Canada as a Peacemaker and Refugee-friendly Nation in the Middle East: Challenges to Foreign Policy and Influence

Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Director of the Institute for Migration Studies, LAU

Bechara Samneh, Special Projects Coordinator for Afghanistan, ILGA Asia and IMS Visiting Fellow


While often not at the center of political discourse in Canada, the Middle East has proven to be a pivotal geographic and discursive space in Canadian foreign policy, as well as a major catalyst for Canada’s liberal internationalist foreign policy identity. One of the fundamental aspects that separates Canadian foreign policy from other countries’ foreign policy approaches in the world, is its long-standing insistence on the promotion and preservation of human rights principles. Whether through the Canadian Foreign Minister’s open criticism of civil rights activists being imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, or through the country’s annual resolution at the UN Human Rights Council with respect to Iran’s human rights record, the Canadian government has repeatedly made it clear that upholding human rights is an integral part of Canada’s foreign policy both in the Middle East and on the global scale. Subsequently, over the course of six years (2016-2022), the Canadian Government has invested over USD 4 billion to respond to the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and address their impact on Lebanon, Jordan and the region – begging the question of whether or not Canada’s approach to human rights has truly been effective in the Middle East in recent years. 

Canada’s Role as a ‘Peacemaker’ in the Middle East

The Middle East has been an area of concern for the Canadian Government since 1947, with Canada serving as an important influencer in the region in many ongoing humanitarian and diplomatic conflicts. Primarily, Canada played an intrinsic role in the 1948 partition of Palestine and creation of the Israeli state. The country further cemented its reputation as a peacebuilder in the Middle East with its role in securing a peaceful resolution to the 1956 Suez Crisis – ultimately providing troops to the UN mission and taking part in the first major UN peacekeeping mission in the region. Through its role in the peacekeeping mission, Canada successfully took part in the negotiations that put an end to a crisis caused by the invasion of Egypt by Israel, France, and Britain. Canada has additionally had a long-standing commitment to one of the region’s oldest refugee crises – the Palestinian refugees expelled from what became the state of Israel in 1948, and then from both the West Bank and Gaza once more in 1967. For close to two decades from 1950 to 1969, the Canadian Government served as the third largest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), while Palestinian refugees navigated through overtly racist immigration restrictions towards non-European refugees throughout the mid-1950s. As of 2021, Canada has announced funding of up to USD 90 million over three years for UNRWA. It was the country’s long-standing commitment to Palestinian refugees that ultimately pushed forth its image as a ‘peacemaker’ and ‘refugee-friendly’ nation in its next major role in peace negotiations in the Middle East. Canada’s refugee-friendly image falls directly in-line with a famous speech before Parliament from 1947, where Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie Kingarticulated Canada’s post-war immigration goals, insisting that Canada had a moral obligation to assist refugees.

Canada as a ‘Refugee-friendly’ Actor in the Middle East 

Between 1992 and 2000, the Canadian Government chaired the Refugee Working Group, one of five multilateral groups established in 1992 as part of the bilateral negotiations of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). Canada’s role in the Working Group allowed it to play an integral role in contributing to a resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis, and in expanding its political and humanitarian roles in the Middle East and on the international stage. When the MEPP and RWG faced political challenges, Canada sponsored the “Ottawa Process” – often referred to as a “bold gamble” by international foreign policy experts and politicians alike. Between 1997 and 2000, the Ottawa Process encouraged former officials to examine intersectional policy issues intrinsic to finding peace, like the right of return and compensation of Palestinian refugees. This assisted in sustaining peace talks through a Benjamin Netanyahu Likud government between 1996 and 1999, as well as in the 2000 Camp David Summit. To date, Canada has committed over USD 1 billion in humanitarian, development and security assistance in response to the Syria crisis. Canada’s refugee-friendly foreign policy in the Middle East did not end with the Palestinians. In November 2015, the Canadian Government began an effort to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees within 100 days. Following its success, the Syrian refugee effort has since gone down as one of the largest in Canadian history, ranking alongside the resettlement of Hungarian refugees in the 1950s as well as refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s.

Canadian Diplomacy in the Middle East

While Canada maintains diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, subsequently permitting Canadian diplomats to engage with Saudi officials on a wide range of issues including human rights, Canada’s recent public criticism about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia has impacted diplomatic relations negatively between the two countries and caused costly retaliations from Saudi Arabia. Saudis expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own, stopped all new trade and investment with Canada and suspended Toronto flights. Though Canada has reportedly made efforts to repair the relationship, there has been little success to date. Canada’s tense relations with another major power in the region, Iran, has curtailed its influence in the ME. Canada maintains no diplomatic relations with Iran since the Harper Government ended diplomatic ties in 2012. While Canada’s current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, promised a different foreign policy approach, his efforts to repair the relationship with Iran have failed

Concluding Remarks

While it goes without saying that the Canadian Government’s role in advocating and promoting human rights in the Middle East is pivotal, the means through which it approaches human rights in the region requires re-examination. While condemning rulers of Middle Eastern countries on public stages for their poor human rights record may be well-received domestically, and by human rights actors across Canada and the Middle East, this approach has yet to produce positive results for either party. In application, it has in fact served as a limiting factor to the Canadian influence and its overall seat at discussion tables in the region (where they could otherwise push forth a more human rights-centered agenda). With a significant diaspora community from the Middle East within its borders, Canada has a particular advantage to rebuild and strengthen its relationships with major players in the Middle East, and more importantly, to become an influential player in peacebuilding, negotiation, and conflict resolution on both the political and humanitarian stages in the region.