Canada and the Responsibility to Protect
Jillian Siskind, President
Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights
19 October 2011
Irresponsible partisanship is muddying what should be a point of pride for Canada on the world stage
In the wake of the controversies and failures of the interventions in Kosovo and Rwanda, then UN Secretary General Kofi Anan asked the General Assembly how the international community should respond to situations in which populations are placed in grave jeopardy without grossly violating state sovereignty. In response, in September 2000, the Canadian delegation announced to the General Assembly the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.
The commission’s report, which was completed at a most inopportune moment a year later, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, proposed a model that confirmed states’ responsibility to protect their own inhabitants from gross human-rights violations such as mass murder, rape, and starvation. However, the report went on to stipulate that when a state is unwilling or unable to do so, the responsibility shifts to the international community, which must step in and provide that protection to civilians in jeopardy. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the UN report on the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”), and this year has given the doctrine a run for its money more than any other year since its inception.
This year is also testing Canada’s commitment to the principles of R2P. Corresponding with the events of what has become known as the Arab Spring, Libyan rebel forces gained momentum against then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi with unprecedented strength and support. In response, the UN issued Resolution 1973, which set out conditions for intervention directly in line with the dictates of the R2P doctrine. Canada continues to play a key role in this R2P action. Bizarrely, however, the federal government refuses to utter the words “Responsibility to Protect” in public.
Canada showed great initiative 10 years ago when it established the International Commission. It was one of the first times since the Pearson era when Canada’s foreign policy made a serious and noticeable global impact. International lawyers and policymakers now refer to R2P as a way to move our world forward so that we are better able to respond to crisis situations without running roughshod over the holy cow of territorial sovereignty. And Canada played a key role in making this happen.
However, despite Canada’s contribution, unique leadership role, and the moral high ground we can take when it comes to discussions of R2P, “Responsibility to Protect” has become a partisan statement. So much so that, in early 2009, the Conservative government instructed Canadian diplomats not to use the phrase “Responsibility to Protect.” This instruction thus became official policy. Months later, as Canada prepared to take a run at the vacant Security Council seat, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon retracted the official ban on the phrase. Unfortunately, by that time, the government’s position was well-known among the Canadian delegation, and the lasting result of the ban remains: Rather than being considered a great accomplishment of the Government of Canada, R2P now appears to represent a nod to the Liberals, who played an integral role in the forming of R2P as a concept, at least in the eyes of our current government.
While the spirit of R2P continues to be reflected in the current government’s foreign policy, the wording is not. This rebranding is not unique to the current government. However, in the context of an emerging global norm, we have the opportunity to be seen as the leaders of this progressive concept, and are instead drawing attention to our partisan divisions in a very public way. Words matter, and this blatant refusal to utter the words “Responsibility to Protect” does little to enhance our credibility on the world stage.
Canadians and our government should be proud of our contribution to international peace and security – not just our participation in the collective action of R2P, which attempts to bring greater security and a safer future to populations whose rights have been trampled upon, but also our leadership role in the great effort that resulted in the R2P doctrine. The principles that we set forth have now been established as an international norm. On this 10th anniversary of R2P, we should be celebrating our contribution to international law. Instead, our government appears happy to focus on partisan matters that have more to do with the next election cycle than with our ability to make a difference.