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.

Canada Takes Note of the Central African Republic

There will be a “take note” debate on the subject of the situation in the Central African Republic, and Canada’s potential response to it, in the House of Commons this Wednesday 14 February. If you think Canada should get more involved in the international response to this crisis in particular, or indeed in global responses to challenges to human security in general, now is the perfect time to contact your MP and let them know.

For background on the situation in the CAR from various UN affiliated agencies, click here. For my opinion on the subject (spoiler alert: I think we should be more involved!), click here. For background on just what a take note debate is, click here. (Long story short, it’s a relatively open debate designed to allow consultation with the House before the government forms policy on a given issue.)

And above all, if you think this is an important issue, please share this message widely.

photo credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via photopin cc

The Long War

Trudeau Just Another Casualty in the Long War (On Open Evidence-based Governance)


[note: I wrote most of this last week, but have had neither the time nor the connectivity to upload it in blog form until now, so it’s probably a bit stale. I mean, we’re talking about comments made more than seven days ago, which themselves were referencing an event that happened in a completely different month! Because of this, it may hold certain readers’ attention less well than something more de la mode, but I’m sure those who appreciate good blogentary will stick around to read. Right? Hello? Is this thing on?]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper renewed on his attack on the new Liberal leader last week, this time implying that Justin Trudeau was guilty of “committing sociology” in his response to the tragic events in Boston. According to party insiders who apparently spoke anonymously to Mr. Chase, a Globe and Mail reporter who covered the subject, the Conservatives simply couldn’t resist an opportunity to unfavourably label one of their primary opponents.

Mr. Trudeau’s brandable mistake? The Prime Minister accused him of “committing sociology.”  It’s an odd formulation, one worth unpacking for a moment. In general, one doesn’t commit sociology, or any form of higher learning. One commits errors and cardinal sins. One commits crimes.

Accordingly, it implies that, in Mr. Harper’s eyes, there is something mistaken, even something criminal, in Mr. Trudeau’s insistence that we exert effort to understand the factors that drive people to commit violence against our society, before we take action to respond to current threats, and move to prevent others.

On the face of it, this is an inexplicable stance. It is quite simply impossible to govern effectively without rigorous research. Pick any sphere of government activity and there is a huge store of hard-won and constantly re-evaluated knowledge from various fields of research informing the laws enacted and the policies enforced. It’s true of taxation, education, and medicine. It’s true of contemporary domestic and national security as well. The government simply cannot effectively safeguard the country against threats without a deep understanding, constantly researched and re-evaluated, of the nature of the dangers it faces.

To take a single obvious example, the Cold War could not have been fought without an understanding of the motives of Soviet leaders, the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet political and economic system, and an analysis of how best to arrange forces in the West to counter them.

With the huge proliferation of actors and causes since then, along with advances in technology and an increasingly mobile global population, it has become that much more challenging to understand the variety of threats present to the lives and livelihoods of Canadians. Accordingly, the practice of national security now involves far more information and analysis than ever before. It also requires expertise in a tremendous range of intellectual fields, both theoretical and applied.

No single political leader can hope to master such a diverse range of studies. What decision-makers must be able to do, however, is appreciate the importance of that knowledge, and become adept consumers of it.

That is why Mr. Harper’s recent criticism of Mr. Trudeau is so disconcerting. Why use sociology as a scarlet letter to affix to the Liberal leader? To say that he is guilty of committing sociology is akin to accusing him of supporting evidence-based policy-making, the cornerstone of effective government.  If that were truly the Conservatives’ stance on the use of research in policy-making, one might be forgiven for wondering how to interpret the Prime Minister’s pledge “to do everything we can to counter” past and future episodes of violence. If that “everything” did not include the conduct and consumption of research, whether sociological or otherwise, then Mr. Harper’s promise would ring rather hollow.

Given the outwardly indefensible nature of that position however, it is possible that there is another, deeper game here. One possibility is that it is part of a longer campaign that the federal Conservatives appear determined to wage against open and informed governance. In other words, it is one move in a much larger struggle over the control of the flow information used in governing the country, regardless of its source. By associating higher learning with the liberal leader in a negative context, the Prime Minister hopes to denigrate both simultaneously.

There are earlier precedents that point to a similar conclusion. The most significant and well-publicized is perhaps the move to gut the long-form version of the 2011 census, a move that securely aligned the Conservative Party with an anti-intellectual stance towards government. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of news stories about scientists who felt suppressed in some way or other by the government, in many cases prevented from talking to Canadians about research funded with their tax dollars.

Most recently, on the same day that Mr. Harper made his newest comments, the country’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was undertaking a similar exercise against a former NASA scientist, who has emerged as a vocal opponent to Canada’s ongoing oil sands development.

Throughout such episodes, the subject varies, but the message remains the same: we don’t need openly communicated scientific research to govern this country effectively.

Seen from this larger perspective, it seems possible that Mr. Trudeau is simply the latest piece of collateral damage in the Harper government’s ongoing campaign against open evidence-based governance, rather than the other way around.

Finding ‘root causes’ of terrorism is the core of Canadian policy

Here’s an excerpt from an op-ed published yesterday in the Globe and Mail, written with my former adviser and colleague, David Carment:

Justin Trudeau’s comments on the “root causes” of terrorism have sparked considerable debate in the media. The discussion has focused on narrow political point-scoring at the expense of deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

Mr. Trudeau’s observations were badly timed, spoken when Canadians, like their American neighbours, felt raw, exposed, and vulnerable. Still there is a valuable role for political leaders who provide that stabilizing viewpoint; seizing control of the narrative, rather than surrendering to it.

In contrast, Prime Minister Harper’s comments, with his calls for harsh punishment without any hope of more general understanding are unhelpful. They tap into and assuage that feeling of helpless rage, but offer nothing beyond vengeance as a solution.

Click the link above to read on.