Revisiting the RWG

Posted: September 27, 2010 by Rex Brynen in conferences, peace process, RWG

The Refugee Working Group (RWG) was one of several multilateral working groups established after the 1991 Madrid peace conference, as part of the newly-launched Middle East peace process. Over the next several years seven plenary sessions of the RWG would be held (1992-95) under the “gavel” of Canada. In 1997 the Arab League called for a boycott of the multilaterals in protest of Israeli policies. Some lower-level work by the RWG continued. This ended, however, with the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, which led to a suspension of all multilateral track activities. Despite this, Canada continued to assign a diplomat to act as RWG “gavel” and Canadian MEPP coordinator until 2009, using the position to advance dialogue and policy-relevant research on the refugee issue. Finally, in 2009 the position was discontinued amid budget cuts at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Why this lesson in MEPP history? Well, on 24 September the International Development Research Centre hosted a day-long retrospective meeting in Ottawa on the RWG, with five of the six former gavels in attendance. It was a valuable opportunity to hear their perspectives on what the RWG had done right and wrong, as well as Canada’s broader contributions to the refugee issue and Middle East peace process.

The RWG gavels (left to right): Peter McRae (2006-08); Mike Molloy (2000-03); Marc Perron (1992-95); Andrew Robinson (1995-2000); Jill Sinclair (2003-06). Not in attendance: Doug Fraser (2008-09).

When time allows, we’ll be writing something more substantive on the meeting, the discussions, and the lessons learned. However, I thought I would offer a few quick personal observations here—with the caveat that they very much represent my own view of the discussions. Other participants are encouraged to share their own thoughts in the comments section below.

  • How much latitude did Canada have on the refugee agenda, given the need to maintain Washington’s approval, as well as given the role of domestic lobby groups? The general view seemed to be that the Americans were generally happy that Canada was doing anything, and didn’t much care about the details provided they didn’t complicate larger diplomatic efforts. From time to time, concerns over the sensitivity of domestic lobbies played a larger role. There was considerable discussion (and no consensus) as to whether the greater pro-Israeli tilt of recent Canadian governments might hamper Canada making future contributions on the issue.
  • What was useful? In general, what was done changed over time. In the very beginning, the RWG was very much part of the package deal that enabled the Madrid process. The early emphasis on large formal meetings provided a sense of momentum and generated additional resources for the refugee issue, even if the necessity of operating by consensus limited any political progress. As formal RWG activities wound down, informal “track two” and policy research projects were emphasized—giving rise to the so-called “Ottawa process.” Interestingly, much of this shift to informality had been foreseen by Canada’s 1995 RWG “Vision Paper.” The formal coordination of the RWG was also replaced for a while by the informal donor coordination of the “No-Name Group,” which met in various forms from 2000 to 2007 (despite the appalling quality of the pizza served in the Canadian Embassy cafeteria in Washington during the very first NNG meeting).
  • Did the Ottawa process contribute? It can be difficult to process-trace policy influence or to determine what caused what. Nonetheless, it was generally felt that Canadian efforts had contributed to refined thinking by the parties and international community in a number of key areas, including refugee absorption, compensation, possible implementation mechanisms, and others.
  • It was noted that conflicting Israeli and Palestinian narratives meant that there were few points of shared interest or common discourse. The refugees themselves were often suspicious of the Palestinian leadership’s perceived willingness to compromise on the issue. The multilateral approach had been a useful way to engage host countries, and bring them into a process from which they had otherwise been excluded by the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiating dynamic.
  • The attitude of the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs can be very important. Some Canadian ministers had been more engaged and interested than others. The Palestinian refugee issue remains something of a Canadian niche, and Canada could well be called upon to contribute in this area in the future. There was some concern that Canadian knowledge in this area was at risk of atrophying as IDRC wound down its activities on the refugee file. Also, there was little enthusiasm for renewing the RWG as such.
  • There is a need to distill key policy lessons from the past decade of policy research and dialogue on the refugee issue in a way that will be useful for negotiators—something that IDRC is undertaking with a current project.
  • Outsiders need to be humble in what they can contribute. In the end, it is the local parties who have to make the big decisions and live with the consequences.

It was an enjoyable discussion, and a great opportunity to see friends and share tales of what went on behind-the-scenes in the Refugee Working Group. When the full report is available, we’ll post a link to here, as well as on the main PRRN website.

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