Canada’s Abandonment of the Responsibility to Protect

Guest contributor: KYLE MATTHEWS, Senior Deputy Director of the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (Concordia University)

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine has many enemies. States that will not or cannot stop mass atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing) within their borders are not very enthusiastic about the idea that national sovereignty entails a minimum respect for human rights. Nor are they supportive of the idea that the international community has an obligation to engage when early warning signs suggest that mass killings are either underway or about to occur.

While all member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in 2005, we continue to witness individual countries that employ their veto at the UN Security Council, effectively blocking action. China and Russia have three times gone to bat for the Syrian government in the past 12 months alone. Citing the NATO-led and UN-approved intervention in Libya, both Moscow and Beijing now equate R2P with regime change. The existence of restive minority populations within both countries (for example the Chechens and Tibetans) adds another dimension to their hostility to R2P.

“Canada should get back on the bandwagon and join our other allies (including the United States) who support R2P and who realize that the destabilizing effects of mass atrocities have the potential to affect our national security and social cohesion.”

 However, the most surprising critic of R2P today is not an autocratic or dictatorial regime. It is a democratic country: Canada.

It was not always so. The idea that national sovereignty entailed responsibility emerged from the work of Dr. Francis Deng, a South Sudanese diplomat who recently finished his term as the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide. But at the request of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the government of Canada played an important role in establishing the International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty, which went on to introduce R2P in 2001. Four years after that, Canadian diplomats in New York were instrumental in mobilizing other countries to support the doctrine.

Fast forward to 2012, when Canadians now find themselves in a new world. Officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa no longer mention R2P in any official documentation. All public statements on the current crisis in Syria made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird evade R2P as well. During the lead-up to the NATO operation to protect the city of Bhengazi from an impeding full-scale assault by Moammar Ghaddafi’s army, Prime Minister Harper frequently mentioned that Canada must “protect civilians”; but he said nothing of the conceptual architecture underpinning the calls for collective action.

Whether the current government is distancing itself from R2P for partisan reasons (it was championed by a Liberal government) or because of ideological ones, it does not appear that this doctrine will disappear from the world stage anytime soon. A multitude of think tanks and non-governmental organizations (including the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect) have emerged on the global scene as a direct result of Canada’s past leadership on human rights. R2P is here to stay.

Canada should get back on the bandwagon and join our other allies (including the United States) who support R2P and who realize that the destabilizing effects of mass atrocities have the potential to affect our national security and social cohesion. Canada could elevate its international status by naming a high-level R2P focal point within government, and by rejoining the ‘Friends of R2P’ group in New York. The United Nations, regional organizations and many national governments are making progress and building institutional capacity and structures to prevent future genocides and crimes against humanity. It is puzzling, and wrong, that Canada has failed to follow suit.

Kyle Matthews is participating in the Will to Intervene Day panel discussion on September 24, 2012.

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