TORONTO — Paul Martin has been out of politics for five years, but he still keeps a close watch on international affairs.
The situation in Syria concerns him, particularly whether there is sufficient Western resolve to make Syrian strongman Bashar Assad pay the price for violating “red lines” over his use of chemical weapons.
“Assad has got to see that he can’t take these actions without very severe repercussions,” the former prime minister stated.
Speaking before the United States and Russia began negotiating a deal to strip Syria of its chemical arsenal, Martin said, “I believe action should be taken and Canada should judge the quality of that action. If the United States and/or France take action, we should support them, diplomatically and politically.”
“I don’t think we should be standing back here.”
Martin, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2006 as well as nine years as finance minister, was best known for his domestic achievements – taming the deficit, negotiating to address aboriginal issues, passing same sex marriage legislation and pledging billions in federal funds for health care.
Since his retirement, he’s also been involved in international issues. He chairs the Congo Basin Forest Fund, which addresses poverty issues in 10 African nations, and he’s served as an adviser to the International Monetary Fund.
Later this month, the University of Haifa will confer on Martin the degree of doctor of philosophy (honoris causa) at an event at the Fairmont Hotel. Proceeds from the dinner, to be held Sunday Oct. 20, will establish the Paul Martin Scholarship Fund “for bright, disadvantaged students” at the university.
The dinner is expected to attract 600 people and will mark the kickoff of the campaign to raise funds for the scholarship fund.
“I’m a huge admirer of the university and I have been for a long time,” Martin said in a telephone interview from Montreal. “I think in so many ways Haifa [University] represents the principles we all share.”
The admiration is mutual. In an email interview from Israel, Amos Shapira, president of the university, said Martin’s “values coincide with the values of the University of Haifa… in the advancement of educational excellence, tolerance and entrepreneurship skills.”
Martin was chosen for the honour because of his accomplishments in government, particularly in spearheading “the largest increases in Canadian history in the federal government’s support for education and research and development” while at the same time cutting taxes and taming the deficit, said Shapira.
Pointing to the Kelowna Accord, negotiated by Martin’s government to aid aboriginal groups, Shapira said the scholarship in his name “is meant to help bright underprivileged students.”
Many students hail from Israel’s “periphery. As in many other countries, periphery goes together with poverty, or less opportunities. This is true in Israel for the different parts of the population: Jews, Arab, Druze,” Shapira stated.
The university plays a key role in strengthening Israel’s north through education, research and by developing future community leaders, Shapira added.
Martin said the school shares the same values as Canada, including respect for diversity.
He has always been a supporter of Israel, the former prime minister continued. Martin recalled that his father served as foreign minister and “at the dinner table, it was clear that support for Israel was a foundation of our policy.”
The Liberal Party, he said, has “always supported Israel from the very beginning.”
Reflecting on his time as prime minister, Martin said he modified Canadian policy at the United Nations to be more favourable to Israel. Prior to his administration, Canada often supported resolutions critical of the Jewish state. “I stepped in and stopped that support,” he said.
“I think our support for Israel comes from the fact [we] share a common set of values,” he added.
Martin said he supported the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel and “I spoke for recognition for Jewish refugees from Arab lands. I felt very strongly about that.”
As to the current situation in the region, Martin believes “a nuclear-armed Iran would be a major threat. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest threats to peace.”
Martin invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine regarding Syria, and he credited one of its major proponents, former justice minister Irwin Cotler, as an influence on him.
“There are those who do not believe that it’s the occasion for the responsibility to protect. I am not one of those.”
“Responsibility to protect was put in place to recognize that a country must protect its citizens and [has the] duty not to oppress its citizens.” If it does, it’s the responsibility of other governments to step in.
“If using weapons of mass destruction is not oppression, then I don’t know what is. It shows you what we’re dealing with, with the Assad regime.”
“What kind of signal does it send to Iran and North Korea if red lines are drawn in the sand and if NATO, the United States and others of us are not willing to stand behind what we’ve said about those red lines?” he asked.