R2P, Canada, and Syria

Minister Kenney recently described Canada’s mission to degrade ISIS in terms of Responsibility to Protect. He suggests that Canada’s mission there may be considered an example of the emerging international norm, an interesting turn of events considering the norm did not previously matter all that much for this government :

If the responsibility to protect means anything … does it not mean in an instance such as this, preventing genocide, preventing ethnic cleansing, preventing sexual slavery of women and preventing the execution of gay men by throwing them off towers?

To paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that emerging norm means what he thinks it means. Here is the basic premise of R2P, taken from the UN R2P webpage:

The three pillars of the responsibility to protect…are:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Two quick points, along with an implication for Canadian policy.   First, R2P focuses explicitly (and quite deliberately) on the state as holder of the primary responsibility for the protection of resident populations. The expectation is that sovereignty implies responsibilities, and not just rights, for states.

It is only if the state is unable or unwilling to protect its own populations—and obviously, if the state is the one doing the attacking that qualifies—that the international community has a moral obligation to intervene to “take collective action” to “protect populations.”

Protect populations. That is explicitly and deliberately an expression of human security. To be considered a legitimate instance of R2P, Canada’s mission would need to be conceived and implemented completely differently, with an aim to protecting Syrians and Iraqis not only, or even primarily from ISIS/ISIL, but from the state which currently threatens so many. That is, Canada would need to be protecting the region’s populations from all who threaten them, including Assad.

Of course, Canada’s mission is designed and justified to do something completely different. Here is how the Prime Minister justifies the recent extension of Canada’s military mission to Iraq (and now Syria):

The highest priority of any government must be protecting its citizens from harm. I believe that Canadians realize that we cannot stand on the sidelines while ISIL commits atrocities in the Middle East and promotes terrorism in Canada and against our allies. We are therefore seeking the support of Canadian parliamentarians for our decision to extend and expand Canada’s military mission, with our allies, to fight Islamic jihadism which threatens national and global security. We intend to continue to degrade and disrupt ISIL as well as provide humanitarian and stabilization support to help alleviate the suffering this terrorist group is inflicting.

This sounds much more like a mission of preventive conflict, one not designed to protect Syrians and Iraqis at all, but rather to protect Canadians. We are fighting ISIS over there, because they are said to pose a threat us over here. Such a mission may be called many things, but it is not an example of R2P in action.

There are many other ironies points worth noting—such as the prominence of international law in the form of the UN charter—in the above pillars, but that’s all I have time for for now.

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