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Canada’s Uneven Diplomacy in an Unstable Latin America

Prime Minister Trudeau at a summit in Lima, Photo by Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 2018

To his credit, Prime Minister Trudeau improved Canada’s handling of migration in his early years, yet Canada’s wider foreign policy strategy concerning migration and refugees has faltered within the past year.

By Amadeus Narbutt

The world has seen a wave of protests globally, but nowhere has it been more apparent than in Latin America, with recent destabilizing protests occurring across the continent, from Chile and Ecuador to Bolivia and Haiti. In addition to these protests, there are significant political shifts and instabilities emerging on the continent. The last remaining leader of the 2000s leftist Pink Tide, Evo Morales, was recently reelected in Bolivia in a very contentious election. Argentina’s recent election shifted the country to the left but has brought corruption back into the highest offices of government. Drug cartels remain powerful enough to resist the power of Mexican security forces. Functioning democracy in Honduras has crumbled under immense corruption. There continues to be significant waves of migration both leaving and migrating within Latin America. Cuba and Venezuela continue to suffer under American sanctions, while the number of Venezuelan migrants settling in neighbouring countries continues to rise. All the while, the Amazon continues to burn. Canada requires a wise and steady diplomatic strategy in a new Latin America, which is undergoing profound political shifts in 2019.

Among all the chaos, there is also a reorganization of diplomatic alliances within Latin America, especially in light of recent electoral changes. Alberto Fernandez’s election in Argentina has already resulted in strained relations between his country and Brazil. Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaido, continues his claim to be the legitimate leader of Venezuela, leading to diplomatic rifts between Venezuela and other Latin American states. And, new progressive alliances between some established leftist governments on the continent and newly elected ones seem primed to emerge in opposition to the Lima Group. Amid all this instability, Canada has pursued a diplomatic strategy that is incoherent and hypocritical at best, and purposefully biased at worst. 

To his credit, Prime Minister Trudeau improved Canada’s handling of migration in his early years, yet Canada’s wider foreign policy strategy concerning migration and refugees has faltered within the past year. This unfortunate shift comes at a time when the aforementioned rise in migration from Latin America necessitates bold Canadian action Further, complicity of the Canadian Government in the Venezuelan crisis (through economic warfare and its actions in the Lima Group) has only contributed to regional destabilization, which exacerbates the need for refugee resettlement from the affected regions. The resulting migratory crisis in Venezuela may be the world’s largest by 2020 and has already caused diplomatic tensions between regional actors and rising xenophobia. Instead of pursuing bold foreign policy actions that could assist with the refugee crisis, like a refugee resettlement program or other avenues of regional cooperation concerning migration, Canada continues to be part of the problem. 

The Trudeau Government claims that some of their top priorities for the Latin American and Caribbean region are the promotion and defence of human rights and democracy. Yet the Canadian diplomatic apparatus systematically ignores human rights abuses and corruption of its right-wing allies in the region. 

Chile, a member of the Lima Group, is committing unspeakable human rights abuses as a means of crushing the dissent of the historic anti-neoliberal protests that are ongoing. Eighteen people have died during the violence of the protests and state backlash to public mobilization. 7,000 people have been arrested for exercising their democratic right to protest. There have been reports of torture by government forces against protestors. In response, Canada has remained silent because Chile is considered an ally. 

Haiti is undergoing an unprecedented, and yet extremely underreported political crisis. In reaction to crippling corruption and shortages of basic goods, protests have gripped the country. The Haitian economy is at a virtual standstill and the capacity of the Haitian government to provide basic public services has essentially disappeared. For nearly a year and a half, protestors have insisted that Jovenel Moïse, the Haitian President, step down. Amnesty International has verified human rights violations and abuse by government forces in response to the protests, including firing on crowds of peaceful protestors with semi-automatic rifles, beating of fleeing protestors, and the use of firearms at extremely close range. Further, Moïse’s election is largely seen as fraudulent. Despite these accusations, the Trudeau Government has not yet responded to significant public pressure from within Haiti and Canada to withdraw their support of President Moïse. 

In time as tumultuous as the current moment, it is in Canada’s interest to be rightfully viewed by Latin American governments as a fair broker and even-handed diplomatic actor. Rather than pursue an even-handed approach, Canada has remained reactionary and biased in its Latin American foreign policy. Few explanations for this come to mind other than that the Trudeau Government views successful and sustainable diplomacy in the region as relatively unimportant. Eric Miller at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute has stressed that Canada must ‘make itself relevant’ in the region, quoting a famous diplomatic mantra: “You have to be there!”. While Canada’s southernly continental neighbours undergo political shifts, the re-working of alliances, and destabilizing political crises, there will be a need for regional and hemispheric cooperation. Canada should position itself now to participate in such dialogue. Refraining from hypocrisy in its diplomatic affairs is a necessary first step.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor