Why a humanitarian crisis is everyone’s business

'This is the city's business'

Twice in as many weeks, Kamloops city council has heard pleas to support our community members and their families subject to brutal losses and immense risk in Gaza, and to condemn rising antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Twice, the mayor and councillors asked no questions, made no comments, and expressed no sympathy. Emails, phone calls, and letters on the subject have gone unanswered. There’s a resounding silence where community solidarity should be.

This silence isn’t limited to government—much of local media, too, have been unusually circumspect in reporting on Israel’s war on Gaza, and shockingly mute on the killings of at least 100 of their journalist colleagues in that conflict.

What makes this war, and the devastating humanitarian crisis it has ushered in, not worth local attention? Where’s the abundant and sympathetic support we rightly gave to Ukrainian civilians trapped in hostilities? Is this subject somehow too difficult, too complex, or too foreign for our politicians and media to address?

The short, tempting answer is that it’s not really our business.

The much more difficult–but also more humane and empowering answer–is that a catastrophe like the one unfolding in Palestine and Gaza is very much our business. Those who are advocating for justice, peace and support for those at risk in the conflict are doing so because it matters to the community: both to those with family members living under siege, and to those who are moved to act when over 100,000 people have been killed, injured, missing, or arbitrarily detained. That is the city’s business.

Hundreds of Kamloops residents have mobilized in solidarity on a regular basis since October, have engaged in education and activism, and have signed a petition calling on action from our MP, Frank Caputo.

Many of those advocating are from the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) community. On Jan. 15, the TRU Students Union, representing more than 10,000 students, passed a motion calling for a ceasefire by all parties, urging the federal government to continue efforts to end the crisis and provide humanitarian aid, and to condemn all acts of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism in Canada. That is the city’s business.

On Oct.13, 2023, the City of Kamloops signed on to UNESCO’s Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities, a network of communities that want to improve their policies against racism, discrimination, exclusion, and intolerance. Both inclusivity and immigration advocacy are priorities in our city’s Strategic Plan, and Kamloopsians have every right to expect that our government will honour these and other relevant commitments by taking action against social injustice. That is the city’s business.

Local politicians trying to remain neutral in this situation would do well to remember that their responsibilities as public servants extend to upholding and promoting our key democratic values of truth, transparency, and the rule of law, all of which are being tested right now.

Every reputable legal and humanitarian organization in the world agrees Israel’s siege of Gaza is creating conditions incompatible with life. These experts say that in failing to protect the civilian population from superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, Israel is in breach of international humanitarian law.

Last week, the International Court of Justice found it plausible Israel’s acts could amount to genocide, and issued provisional measures intended to reduce immediate harm to Palestinians, according to according the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Our federal government needs to hear that we support this exercise of international law.

Canadians have a right to expect all levels of government to defend these democratic principles and institutions when called upon to do so. That is the city’s business.

We must entirely reject the premise we can’t change what’s going on in the world because it’s happening beyond ours borders. Our collective power is important and effective.

We must refuse to accept the idea our breath is wasted on defending human rights, when those rights everywhere so clearly need our vigilant protection. And we must do away with the notion a government must only mind economic development, transportation or tax-collecting, when our well-being as a community also requires fostering compassion, humanity and love.

There are moments of such consequence that we must break norms, shake off long-held beliefs, even step into personal discomfort, moments in which the severity of the risk to human life, rights and dignity merit working across jurisdictions and outside of boxes. This is such a moment.

To look away because we think it’s someone else’s business is to forsake our shared humanity, and lose a little of ourselves.

Joanne Hammond is an anthropologist and community organizer in Kamloops.

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