Researcher, University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
The gap between the demand for global justice and its supply has widened. Victims of atrocities in Syria, Myanmar, Burundi, Venezuela, Ukraine and elsewhere demand justice — but very few are heard. Canada’s approach to international accountability efforts has become unreliable. This election indicates that the issue is far from the minds of the parties vying for votes. It shouldn’t be.
The Liberal government has done some good on global justice. In 2018, it joined five other states in referring the alleged crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It also lent financial support to some NGOs investigating war crimes in Syria, championed work to stem gender-based violence, and quietly engaged the government of South Africa to keep the country in the ICC.
But these efforts were piecemeal. International justice simply hasn’t been a foreign policy issue for this government or for the parties seeking to replace it. This represents a lost opportunity and is in contradiction to Canadian interests — at both the international and domestic level.
The Trudeau government has frustrated global justice more than it has bolstered it. In 2017, a definition for the crime of aggression was finally negotiated and added to the ICC’s mandate. It allows individual leaders to be held accountable for starting illegal wars and committing acts of aggression. Canada joined a small group of Western states in attempting to stymie those negotiations and dilute the crimes’ definition. At the same time, while Ottawa sent a peacekeeping contingent to Mali, it did nothing to support efforts to hold war criminals there accountable. Following the Trump administration’s bullying over the ICC’s possible investigation into Afghanistan, Ottawa’s silence was deafening. While it did support the referral of Venezuela to the ICC, it has not pushed for the Court to receive more funding for its increased workload.
The Trudeau government also framed two major issues with global justice ramifications as domestic ones: the SNC-Lavalin scandal and relations with Saudi Arabia. Despite what Ottawa says, the SNC-Lavalin debacle isn’t simply about jobs here in Canada; it’s also about a company that helped sustain the brutal regime of Muammar Gaddafi, one which eventually turned on and slaughtered its own civilians.
Saudi Arabia and its proxy forces have committed atrocities in Yemen (including the killing of children on a school bus). It is also clear that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet Canada continues to sell military hardware to the Saudis. The Trudeau government has insisted that getting out of the deal is not so much about Saudi crimes as it is the cost to taxpayers. Khashoggi’s death — and not those of thousands of Yemeni civilians — led to the government finally stating that it would review its sale of military hardware to the Saudis. That was a year ago. No word yet on where that review will lead.
Successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have also been reluctant, if not flat-out negligent, when it comes to international criminals born, bred or living here in Canada. The most recent government estimates suggest that some 200 perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide currently reside in Canada. We’ve known this for years. Yet no action is taken to prosecute them because, in the view of the government, it would cost too much.
There is also the issue of Canadian-born ISIS fighters remanded in detention in northern Syria, in the custody of Canada’s Kurdish allies. No political party has been courageous enough to say that they should be repatriated and prosecuted here. The government has brandished various spurious excuses why it shouldn’t. Warnings have come from numerous quarters that Canada’s policy towards its foreign fighters is not just unprincipled but dangerous. Now, with Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria galvanized by the pull-out of US troops for Kurdish held areas, there is an increased risk that Canadian ISIS fighters (and their families) will be released or forcibly freed from detention camps and possibly pose a risk to regional and national security. Remarkably, and once again illustrating its unreliable approach to international justice, the Canadian government suspended arms exports to Turkey just days after its incursion into northern Syria and allegations that its military has committed war crimes; a decision to freeze new arms sales took years in the case of Saudi Arabia, despite ample evidence of atrocities committed in Yemen.
And still the government has dithered on its responsibilities to repatriate and prosecute its fighters. It just doesn’t seem to matter in this election. Adding insult to injury for accountability efforts, the Trudeau government has shown no interest in the proposals of its colleagues in setting up an ad hoc tribunal that would prosecute the crimes of ISIS fighters — including those from Western states. So even proposals that would allow Canadian foreign fighters to be prosecuted outside of Canada are receiving a stiff, albeit lazy, upper lip from Canada. If Canada isn’t going to be part of the solution, at the very least it should step out of the way.
But if Canada’s not back as a global justice champion, neither should it do even less.
The Conservatives haven’t promised anything better. Leader Andrew Scheer wants to cut Canadian foreign aid by at least a quarter and has shown no interest in global justice issues. He wouldn’t “lift a finger” to prosecute Canadian ISIS fighters. Scheer is likely to take a page out of his predecessor’s playbook. The Stephen Harper years were worse for global justice than the dithering years of the Trudeau Liberals.
Harper sought to deport rather than prosecute war criminals, his policies leading Canada to be castigated by UN agencies for its complicity in torture and its subversion of legal rights. He also happily used belligerent rhetoric against Palestinians in response to their desire to have atrocities committed in Palestine investigated by the ICC.
Global justice is no panacea for the world’s ills. But recommitting to fighting international crimes could achieve what Canada is seeking to do on the international stage: bolster multilateralism, combat isolationism and populism, ally with victims and survivors, and signal a principled foreign policy.
Canada is at its best when it acts as an international steward and champion of global justice. The next government shouldn’t have to tell Canadians that support for global justice is “back,” but that it is here to stay.