International Control Commissions: Canadian Diplomatic Pioneers in Southeast Asia


International Control Commissions: Canadian Diplomatic Pioneers in Southeast Asia

1 Feb 2024

The government of Canada has once again rediscovered Southeast Asia. The Indo-Pacific Strategy, launched in late 2022 to great fanfare, promised to strengthen and renew Canada’s engagement in the region. This includes increasing diplomatic and immigration staff in embassies, new funding for security, people-to-people exchanges, civil society engagement and more support for business efforts in the region. The architects of this strategy, whether they know it or not, owe a debt of gratitude to Canadian diplomats who served in the International Control Commissions (ICC) in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos between 1954 and 1973. The ICC were set up to monitor the truce that the Geneva Accords established in 1954, which created the conditions for France’s retreat from its colonial holdings in what was then called Indochina. The truce also established, among other things, the countries of North and South Vietnam, allowing a period of time for people to migrate from one to the other. The countries overseeing the truce were Canada (for the West), Poland (for the Soviet Bloc) and India (for what were then called the neutral and non-aligned nations). The presence of its diplomats in the commission offices in Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane wasn’t the beginning of Canada’s presence in Asia, but it represented a very significant growth in the numbers posted there. In 1954, Canada had diplomatic representation in Japan, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and a trade office in Jakarta. There had been an embassy in China that closed not long after the Communist victory, not to be reopened until 1970. Before the Second World War, we also had trade commissions in a few places in Asia, including Hong Kong, Shanghai and Mukden (now Shenyang). But the ICC created a sustained presence of Canadian diplomats throughout Southeast Asia, at a time of intense great-power competition in the region. For Canada in 1954, with its diplomatic interests focused primarily on the U.S. and across the Atlantic, this was mostly unknown territory. The first ICC – the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC) – set up in Geneva in 1954, created the conditions for France’s exit from Indochina. It was succeeded in Vietnam in 1973 by the International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS), following the ceasefire agreement in Paris between the U.S. and North Vietnamese, which facilitated the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Canada, reluctantly and with conditions based on its experience in the earlier ICSC, agreed to participate, along with Poland and Hungary, and with Indonesia replacing India. When our experience in the ICCS quickly proved as problematic as it had been in the ICSC, then-secretary of state for External Affairs Mitchell Sharp decided that Canada should withdraw from the new commission. This it did at the end of July 1973
international law canada southeast asia policy perspective indo-pacific international politics international institutions diplomacy & global governance helen lansdowne philip calvert nick etheridge


Phil Calvert, Nick Etheridge, Helen Lansdowne

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