Published in the Toronto Star, October 7, 2013
In detective novels, the most swaggering posture is a hard-boiled one, wise to the ways of the world and expecting venality at every turn. The same holds true in diplomacy, commonly thought to be a sphere in which state interest is paramount and collective action persists just as long as the interest of each state is being directly served.
Over the past week, however, two eminent figures – both well-schooled in all the grounds for cynicism that global affairs have to offer – delivered some jolting departures from the hard-boiled line. One was Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court of Canada justice and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who spoke in Ottawa about her reasons for doubting that peace has been well served by recent decades’ developments in global institutions. The other, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, wrote a New York Times op-ed describing his country’s proposal to restore effectiveness to a UN Security Council severely damaged by its inability to address global crises.
If it seems to Canadians’ ears that Arbour and Fabius might be entering the realm of fantastical thinking, that might be because Canadians have passed eight years hearing little but scorn from the Harper government about the UN’s potential to act more effectively in safeguarding human rights and collective security.
Most of what Arbour had to say was a catalogue of failure. In her view, the decade-old International Criminal Court (ICC), which was meant to achieve deterrence and societal reconciliation in the wake of war crimes and crimes against humanity, may well be fundamentally flawed. Moreover, she noted, international peacekeeping is barely alive; and the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, which justifies international intervention to protect civilians in acute danger, has been severely weakened by its use to effect regime change in Libya.
Yet a glimmer of shocking idealism shone through some of her remarks. Western powers’ lack of “political empathy” for the perspectives of non-Western countries, she said, is leading those countries to mistrust global human rights and justice institutions. They have a reasonably founded suspicion that many civilian protection and international justice initiatives, which the West justifies through high-flown talk of universal values, are generally fronts for advancing Western interests.
This assessment may look hard-boiled at first – but it contains the nested implication that such a state of affairs could be changed. Arbour’s remarks suggest that if Western countries really want to advance the values of international justice and peace, and to overcome others’ suspicion of international intervention, they could overcome their bias toward self-interest by reworking global institutions and treaties such as R2P and the ICC.
The French foreign minister’s op-ed strikes a similar note, albeit one more pragmatic. It observes that the UN Security Council has often been paralyzed by the veto power wielded by its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States). Notably, that veto power led to UN inaction during the first two years of civilian slaughter in Syria’s civil war. Enlarging the Security Council is a potential solution, but exceedingly difficult to achieve. By way of a feasible short-term move toward progress, therefore, France proposes that the five permanent members agree to “voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto” when the Security Council is considering action in face of mass crimes. The only exception to this self-restraining protocol would be “cases where the vital national interests of a permanent member of the Council were at stake.”
Has France taken leave of its senses in suggesting that the world’s superpowers would ever agree to such self-restraint for the sake of effective collective action? Or that there could ever be Security Council cases in which the superpowers would not declare vital national interests at stake and wield their veto power accordingly?
If it seems to Canadians’ ears that Arbour and Fabius might be entering the realm of fantastical thinking, that might be because Canadians have passed eight years hearing little but scorn from the Harper government about the UN’s potential to act more effectively in safeguarding human rights and collective security. As former Canadian diplomat Dan Livermore recently noted, “the Harper government dumps on the United Nations with regularity and ignores most requests for cooperation.”
In light of Canada’s current foreign policy, Arbour and Fabius seem the diplomatic equivalent of holy fools, those Russian Orthodox mystics who violate received opinion for the sake of a lofty abstract cause. Each of them has a clear-eyed view of the obstacles to reform. But, in contrast to the hard-boiled Harper way, they find it both plausible and worthwhile to envision countries looking beyond narrow interests in order to produce more effective global institutions for promoting peace and human rights.
Under previous federal governments – both Liberal and Conservative – that would not have appeared a mystically fantastic way of thinking. Nor should it today in Ottawa.