Jackson Doughart
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Canada and the Responsibility to Protect

Prince Arthur Herald, 26 June 2013

In the spirit of the Herald’s theme of this week to examine moments and themes of Canadian history that are worthy of attention and admiration, I would submit a contribution of our country to the affairs of global politics. As a so-called middle or even lower-middle power, Canadian influence on international politics is rarely of significance, apart from its association with larger-power allies, such as Britain and France, and especially the United States. Yet on the issue of what is often termed humanitarian intervention, Canada proved itself during the 1990s to be one of the rhetorical and active leaders in advocating the moral case for what remain two controversial concepts — the possibility of non-defensive aggression for humanitarian purposes and the existence of an “international jurisdiction”, both of which carry substantial implications for international political system, including the status of absolute Westphalian sovereignty.

Though that decade was bereft with examples of humanitarian crisis — from the tribal extermination of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi to the collapse into failed statehood of Somalia — the most important such crisis in combined humanitarian and geopolitical terms was the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, an event that saw the carving apart of the former Yugoslav republics and autonomous regions along the lines of religion and ethnicity. The heart of the contested territory in the early ‘90s was Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most ethnically and religiously diverse of the former Yugoslav republics which was also home to the largest native population of Muslims in Europe. Though no side in the multi-faceted conflict was free from culpability, this Bosnian Muslim faction was notable for the commitment of its nominally-Islamist leader Alija Izetbegovic to maintaining a unified country inclusive of both Muslims and Christians.

This commitment differed sharply from that of both the Croatian and Serbian forces in Bosnia, but especially from the Bosnian Serb side, whose leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic committed war crimes, such as the Siego of Sarajevo, and genocide, in the case of Srebrenica, to pursue the cause of Greater Serbia — the goal of uniting all Orthodox Christians, or at least all areas where Orthodox Christians were a majority, into a single state. (Though this goal was never realized, the northern and eastern parts of Bosnia remain a Serbian autonomous region called the Republika Srpska.) During the Bosnian War of 1991-1995, a fight in which then-US Secretary of State James Baker claimed the United States to have “no dog”, the Bosnian-Serb side, with assistance from its co-religionists in Serbia proper, employed weapons they inherited from the armed forces of the former Yugoslav People’s Army, while the Bosniaks suffered under an arms embargo that made American and international claims to neutrality in the conflict dubious. By the time the war ended with the Dayton Agreement in 1995, more than 100,000 civilians and combatants in all sides had been killed.

Three years later, following the instigation of another conflict by the Kosovor-Albanian group called the Kosovo Liberation Army, Serbia again employed the tactic of ethnic cleansing against a regional Muslim population. The Kosovo War of 1999 ended in a Serbian retreat from Kosovo, the defeat of President Slobodan Milosevic (who was ousted from power in an election held a year afterwards) and, later, the putting of Milosevic on trial before an international criminal court in the Netherlands for war crimes and crimes against humanity — charges upon which both Karadzic and Mladic were later brought. Milosevic died before his trial concluded, while Karadzic and Mladic remain in custody at the Hague.

The Canadian involvement in ending both of these conflicts was significant. Canadian troops, weapons, and war planes were employed in the NATO bombing campaigns of 1995 and 1999, both of which arose from calls to intervene on humanitarian, and not only geopolitical, grounds. Additionally, Canadian academics and journalists — especially the Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff and the broadcaster Peter Jennings — helped being international attention to the conflict and, in the case of Ignatieff, made the moral case for Western involvement to prevent the claiming of more civilian lives. The Canadian role was even more pronounced in Kosovo, where Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy publicly and internationally supported Canada’s choice to commit itself to the NATO intervention.

Axworthy’s contribution was not only in the arena of actual military action, but also in the battle of ideas over the contentious matter of humanitarian intervention. At stake was the reconsidering of (or in the eyes of some, tampering with) the centuries-old principle of state sovereignty as the ultimate arbiter of right in international politics. The possibility of humanitarian intervention would, if it were to be defended as a legitimate and legal action, have to be advanced as a permissible case in which a state’s sovereignty could be overridden. Such was the basis for Axworthy’s pursuit, in his capacity as co-president of the United Nations Security Council, of a UN commission to examine the legality of humanitarian intervention in cases of genocide and other mass atrocities.The fruit borne of that commission, in addition to the public advocacy of Axworthy and other figures, such as the former Australian diplomat Gareth Evans, led to the UN’s adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in 2005, which contained provisions for the Security Council to authorize the use of force to prevent or punish such acts as those committed in Bosnia and Kosovo. And with this new power came a more nuanced and conditional view of state sovereignty, whereby a state’s right to autonomy, self-determination, and non-aggression did not include the right to commit crimes against humanity.

Perhaps an equally-contentious matter arising from this era of international politics was the idea of universal jurisdiction — the possibility that leaders or military personnel who were responsible for crimes of this sort could be tried for having done so in an international court, and that sovereignty could not be used as a protection for criminals of this magnitude. The cases of Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic, as well as that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (who was arrested in 1998), serve as examples of international jurisdiction in practice. The overarching point to this effort, which Axworthy admirably made on many occasions, was the notion that it should not be only the losers of wars who are held accountable for their actions.

Justifiably, there remains a serious debate both in academia and popular literature about the justification of humanitarian intervention and its potential abuses by great powers. But as horrible as they were, the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo served as a circumstance in which the R2P doctrine could legitimately develop, since opponents of Western intervention could not claim that America and its Allies were “spilling blood for oil”, or other such tropes. And though there remain major practical problems with the international system in which R2P is a significantly-hindered institution (it should be asked, for instance, why the R2P doctrine has not been more discussed with regard to the current crisis in Syria), it is nevertheless a measure of improvement over a state of affairs in which sovereignty can be abused for evil ends without any possibility of international reaction. Unlike such platitudes as the advancement of “multiculturalism” and peacekeeping (as opposing to “peace-making”), their country’s role in developing the R2P doctrine is an action for which Canadians might take pride.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com