By Mark Kersten
Two weeks ago, some Canadian politicians embarked on a lone journey to have ISIS recognised as a genocidal outfit. The blatant failure of this undertaking is just but another example of how not to politicise genocide.
The Islamic State Genocide have obviously perpetrated genocide acts against the Yazidi people. ISIS’s particular brand of violent and radical Islam is unequivocal in its zeal to destroy groups that stand in its way of building an Islamic caliphate. Not only has ISIS committed unspeakable atrocities against Yazidi people, but it also has clearly articulated its intent to exterminate them. But not every way of recognizing genocide is equally appropriate. Over the last week, Canada witnessed one of the most unhelpful approaches towards recognizing that ISIS is genocidal. To avoid such fiascos in the future, the Canadian government — as well as other states seeking a role in preventing and prosecuting mass atrocity — should establish its own International Justice Ambassador.
Here’s what happened
It is worth reviewing what transpired in Ottawa two weeks ago. The Conservative Party, backed by the New Democrats, introduced a motion in the House of Commons to officially recognize that ISIS’s violence against the Yazidis, Christians, and Shias in northern Iraq constituted genocide. The Conservatives provided no evidence for such a finding. They provided no definition of genocide. They referred to neither reports nor any investigations. Their ultimate claim, it seems, was to ensure that Canada did what the UK and the US Secretary of State John Kerry had already done — i.e. give ISIS’ crimes the “g-word” treatment, and call their violence genocide.
After an acrimonious and dramatic debate, the Liberals, with the exception of four MPs, rejected the Conservative motion. The Liberals (rightly) insisted that the House of Commons was not the appropriate place to determine whether the crimes amounted to genocide. In doing so, they did what UK Prime Minister David Cameron had advised British officials to do: “Not only are the courts best placed to judge criminal matters but their impartiality also ensures the protection of the UK government from the politicisation and controversies that often attach themselves to the question of genocide.”
Remarkably, the Conservatives who put forward the bill were the same ones who guaranteed that the vote would fail. A few minutes of research would have revealed that the United Nations Commission of Inquiry in Syria was on the verge of announcing that the atrocities amounted to genocide. Moreover, any due diligence (i.e. vote counting) would have made clear that the Conservatives would lose the vote based on how the motion was worded. Yet, they still proceeded. To top it off, the Conservatives provided no clear sense of what a finding of genocide would mean or require of Canada. Would they call the UN Security Council to refer Syria and Iraq to the International Criminal Court (ICC)? It seems unlikely, given their mistrust of international criminal justice and the fact that, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservatives were the last Western government to put their support behind such a referral – one which would have allowed the ICC to investigate and prosecute allegations of genocide against the Yazidis.
The obvious conclusion — and a rather grotesque one — is that the Conservatives wanted the vote to fail in order to gain some political brownie points at the expense of the Liberals — and, sadly, the victims of ISIS atrocities. Not to be outdone, however, when they lost the vote, the Conservative MPs grovelled at the bottom of the political barrel, posting a poll on Twitter to determine whether ISIS crimes amounted to genocide.
The very same week, and following the UN Commission of Inquiry report (which reported that ISIS was committing genocide against Yazidis but not other groups, including Christian minorities), Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion told the House that the government would recognize that the atrocities being committed by ISIS constituted a genocide. A Liberal motion introduced in the House also stated that “the government of Canada [would] continue its efforts to have these atrocities properly investigated and, where appropriate, referred to the International Criminal Court to formally determine the existence of genocide and to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice”. Canada is now leading diplomatic efforts to push the United Nations Security Council to mandate a commission to investigate ISIS crimes.
It was, in short, a mangled and mismanaged debate. The politicking over whether crimes against the Yazidis constitutes genocide fell prey to a type of politicization that does little to protect or prosecute vulnerable groups from ISIS violence. It made any finding of genocide a matter of distasteful partisan one-upmanship. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can look forward and identify policies to avoid such unhelpful polarization and drama in the future. One such policy would be to establish a position: an International Justice Ambassador.
An International Ambassador
Creating an International Justice Ambassador would allow governments such as Canada to refer questions regarding international crimes to a specifically mandated office. The ambassador would be tasked with representing Canada’s international justice interests at relevant institutions, such as the ICC and the UN. The ambassador would also keep tabs on how our allies have responded to mass atrocities — and why. Whenever necessary, he or she could be requested to come up with clear recommendations to the Government and the House on questions such as whether to recognize certain situations as genocide. Doing so would allow Canada and its allies to avoid the needless politicizing of such decisions. It would also avoid always having to refer to the United Nations for advice – at a time when the country is trying to rebuild its reputation on matters of global justice and accountability.
The idea of an International Justice Ambassador was initially proposed by a group of experts and scholars in a public letter during the last Canadian federal election. It has since gathered additional coverage and momentum. The United States, for one, already has such a position in place and Stephen Rapp, Washington’s previous War Crimes Ambassador, recently spoke to Canadian diplomats and academics about the value of such an ambassadorship. Perhaps no country in the world has so many qualified and respected candidates to fill such an office than Canada. But there is no reason why countries around the world shouldn’t establish a similar point person for issues around international justice.
It is an exceedingly rare opportunity for a government to resolve multiple issues with a single policy decision. Establishing an International Justice Ambassador would help avoid political partisanship over the suffering of victims of mass atrocities. It would also help in rebuilding the capacity to effectively respond to international crimes. And, in Canada, it would give substance to the words that were welcomed by all who expect the country to be a leader on global accountability: “We’re back.”
Lead image: A migrant child stands next to a placard reading ‘Please save the Yazidi people from genocide’ at the Moria detention center during a visit of Pope Francis in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on April 16, 2016 (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP)
Courtside Justice is a bi-monthly column by Mark Kersten, the creator of Justice in Conflict, looking into the politics and dilemmas of international justice.