Canada’s Not Back Yet: Debating Canada’s Place in the World

(Published in A Blog Called Intrepid, Jul. 27, 2020).

Canada’s failure to win a seat in the United Nations Security Council has provoked a debate over Canada’s place in the world. It was seen as a personal failure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who when elected famously declared that “Canada is back!” But it has raised deeper questions regarding the reasons for the failure, what Canada’s role in the world should be, and indeed what it once was—should we want to be “back?” And what does that mean anyway?

Some have suggested that the past that Trudeau invoked is more myth than fact, and that we should, in any event, look to the future with a more narrowly pragmatic and realpolitik approach. But the soft power and outsized diplomatic influence that Canada wielded during the latter half of the Twentieth Century is no myth—and I would argue it is important to understand what explained Canada’s stature in the world, and indeed to get “back” to embracing the principles that made us who we then were. Those principles are closer to the values that still make us who we are today as a nation.

I personally witnessed evidence of this influence in the autumn of 1989. I was a junior naval attaché seconded to serve in the Canadian Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Joe Clark, then the Minister of External Affairs in the Mulroney government, was to address the General Assembly at the end of September, and Canada was to take over the rotating presidency of the Security Council in October. It was an exciting time to be at the UN, as the Berlin Wall was coming down and there were other seismic shifts suggesting a coming new world order. But like most members of Canada’s then under-funded military, I shared the perspective that Canada’s anemic hard power gave it little influence in the world.

Read moreCanada’s Not Back Yet: Debating Canada’s Place in the World

When Should We Violate International Law in Order to Enforce It?

(Published in The Huffington Post, September 10, 2013)

Lady Justice Bronze_full

The looming military strikes on Syria are being justified as necessary to enforce and maintain a fundamental international law norm, namely the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It is quite clear that in the current situation, and in the absence of U.N. Security Council authorization, such strikes will also themselves violate a fundamental norm of international law, namely the prohibition on the use of force against sovereign states (see here for my own discussion of the legality issues).

At first blush the argument that one should violate the law in order to enforce it seems absurd, encouraging a counterproductive form of vigilante justice at best. But it does raise the question — are there times when we should violate international law in order to enforce it? Or more explicitly in the Syrian context: under what conditions and according to what criteria would it be justifiable to violate the fundamental rule prohibiting the use of force against sovereign states, in order to enforce the fundamental rule prohibiting the use of chemical weapons? Are there some practical responses that might provide some guidance for policy makers?

It must be acknowledged that there are some situations in which we accept that it would be justifiable to violate the law, or at the very least in which the circumstances would mitigate against our full condemnation of a violation. Such justification, in the form of exceptions, defenses, and reduced punishment, is indeed built into most domestic legal systems, and is part of most conceptions of justice.

Read moreWhen Should We Violate International Law in Order to Enforce It?

International Law and U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

(Published in the Huffington Post, Aug. 31, 2013).

Cruise missile launchThere has been insufficient analysis, by both policy makers and the media, of the legality of the looming use of military force against Syria. As usual, the law seems to be beside the point. But this not only ignores a key factor, but is rather paradoxical given that one of the primary justifications for the strikes is that they are to punish the Syrian government for its violations of international law. Legality should be an important factor in the decision-making process, because if the use of force is itself not lawful, then it represents nothing more than vigilante justice, likely doing far more harm than good to the international legal order.

There is little doubt that the Syrian regime has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own people over the last two years. If it is proven that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the attack last week, that would constitute a separate and grave violation of international law. All of this screams out for a response by the international community.

The reality, however, is that these crimes do not justify a unilateral use of force, and the contemplated American military strikes would not be lawful. Indeed, the Obama administration, while tossing out platitudes about complying with international norms, has not even tried to make the legal case justifying the use of force.

Read moreInternational Law and U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

Debating Canada’s Objectives and Role in Libya

(Published in the Huffington Post (Canada), June 14, 2011 – slightly revised)

width="210"Tomorrow, parliament will debate whether to extend the participation of the Canadian Forces in the NATO operations in Libya. First, it should be said that parliamentary approval of the operation is essential. Legislative oversight of the executive’s decisions to go to war is crucial for both democratic accountability and for reducing the likelihood of involvement in unwise or illegitimate adventures.

Canada is one of the few liberal democracies that does not have a constitutional or legislative requirement for such approval, but tomorrow’s debate is part of an increasingly established practice in Canada of parliamentary involvement in decisions to engage in armed conflict.

In order to make the debate meaningful, however, parliament must take seriously the issues before it. Members have a duty to rigorously interrogate the government’s motives, and to question the rationales advanced for continued involvement in the conflict. It is not enough to accept platitudes and vague assertions about Canada’s duties as an ally. Rather, there must be hard questions asked about the continued legitimacy of the operation, what exactly the objectives are, and how precisely our involvement advances the national interest or is consistent with our national values.

It should be recalled that the initial objective of NATO’s operation was to prevent a pending humanitarian disaster, when Libyan armed forces were poised to take Benghazi. The United Nations Security Council authorized, in Resolution 1973, the use of force to impose a no-fly zone, and to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. It was a classic humanitarian intervention, with the explicit objective of, and authority limited to, protecting civilians.

Read moreDebating Canada’s Objectives and Role in Libya