Canada’s war on ISIS: Why declaring genocide without ramifications is dangerous

The U.S. has declared ISIS’ actions to be genocide but, as history has
shown, using the term without action only weakens its legal effectiveness,
argue Robert Murray and Aidan Hehir.

By: /
11 April, 2016
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, August 11, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said
By: Aidan Hehir
Reader in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster
By: Robert Murray
Vice-President, Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy; Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.

In his speech at the University of Ottawa on March 29, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion noted that Canada’s foreign policy strategy under the Trudeau government will be guided by the principle of ‘Responsible Conviction.’ Few observers really know what the term means; beyond being a direct shot at the Harper-era ‘principled foreign policy’ label, it seems to suggest that, under Justin Trudeau, Canada’s international behaviour will be dictated by a sense of pragmatic morality, wherein the government can be strong in its ethical and normative stances, but also flexible when needed.

While, from a moral perspective, this may not sound ideal, it is very much consistent with the way the world works; states can be as morally righteous as they would like, but the chances of other states adopting or accepting that sense of morality is highly unlikely. Further, Dion is correct to acknowledge that foreign policy is more about working with states that do not share Canada’s value system than those that do, so flexibility is imperative if Canada is to play a constructive role in world affairs.

What remains to be seen is exactly how the idea of Responsible Conviction is operationalized and whether it can become a successful foreign policy doctrine for the Trudeau government.

The idea behind Responsible Conviction was recently tested when Dion was repeatedly asked whether Canada would follow U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in declaring ISIS’ acts as ‘genocide.’ To date, Dion has said that while Canada is committed to preventing genocide, Canada will not identify ISIS’ acts as genocide, but that Canada does support an independent investigation to determine whether Kerry’s claim is valid.

There is little doubt that ISIS has committed genocide, along with war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, all of which are the core elements of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine endorsed by the United Nations in 2005.

Despite this recognition, there is a valid argument for why Canada, and others, should hesitate to use the language of R2P — specifically, the word genocide in this case — in its assessment of ISIS’ actions.

It is insufficient to claim that ISIS is committing genocide, and to simultaneously distance oneself from the subsequent obligation to abide by the defined legal processes, yet this is precisely what the U.S. has done. The U.S. mission to combat ISIS was not designed to prevent or halt genocide, and since Kerry’s declaration, no substantive alterations to the U.S. strategy have taken place. Kerry’s declaration that ISIS’ attacks against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims constituted genocide was followed by the U.S. State Department stating that such identification would not affect U.S. strategy in its current mission against ISIS.

Kerry’s accusation is, therefore, a strategic act designed to rally support and consolidate the alliance currently targeting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. On this political level the use of the term makes strategic sense. The problem is, however, that this latest instrumental employment of ‘genocide’ blunts its legal power.

Kerry’s invocation of ‘genocide’ is all too reminiscent of the previous occasion the U.S. officially employed the term. In 2004 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the Sudanese government and its proxy militia were engaged in genocide in Darfur; yet in the same sentence he stated, “no new action is dictated by this determination…let us not be too preoccupied with this designation.” John Danforth, U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 2004, later admitted that this finding of genocide was made for “internal consumption within the U.S.” The cynical use of the term is not unique to the U.S; indicatively, in 2008 Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of committing genocide against its Russian minority.

If ‘genocide’ is employed by states exclusively in an instrumental fashion without an acceptance that this designation carries legal weight that demands the initiation of particular juridical processes and action, then ‘genocide’ is reduced to a politically-load pejorative term. 

For Canada’s part, it appears that Responsible Conviction means that Canada will not use the language of R2P unless it intends on following through to halt genocide. Two questions naturally come from this realization — does Canada believe the U.S. was premature or wrong in identifying ISIS’ acts as ‘genocide’? And far more importantly — if an independent investigation by international organizations agrees with Kerry’s assessment, what, if anything, will Canada and other coalition states do differently than they already are to put an end to such horrific crimes?

Time will tell whether Responsible Conviction in this case is actually an affirmation of R2P principles or simply another state buck-passing on its obligation to protect the world’s most vulnerable.

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