Below is the short talk which I presented discussing Canada’s prior leadership role and current stance on R2P. What was so striking was the response and affirmation from the NGO presence at the conference in terms of effects Canada’s change in policy has had on the sector’s operational capacity. As an example, Noel Morada, Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P discussed his puzzlement at how Canada went from a principle funder of his Centre to a non-contributor. Sapna Chhatpar Considine, Deputy-Director of the International Coalition for R2P expressed similar sentiments.

Canada’s role in facilitating the conceptualization of the Responsibility to Protect was not a grand achievement unattainable by any other State. Instead, where Canada is deserving of some notoriety is in its decision to take a position of leadership on the issues. The R2P leadership initiative is a prime example of the strength and pull a middle power can have in shaping discourse and normative developments regarding international policy. Through the analysis of three sequential governments in Canada benefits of international leadership on R2P are highlighted and contrasted against a non-committal approach.

The development of a multi-state mechanism for conflict prevention is not a unique concept originating from the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Indeed, investigations into preventative safe-guards against conflict have been a matter of debate for quite some time. In more recent history, the trend can include the 1993 Mechanism for Conflict Prevention of the Organization of African Unity, measures put in effect by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a number of Conflict Prevention Assessment Missions undertaken by the European Union. What seems absent from these models, and highlighted its importance through the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide and deliberate targeting of civilians in Kosovo and Srebrenica, is an inclusion of tangible commitments on behalf of the regional or international community – in effect, a gap between rhetoric and a wide degree of possible action.

Hovering above these models, and previous discussions surrounding conflict prevention, has always been the sacrosanct reverence for state sovereignty. The mass human rights atrocities of the mid 1990s allowed for a refocused perspective on sovereignty in regards to the rights and duties of the sovereign. During this time, the Canadian government orientated its foreign policy around the notion of ‘human security’. Interested in solidifying Canada’s international reputation as a champion of human rights, the Chretien government prioritized initiatives such as the International Campaign to Ban Landlines, which in 1997 led to the signing of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, or as it is more commonly referred to as – The Ottawa Treaty. Canada also played a pivotal role in the movement for the creation of the International Criminal Court, chairing a coalition of States called “The Like-Minded Group” that helped to motivate the wider international community to adopt the Rome Statute, and became the 14th state to sign the Statute on December 18, 1998, later ratifying the treaty in 2000. In that same year at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, Prime Minister Chretien announced Canada’s leadership role in the establishment of an independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. A week later, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy provided details on the Commission stating,

“In his Millennium report, the UN Secretary-General challenged the international community to address the highly complex problem of state sovereignty and international responsibility. Canada’s human security agenda is all about putting people first. We are establishing this Commission to respond to the Secretary-General’s challenge to ensure that the indifference and inaction of the international community, in the face of such situations as occurred in Rwanda and Srebernica, are no longer an option.”

Constituted with a board which oversaw the strategic direction of the commissioners, Canada ensured continued prevalence by having Minister Axworthy chair the board and Canadian academic Michal Ignatieff included as a commissioner. Mandated to conclude and submit the report by 2001 to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the report was then formally presented to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN community on December 18, 2001.

Highlighted as the purpose of the report, an international political consensus was developed governing how and when the international community should respond to emerging man made crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity. More than this, the Commission wished to have a tangible impact that would surpass merely simulating further academic debate. Intrinsic in this objective is the need to orperationalize the report through general domestic and international guidelines which are outlined. Common for both political realms is the need for commitment, leadership, and constant campaigning in order to mainstream the concept of R2P and have the doctrine integrated into the list of available tools for maintaining international peace and security.

Prime Minister Chretien and his government took up the campaign, referencing R2P himself in July 2002 during the Progressive Governance Summit in London and in September 2003 during the UN General Assembly Opening. Later in 2003, when the Chretien government was replaced by the Martin government, a human security foreign policy continued. Martin ensured his commitment to R2P by referencing the norm at the September 2004 UN General Assembly Opening, November APEC Summit and also domestically in his February and October Speeches from the Throne. These high profile endorsements fit into Canada’s larger strategy of approaching likeminded states, regional groups and civil society. Canada, along with other states’ efforts, began to bear fruit when in December 2004 the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change endorsed the “the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect.”

This was followed by the World Summit Declaration adopted on September 15, 2005 which embraced the norm. The next day in his address to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Martin was quick state “[R2P] is a powerful norm of international behaviour. And this week, we have taken a very important step to that end. We are proud that R2P has Canadian lineage, that it is now a principle for all the world. That being said, our collective responsibility does not end there.”

Indeed, the Government outlined three areas of focus to close the gap between the internationally adopted norm and the capacity for effective implementation. These focus areas include: normative development, UN SC action on R2P, and operational readiness. 2005 continued to be a busy year with Canada sending a joint letter to the SC President encouraging action on Darfur and promoting the norm of R2P, Foreign Affairs Canada sponsoring two major studies aimed at building consensus in Africa carried out by Plough Shares and the North South Institute, and in December a statement made by Canada to the SC on behalf of a group of nations promoting the importance of R2P.

In February 2006, the Liberal Martin Government was replaced by the Conservative Harper Government and with a new government came new priorities. While not completely abandoning the previous government’s approach to promoting R2P initially, Harper did mention the norm during his first address to the GA, by the end of 2007 a palatable change in direction had occurred. As an example, in statements delivered by Canada to the SC in 2006, 3 of 18 mentioned R2P. In 2007, 3 of 12 statements mentioned R2P. From 2008 until present a collective 31 statements made to the SC by Canada have not mentioned R2P. In 2006, Canada made 48 statements to the GA, two of which referenced to R2P. From 2007 until present Canada has made 93 statements to the GA, only 1 has mentioned R2P and that was in 2009 during the GA Open Debate on R2P. Disengagment at the UN was partnered by other actions, such as disbanding the government’s Special Advisory Team on Sudan which was advocating action within the R2P paradim.

This decrease in endorsement was quite intentional, as the Harper government made efforts to distance itself from its predecessor through a process of re-branding as well as developing policy positions which would be more conducive to US-Canada relations. Indeed, many saw Canada’s human security approach as a US irritant. Subsequently, Canada’s foreign policy discourse has centred and revolved around commitments in Afghanistan and its nation building efforts through a whole of government approach.

While change in priority is normal and expected from one government to the next, the neglect of Canada’s R2P leadership initiative cannot help but be lamented especially if that neglect is on a partisan basis. While R2P may have begun as a Liberal leadership initiative, it is clearly now a fixture within international peace and security debates. By forfeiting Canada’s previous position of leadership the current government has lost its advantage in holding a louder voice in comparison to its clout on this issue and allowed its power base constructed on multilateralism to dissipate. And it has been this strategy of multilateral endorsement and promotion by middle powers that has facilitated R2P’s development. If Canada is unwilling to engage this issue, then it falls to another middle power to assume the leadership role and propel R2P to the next stage of implementation.

Marc Gionet

Marc Gionet is a blogger and Project Manager and Researcher at the Atlantic Human Rights Centre.