens and the Rory Stewarts of our world.


At the other extreme, if non-state actors reject the state and find the resources to do something about it, they might become anything from lone rebels, to small groups of insurrectionists or criminals, to fully-fledged groups who use violence to overthrow a government and take control of a state. The resurgent Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are noteworthy examples of the latter.


But state rejectionists are not always violent or criminal. To return to where we began, there are those who simply believe that the Westphalian system of nation-states is outmoded in our modern, highly networked world, that it breeds conflict, competition and the misuse of scarce resources, all of which are ultimately harmful to mankind. The more we realize that destructive global phenomena like global warming, over-population, poverty, food insecurity, pandemics and religious extremism know no borders, or for that matter the farther our scientists peer into space for signs of other life or into the strange quantum world for explanations of our macro world, the more our distinctions between state and non-state actors look primitive, artificial and outmoded.


Some might argue that our real organizing units should be individuals themselves, with each person’s physical sanctity and sovereignty defined by a body of human rights law. This, of course, has been a very real trend line since the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Though we have not yet reached a stage where a ‘human state’ rivals the nation state, the two seem likely to continue to shape foreign policy and international relations in tandem. Canada’s experience in Asia certainly offers clear examples to show that this is already so.

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