Recommitting to R2P

Toronto recently declared its first inaugural “Will to Intervene Day.” Will Ottawa follow suit?

By: /
11 May, 2012
By: Patrick Quinton-Brown
MPhil (International Relations) candidate at Oxford University
By: Victor MacDiarmid
Co-Founder and Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for R2P

Yesterday, the City of Toronto declared its first inaugural “Will to Intervene Day” to add its voice to the global struggle to end mass-atrocity crimes, including genocide. Given the proliferation of human-rights abuses during the Arab Spring, most recently in Syria, the topic of international intervention to protect civilians is particularly relevant this year. But where does Canada currently stand on international humanitarian intervention?   

Most Canadians will tell you that, as former foreign affairs minister Bill Graham said, “building international institutions has been one of the great pillars of our foreign policy.” From the Suez to Haiti, Canada has changed the world for the better and elevated its international standing by working through international organizations and pioneering norms to maintain global stability.

So, it is no surprise that following the horrific mass atrocities of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Canada took the lead in forging the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle in 2001. Although 9/11 quickly removed R2P from media headlines and shifted public discourse to the threat of terrorism, our nation effectively redefined the paradigm of international intervention.


Almost every country in the world recognizes that the outright rejection of any foreign intervention in cases of massive humanitarian atrocities is increasingly out of sync with modern political norms. That is why the R2P has entrenched itself in international relations as a valuable tool against mass atrocities in a remarkably short period of time – more than 150 heads of state adopted the principle in 2005, a mere four years after its inception.

Why, then, has the Canadian government dropped R2P from its foreign-policy lexicon? The principle is noticeably absent in House of Commons debates. Worse, the Canadian government has effectively banned Canadian officials from using the language of R2P. Partisan politics should not trump Canada’s important foreign-policy contributions under previous governments.

While Canada lags behind, other countries – even former dissenters – are furthering the dialogue on R2P. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently organized conferences at the UN to improve the R2P principle. Three weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama, declaring that, “national sovereignty is never a licence to slaughter your people,” announced the creation of a U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board.

Canada’s deviation from its R2P correlates with its deviation from our broader commitment to multilateralism. Instead, unfettered bilateralism with allies such as the U.S. is reflective of Ottawa’s new foreign-policy priority: national economic prosperity. Gone is soft power and norm entrepreneurship. Canada’s peacekeeping commitments, arguably one of our proudest global contributions, are today ranked 53rd in the world. Ottawa’s lost UN Security Council seat bid is another example of our diminishing clout in the international arena.

Toronto’s Will to Intervene Day is an example of how Canadian citizens can help our nation resist this decline. It was a symbolic gesture in support of the Will to Intervene Project, a Canadian initiative developed at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. More importantly, it was a cri de coeur for Canada to return to its former status as an intellectual power that can punch above its weight in international affairs.

Toronto is the first municipality in Eastern Canada to proclaim such a day, following proclamations by Vancouver and Calgary. It would be wishful thinking to believe the proclamation might wake Ottawa from its foreign-policy stupor. At the very least, however, it may help revive the Canadian conversation on international intervention and Canada’s R2P memory lapse.

Yet, there is so much more that we can do as a nation. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasized, a long-term approach based on regional mechanisms is desperately needed to ensure the political implementation of R2P. Even more, the practical applications of the principle are rife with contradictions because of doctrinal ambiguities. Canadian academic institutions have the resources to clarify such obscurities and analyze R2P’s weaknesses. As an intellectual heavyweight with a long history of fighting to create a better world, Canada is uniquely situated to lead the evolution of international protection regime.

Recently, Canada has lost its direction in international affairs. It is time for it to return to the tenets that made it a guiding light in this area. In short, it is time for Canada to renew its commitment to R2P.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter