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What Happened To Canada?

GB Geo-Blog

What Happened To Canada?

The G8 summit this past July in L’Aquila, Italy was hardly a success for Canadian foreign policy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to distinguish himself among the other leaders by being late – yet again – for one of the traditional photo-ops of the G8 leaders. Canadian journalists, for their part, were asked by the foreign press to point out who in fact was the Canadian Prime Minister.

Some have lamented the passing of the glory days of Canadian diplomacy and the present downsizing and virtual obscurity of the Foreign Service, as well as the general absence of major Canadian initiatives around the world – in favour of the military mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, foreign policy under Harper seems virtually non-existent outside of limited diplomatic and foreign aid assistance in Afghanistan. The few policy changes that are apparent seem to have been made without any rational debate or transparent policy-making. One case in point among many: the reduction of Canadian foreign aid efforts in Africa and their concomitant transfer to Latin America.

It is detrimental to the image of Canada abroad that the Harper government and some of the more pliant officials in Foreign Service are shaping a foreign policy that would have Canadians accept a minor and diminishing role in world affairs. There is evidence of astonishing pettiness that apparently impels the Harper government to downplay or attempt to curtail any great foreign policy legacies from past Liberal governments. These include the Canadian roles in the creation and promotion of the concepts of peacekeeping, human security and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Petty partisanship on the part of politicians and the docility of some officials notwithstanding, the legacy of great Canadian initiatives still resonates around the world. Canada played a pivotal role in the historic establishment of the International Criminal Court – an achievement that some assert had been centuries in the making – to combat impunity and to bring to account those who have committed the gravest international crimes known to humanity. Canadian diplomats – backed by an army of civil society groups around the world – led a group of like-minded nations that negotiated countless diplomatic and legal quagmires, and even overcame fierce opposition from the Bush administration to the Court after it was established at a Diplomatic Conference in Rome in 1998.

Philippe Kirsch, the head of the Canadian delegation at the Rome Conference, was elected as the first President of the Court – in part because of his spectacular leadership in helping to establish the Court. After nine years of giving an example of how Canadians can excel on the global stage, Judge Kirsch stepped down from the ICC Presidency earlier this year. He was subsequently appointed an ad hoc judge of the International Court of Justice.

Similar, in April of this year, at the Pugwash International Conference (in The Hague) – which attempted to draw the links between justice, human rights and disarmament – the legacy of past Canadian triumphs was heralded. The model that was discussed and analyzed with a view to applying it even to nuclear disarmament was what became known as the Ottawa Process. That Process had been established under the leadership of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy. The Ottawa Process, like the Rome Diplomatic Conference that established the Statute of the International Criminal Court, was a coalition between civil society groups around the world and like-minded nations to eliminate the use of landmines. The Canadian-led initiative culminated in the aptly named Ottawa Treaty, which banned the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines, and called for the destruction of existing supplies.

Given the stifling of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade by the Harper government, it is not unexpected that Canada should have ceded leadership in this area of disarmament to Norway. Canada had the legacy to take the lead in seeking a worldwide ban on the use of cluster munitions – massive numbers of bomblets that are potentially even more devastating to children than landmines. (Note: Bomblets that remain unexploded look like toys to innocent children playing in debris in the aftermath of conflict.) Norway and Ireland have now taken the lead on this file with the establishment of an Oslo Process on cluster munitions. Over one hundred and seven nations have participated in this Process. And on December 3 2008, over one hundred nations signed the Oslo Treaty, which was negotiated in Dublin, and bans the use, production or transfer of cluster munitions.

There is a growing apprehension that the Harper government is becoming such an outlier on emerging global standards of justice and human rights that the importance of Canada’s past and continuing legacies in global affairs will be completely obscured. This renegade status is evidenced, for example, by the Harper government’s opposition to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – refusing to join the other one hundred and forty-three nations that voted in favour. Only four countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US, under the Presidency of George W. Bush – voted against. Canada may soon find itself isolated even on this slap to Aboriginal Canadians. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that he will reverse Australia’s negative vote and sign the Declaration. New Zealand has indicated that it will follow suit, and the Obama administration is also reconsidering its opposition.

In a similar vein, the Conservatives refused to have Canada co-sponsor the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty – breaking an almost decade-long tradition of Canadian leadership against the punishment ruled “cruel and unusual” by Canada’s own Supreme Court. Similarly, there is ‘leading from behind’ when it comes to standing up for Canadians’ most cherished democratic and human rights values in the context of bringing home Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay – this while all other Western nations have taken their own nationals out of a place the existence of which is deemed, even by the Obama administration, to be in violation of international law. There has been a similar ‘leading from behind’ regarding other Canadians in dire predicaments abroad, such as those who are faced with foreign imprisonment. In the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, roadblocks were put against his return to Canada from Sudan until the Federal Court of Canada, ruling that the government had breached Abdelrazik’s right as a citizen to return to Canada, ordered the government to facilitate his return. (Abdelrazik had been stranded in Sudan for six years, and subjected to torture.)

All of this has issued in a common refrain being heard at many international policy and legal conferences these days: “What has happened to Canada?”


Errol Mendes is professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa. He is currently a Visiting Professional at the International Criminal Court, and is writing a book, due out in early 2010, entitled The Court of Last Resort: Peace and Justice at the International Criminal Court.


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