By Richard Forbes.
Over three thousand women and children are being imprisoned and enslaved by ISIL, the UN Human Rights Council reported this week – confirming the fears of many. Women used as sex slaves; children, indoctrinated and exploited as child soldiers; men, missing and presumed dead – the vast majority of these victims of war crimes forced from their homes in the north-west of Iraq to Syria.
Little would these victims know (or care) a debate on the precise legal nature of these horrors being committed against them was raging over nine thousand kilometers across the globe between Canadian parliamentarians. But that, sad as it is, is the debacle before us. For as long as humanity has recognized our rich and modern tapestry of universal human rights and the unconscionable horror of genocide, there has remained the stubborn and persistent question of who decides when genocide is genocide.
The legal recognition of the Armenian Genocide, for example, has been frozen in a fractured, messy stasis for over a century – major actors, like the United Nations and the United States, recognize the genocide in subcommittees and parts of congress but deny it as a whole. That genocide acted as a precursor to the UN’s Genocide Convention, which established international courts as a last resort – with some countries, like the United States, claiming a veto even on the “trial of its citizenry.”
Perhaps such quibbling is a tragic but predictable consequence of having bureaucrats, mainly lawyers, managing our international human rights regime. But, I digress…
Jason Kenney pursued the particular motion in question earlier this week, which, if it had passed would have seen the House of Commons recognize ISIL as having committed genocide and crimes against humanity against “Christians, Yezidis, and Shia Muslims, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq,” in addition to condemning ISIL’s use of “rape and sexual violence.”
The opposition motion was predictably defeated, 166-139 – with a majority of Liberals voting against the motion – but not without controversy. The Liberals were condemned by detractors for their resistance to recognizing the scale of ISIL’s barbarity and its contempt for human rights; and, among many things, distancing Canada from its allies – the White House, the United Kingdom and the European Union – who had all passed similar motions.
Of course, there is some room for debate on how offside Canada’s opinion is with its allies, given the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office legal department had reportedly asked government MPs to abstain on a similar House of Commons motion on the grounds the case had not yet been referred to the ICC, citing a long standing Foreign Office policy of not designating a “legal description” to war crimes still under dispute. MPs, ignoring Whitehall’s policy, went ahead and supported the motion anyways.
Prior to that, the UK House of Lords rejected a similar motion, with many peers arguing – as Trudeau has – that international courts, not politicians should be adjudicating war crimes. Sweden too, while supporting a EU motion recognizing the genocide, also broke from the rest of Europe in rejecting a similar motion in its national parliament last month.
Trudeau, in rejecting Kenney’s motion, reasoned it was a matter for international courts and tribunals to determine genocide as far as international law is concerned.
The UN Human Rights Office reporting on ISIL last year, “strongly” suggested its behavior may amount to genocide but left the matter open for further evidence to emerge:
[…] the manifest pattern of the attacks against the Yezidi “pointed to the intent of ISIL to destroy the Yezidi as a group,” the report says. This “strongly suggests” that ISIL may have perpetrated genocide.
– OHCHR, March 19 2015.
Ottawa’s position, however, waiting for an official international ruling, that is, has led to an embarrassing about-face for the government. Indeed, this Thursday, foreign minister Stéphane Dion was pressed to concede ISIL had committed genocide after the UN HRC published a report on Wednesday titled “They Came to Destroy: ISIS crimes against the Yazidis,” which confirmed reports of genocide, specifically against the Yezidis, by ISIL. The 40-page report condemns ISIL’s targeting of, and its intent to destroy the Yezidis – the means of this genocide of which are exhaustive: “killing, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture,” forced migration, forced abortions and forced religious conversions.
Later that Thursday, MP Marc Miller shared on Facebook his motion the Foreign Affairs Committee had just supported, which recognized the potential for a Yezidi genocide, albeit with different language: “strong evidence that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) [sic] has committed and is committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. [Emphasis Added.]” This marked the first signs the Liberals intend to push for the House’s official recognition of ISIL’s war crimes. That report (which requests a government response to be tabled), titled “Crimes against Religious, Ethnic and Other Groups in Syria and Iraq,” was officially presented to the House on Friday before the summer adjournment.
Nevertheless, while Dion’s admission and the government’s turnaround is merely in keeping with its pledge to follow the UN’s lead on the matter, the timing of the report – so close to Kenney’s motion – has made for, as far as appearances go, a clumsy climb-down by the week’s end. Although Dion’s behavior is simply the logical extension of following the UN Human Rights Council, the timing of the UN’s release on ISIL’s war crimes has made for what can only be called an awkward about-face for a government that had just staked an unpopular defense of its neutrality.
You see, both sides would have you believe the other is manifestly wrong on the matter – the Conservatives accuse the Liberals of carelessly dismissing the human rights of vulnerable minorities out of fire-breathing partisanship, softness to terrorism, and loopy, ostrich-headed sociology. Not to be outdone, the Liberals accuse Tories of crassly politicizing crimes against humanity to make hay needlessly out of what is rather, a commitment to international procedure and practice.
But truthfully, neither side is particularly wrong, at least not on this issue. Just as the Conservatives are not wrong to have pressed the government on the ISIL file as evidence of gross war crimes mounted, the Liberals were not wrong to stress the importance of having alleged international crimes and human rights abuses reviewed independently.
To call the Liberals “soft” on ISIL for delaying the recognition of the legal description of “genocide,” is to confuse the importance of actions with words – calling “genocide” on ISIL does not in and itself provide any material relief to the victims of ISIL. The new government’s plan to intensify Canada’s operations in Syria – providing ground support to train Kurdish forces – will probably provide far more relief than any word ever could.
Simply put, the difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives on ISIL is not their commitment to human rights abroad, as much as they would like you to think monsters of one another – the differences are merely clashes over foreign policy. Indeed, this debate has offered a deep contrast between either party’s approach in international affairs. The ‘headstrong’ Tories would see Canada follow its closest ally, the White House in condemning ISIL, while the ‘foxy’ Liberals prefer Canada to follow the UN’s lead, in keeping with their respect for multilateralism, intergovernmental forces and civil society.
And so the story goes, in a debate as old as mass murder, the realist rejects the role the rest of the world has in identifying these sites of horror for what they are, while the idealist wholeheartedly embraces it.
Thanks must go to Thomas Hall for his assistance & general helpfulness in preparing this article.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
Follow him on Twitter at @richardjforbes.