Why Canada Should Rethink its Approach to Economic Sanctions

(Published in The Conversation, Mar. 6, 2022)

Western countries have imposed massive sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The West has increasingly relied on economic sanctions to punish or change the policies of foreign governments in the last several decades. The conventional wisdom is that economic sanctions are an effective and peaceful foreign policy tool.

Some sanctions regimes, such as the current effort against Russia, may be both effective and lawful. But as I explored in a recent research report, some economic sanctions may violate international law principles, including those the sanctions are intended to enforce. They may therefore undermine the very legal regimes that Canadians like to champion.

The nature of economic sanctions

Many economic sanctions are authorized by the United Nations Security Council or regional organizations. But countries are increasingly imposing sanctions without such legal authority. It’s these so-called unilateral or autonomous sanctions that raise legal questions.

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Economic Sanctions Under International Law: A Guide for Canadian Policy

My report on economic sanctions has been published: Economic Sanctions Under International Law: A Guide for Canadian Policy,” Rideau Institute and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa: Research Report (2021).

The abstract is below, and a short blog post that discusses the report was also published on the Rideau Institute blog.

Economic sanctions have become an increasingly favored tool of Western states in their international relations over the last several decades, but there have also been growing questions regarding the lawfulness of autonomous sanctions (those not authorized by the U.N. Security Council) generally, and so-called secondary sanctions and targeted sanctions more specifically. This report provides an examination of the nature and operation of both authorized and autonomous economic sanctions and the distinct areas of international law that govern the various forms of economic sanctions, with a view to informing Canadian foreign policy on sanctions.

The report provides an analysis of the different legal bases for possible objections that these different forms of sanction are unlawful, from claims that they may constitute unlawful coercive intervention, or be an unlawful extraterritorial exercise of jurisdiction, to claims that they violate specific principles of human rights law, or international trade and investment law. It also examines whether any such violations could be justified as legitimate countermeasures. The report finds that there is a degree of uncertainty regarding some of these aspects of international law, with differing perspectives between the developed and developing states on these questions.

The report provides a brief review of the Canadian domestic law authority for imposing economic sanctions, and places Canada’s current sanctions regimes within the context of the foregoing legal framework and analysis. Canadian law authorizes broad autonomous sanctions both against states and against individuals and private entities, though it has thus far avoided the use of secondary sanctions. The report ends with the suggestion that Canadian policy makers should take the unsettled state of the law as a cause for caution. Moreover, they should be mindful of Canada’s role in helping to shape the evolving customary international law regime, and whether the use of some economic sanctions may be inconsistent with its support for human rights, respect for sovereignty, and the international rule of law.

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.

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What Role and Rules for Canada’s Armed Drones?

predator-firing-missile_previewI have published a short essay, “What Role and Rules for Canada’s Armed Drones,” in the Canadian Global Affairs Institute: Policy Perspectives, Dec. 23, 2018. Here is the abstract:

The Canadian government announced in June 2017 that it was planning to purchase and deploy armed drones. Yet to date it has provided virtually no information on how and for what purpose such armed drones would be used, beyond anodyne comments that they would be used like any other conventional weapon. However, conventional weapons have varying capabilities and purposes, and implicate international law in different ways as a result. Armed drones have been primarily used for the purpose of targeted killing, in ways that have raised significant legal questions and triggered claims of excessive civilian deaths. Canadians should be concerned about how, for what purpose, and according to what limitations the government plans to deploy armed drones. Other countries have provided greater transparency than Canada regarding the law and policy framework governing the use of armed drones. This short essay reviews how armed drones have been used elsewhere, explains the significant legal issues that are implicated by the different ways in which drones have been used and what that implies for the role of Canadian armed drones. It suggests that strict, clear and publicly disclosed limits be placed on drone use to ensure compliance with Canada’s international law obligations.