jeudi 3 novembre 2011

Will Canada-Tunisia relations be affected?



This is the topic I have been most talked about since my arrival in Tunisia two months ago. I waited some time before addressing it because I hoped the Canadian government would reach an agreement with Tunisia in time for the October 23rd election offering all Tunisians in Canada (more then 15,000) the real opportunity to vote. Unfortunately it wasn’t the case and it’s all very unfortunate and especially difficult to justify. For those not aware of what I’m alluding to, here is a summary of the facts.

On September 15th, the Canadian government sent a diplomatic note to Tunisia’s embassy in Ottawa advising them of their decision to not allow Tunisia to open voting booths on its territory for the election of the Constituent Assembly on October 23rd. The reason being that Canada refuses to allow another country to create an extraterritorial electoral riding on its soil.

There are 18 out of the 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly that represent electoral ridings outside of Tunisia and two of them include Canada. In short, the Canadian government doesn’t automatically oppose opening voting booths; it refuses to do so when the request involves it being part of a foreign electoral riding.

Canadian and Tunisian foreign ministers,
John Baird and Mohamed Mouldi Kefi.
Tunisia is not an exception to the rule as Canada has systematically refused such request since 2006. As an example, Macedonians living in Canada were unable to vote in the June 2011 general election held in their country.

This being said, Canada’s position hasn’t changed since the September 15th official announcement in spite of rumours to the contrary circulating in the media. From the very beginning, Tunisians could vote in their embassy in Ottawa or at their consulate in Montreal (a second site in Montreal belonging to the Tunisian government also served as a voting booth).

According to international law, embassies and consulate offices aren’t considered to be in the host country, but are seen as being part of the foreign country’s territory. Therefore, to prevent Tunisians in Canada from accessing their embassy or consulate and be able to vote, the Canadian government would have had to close them completely which is an almost unimaginable scenario.

Therefore, Tunisians did vote in Ottawa and in Montreal on the 20, 21 and 22 of October as was expected all along. Nevertheless numerous people were unable to vote because they live too far away from Montreal or Ottawa. With mail-in or electronic voting not being an option, few Tunisians living outside of southern Ontario or Quebec actually voted. This probably explains in part the low level of participation in the district that includes Canada compared to other extraterritorial districts.

Now, we can ask ourselves why the Canadian government opposes the country being included in an extraterritorial electoral riding. According to the foreign affairs ministry, this would be « a matter of Canadian sovereignty ». But if you look closely at the facts, how can this in any way actually affect Canada?

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of
Canada and leader of the
Conservative party.
In my opinion, this is a very good question to which there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t really change anything. Personally I don’t see how Canada’s sovereignty would be affected by the election of a foreign representative. This elected official couldn’t in any way have any kind of influence on the daily life of a Canadian. At least I can’t see how. The only thing that person would be is a voice for the Diaspora in the Tunisian parliament.

This simply seems to be an ideological refusal on the part of the Canadian government, a way to create a crisis where none existed before. It’s worth mentioning that the main opposition parties in the House of Commons (Liberals, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic Party) have expressed their disagreement with the position of the Conservative party who has a majority in Canada’s Parliament. In Quebec’s National Assembly, all parties unanimously voted in favour of a resolution condemning the Conservative party’s decision.

In Canada’s embassy in Tunis, you could feel that the subject matter was problematic and that no one wanted to paint themselves in a corner. A Canadian diplomat stated « Canada supports the democratic transition in Tunisia but we cannot allow another country to create an extraterritorial electoral riding on our soil. »

It is a strange decision when all the facts are considered. Tunisia is the first country to revolt and depose a dictator in the mist of the Arab Spring. It accomplished all this without violence unlike other countries where circumstances seem more difficult. In addition, a democratic, transparent and peaceful election ensued which is not the case with some of its North African and Middle Eastern neighbours.

At worse for a politician, wasn’t this a perfect opportunity to score political points and declare to the media that « Canada will do all that it can to support democracy in Tunisia and facilitate voting for Tunisians living in our country » ?

Would it not be possible to envision an exception for Tunisia when considering the particular circumstances and the advantages for western countries to see democratic governments in the Middle East? Obviously, this isn’t the case. Like in many other important areas, all will soon be forgotten and the focus will move on to another subject. So is life.

Canadian ambassador to Tunisia, Ariel Delouya.
Will relations between Canada and Tunisia be affected? I don’t believe so. How can Canada sanction a newly elected democratic government when it routinely negotiated with the previous dictator? It would be absurd.

One of the only solutions would be for Tunisia to implement an electronic or mail-in voting system. For future elections, they could try negotiating with Canada again, but there is little reason to believe that the present government would change its position.

Canada will be confronted with a very similar dilemma in the near future. This time the Conservative government’s decision may engender a much greater reaction because the request will come from a richer and more populous nation with whom Canada has excellent relations, France. France has recently changed its electoral rules whereby Canada and the United-States are now part of a new electoral riding for the 2012 election.

Will Canada refuse France's request for an extraterritorial electoral riding on its soil? For the moment, nothing leads us to believe that it will do so since a representative from the foreign affairs ministry stated that Canada doesn't foresee any exceptions. Meanwhile, Alain Juppé, France's chief of diplomacy, is confident that a solution can be found. Another diplomatic conflict in the making... but one that will be harder to sweep under the carpet.

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