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Our Responsibility to Debate the Responsibilty to Protect

March 29, 2010
Amnesty International protestors on the Global Day of Action.

Amnesty International protestors make their opinions heard on the Global Day of Action. CC-image courtesy Amnesty International.

Earlier this year, I examined Doug Saunders’ argument that Canada must re-evaluate its foreign policy for 2012, once it had left Afghanistan, and combat operations ceased.  Such a re-evaluation will require asking big questions, like the one my fellow blogger Gloria has recently and intelligently raised: how should Canada live up to its responsibility to protect?

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Gloria points out, has been largely championed by Canada in international forums since its inception. In fact, two prominent Canadians, former foreign minister Lloyd Axeworthy and current Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff both participated in the R2P commission, that first set out the theoretical and rough legal framework that would govern states’ Responsibility to Protect.

The doctrine has now entered a more mature stage, with new international initiatives to further codify and implement its principles, like the Will to Intervene Project, a project also championed by a Canadian: Senator (and former General) Romeo Dallaire. I have always been a strong supporter of humanitarian intervention, and believed that such a doctrine was essential to any country serious about its international obligations, both to the world community, but also to its citizens.

Every year thousands of new Canadians arrive on our shores as refugees of conflicts around the world,  many of which, in their bid for safety, have been forced to leave family behind.  However, before R2P, we could say that Canada has responsibilities under international law to accept refugees that meet Convention definitions, but, arguably, only moral one to take steps to alleviate suffering in the very conflict zones where people (and family members of Canadian refugees) remain and struggle for survival.  R2P has added a legal element to that moral imperative.

Still, laws have authority so long as they are enforced, and morals, irrelevant, if community members do not see fit to observe them.  And so the question, as always, is what kind of will does our current Government have live up to R2P principles; what is Canada’s true will to intervene abroad?

One the one hand, Canada’s robust role in Afghanistan has shown the country is willing to intervene in international conflicts militarily.  But on the other, the Government has not made any claim that our role in Afghanistan was in any way tied to some kind of humanitarian intervention or Responsibility to Protect.  In fact, as combat operations have continued, these very words have disappeared from the lexicon of words and phrases used by Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to describe Canadian foreign policy.

Indeed, I have long been skeptical about the Harper Government’s willingness to be broad minded about the kind of  internationalism required to live up to R2P obligations.  That is, the Prime Minister simply does not believe in an expansive internationalism; so we cannot expect our foreign policy to ever reflect such ideas. As I have said before: I might be wrong about that; but the evidence shows my skepticism is justified.

This does not mean, of course, that Canadians should shy away from the debates we need to have about our foreign policy.  In fact, if our country is ever to forge a leadership role internationally, citizens need to debate our international responsibilities, even as our governments ignore them.  We need to ask the big questions even while our politicians continually aim to avoid them.

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