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South Africa envoy urges Ukraine peace talks, says Canada stance on war ‘shocking’

Envoy says Canada’s choice to help arm Ukraine only perpetuating conflict
South Africa’s envoy to Ottawa, Rieaz Shaik, is urging Canada to help end the war in Ukraine. (The Canadian Press)

South Africa’s envoy to Ottawa is urging Canada to help broker an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, arguing that sending arms to Kyiv will only prolong a dangerous conflict that is aggravating hunger in developing countries.

“We have all the instruments of human agency to stop this war, but we just simply don’t want to,” Rieaz Shaik said.

In a wide-ranging interview, he said Russia needs to be held accountable, but urged the Trudeau government to drastically change course on its most central foreign-policy issue.

“I just hope they could stop for a moment and reflect (on) how much Canada has contributed to peace in the world. And why throw that away?”

South Africa is among 32 countries that have abstained from United Nations votes calling on Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.

While Canada and other G7 countries have said they will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, the majority of the world’s population lives in countries that have opted against outright condemning Russia for the invasion.

Some of them depend on trade with Russia, while others want good relations with Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Many have voiced contempt for European concerns taking away attention and development dollars from longer-lasting conflicts elsewhere.

Soviet support decades ago for anti-colonial movements also prompts some to voice support for Moscow, even though Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

South Africa is ruled by the African National Congress, a political party that grew out of an anti-apartheid organization that had members trained by the Soviet Union in military tactics.

Shaik insists South Africa’s motives are to defuse the conflict.

“Let me just say it categorically: South Africa is opposed to the invasion of Ukraine. The violation of the UN Charter is unacceptable to us. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be maintained,” he said.

“The only part where we are saying we have an alternative voice is that we do not believe that the solution to those violations lies in war, or counter-war or anything else.”

Shaik said the United Nations Security Council must broker a resolution to the conflict, even if it requires a reform of an institution that has largely followed the same rules since 1945and gives Russia veto powers.

He argued this approach would bear more fruit than Ukraine and its Western allies refusing to undertake peace talks with Moscow until Russia returns all occupied territory.

“If you put an outcome of a negotiation as a requirement to negotiate, then you’re not going to have negotiations,” he said.

As an activist in the anti-apartheid struggle, Shaik said it was Nelson Mandela who convinced him to push for gradual change instead of ultimatums.

For example, the movement accepted the argument of the country’s former president F. W. de Klerk, who said he needed a mandate from a referendum to discuss the dismantling of apartheid — through a vote in which only white people could have a say.

“That is insulting. But we agreed, because we understood that once we are committed to the process of peace, it’s an irreversible process,” Shaik said.

The referendum passed with majority support in 1992, and apartheid was dismantled two years later, through a series of compromises. The country launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined atrocities meted out by both the racist government and resistance movements.

The ambassador said the world could better acknowledge that Moscow has security interestsand make commitments to alleviate its concerns. In exchange, Russia would be subject to agreed-upon mechanisms to ensure it respects Ukraine’s borders.

That was the exact idea behind the 2014 and 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements that he argues both sides didn’t respect, but which Ukraine argues left the country vulnerable to further invasion. Russia claimed it could not order separatists to respect the deals, despite emboldening these groups.

“If Putin’s fear of NATO expansion is making Europe fragile, then remove that fear,” Shaik said.

He argued that’s a much more productive response than having leaders ponder whether Russia is trying to re-establish the Tsar, or if Putin is mentally unstable, as Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has suggested.

“The only thing that the bogeyman narrative does is create fear. And we must never forget that fear produces cruelty.”

Shaik added that any reconciliation process must look at the wrongdoings of both sides. “It is hard to believe that in war, only one side committed atrocities,” he said.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war, though the reports are far less common than documented abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers, and Kyiv more often follows through with criminal investigations.

South African authorities will have to grapple with whether to enforce an International Criminal Court warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin if he follows through on plans to attend the BRICS Summit — which also includes Brazil, India and China — this August in Johannesburg.

Ottawa has told developing countries that Russia is to blame for driving up living costs and distracting the global community from dealing with climate change. Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, often makes the case that not laying such blame will set a precedent for other countries to violate sovereignty.

“There is no grand conspiracy against Russia. The international community is not anti-Russian. Russia is facing the consequences of its own actions,” Rae told the General Assembly last October, shortly before its latest vote to condemn the invasion.

Yet Shaik lamented that the war is “tearing the world apart into camps” that communicate with each other less and less, raising the risk of miscalculations.

“The polycrisis just requires one idiot to do the wrong thing, and then we are almost in the beginning of nuclear war,” he said.

“Have the leaders of the world truly lost the ability to reflect of how close we are to absolute catastrophe?”

He expressed disappointment that Canada has not entertained the idea of peace talks, stressing that Canadians still earn respect in South Africa for their “enormous” contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle.

At the time, Ottawa pressured the country’s regime to leave the Commonwealth, and Shaik saw firsthand the role the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian Crown corporation, played in helping the liberation movement negotiate with former oppressors.

“It is Canada who empowered us, who gave us the knowledge and the mechanism to rethink the question of our own conflict, and made us default towards peaceful resolution,” he said.

“You can imagine how shocking it is for us,” he added, to be “unable to dialogue with Canada” on Ukraine.

As the economic ripple effects of the invasion continue to unfold, Shaik argued against Washington’s push for “friendshoring,” which holds that allies should rely on each other to make supply chains more resilient and defang hostile actors from taxing or withholding goods.

He called it a “chauvinistic, anglophone imposition on the rest of the world” and said it prevents collaboration on issues such as climate change.

Shaik also contended that Canada and the U.S. are wrong to limit China’s role in mining the critical minerals needed to move the world off fossil fuels.

After Canada ordered three Chinese companies to divest from Canadian projects on national-security grounds, the U.S. military is now investing in the Canadian industry.

“We have a very short and unique window in which current trajectories of the world would lead to the weaponization of the critical-metal energy sector. It’s already happening in part in Canada,” Shaik said.

For South Africa, this comes at a time when climate change is wreaking havoc on rain patterns, and rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine are deepening inequality.

“We are stuck in a kind of forced helplessness, because the dominant players in the world don’t want to talk. And that angers me.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press