Too often in the past few years, when the Canadian government has come up in human rights related news, it has been for all the wrong reasons. This was the case once again when, last week, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was asked about what how Canada would respond if Palestine were to request the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged crimes committed during the conflict between . Baird declared the following:
“We were very clear from the outset that further actions, like we’ve seen at UNESCO, like we’ve seen at the United Nations, particularly at the International Criminal Court will be ones which will not go unnoticed and will have certainly consequences in the conduct of our relations with the Palestinian Authority…We hope that they will honour the commitments that they made that they would not do that.”
In short, the Canadian government has deemed that Palestine must be punished with unspecified “consequences” for its acceptance into UNESCO, its recognition as a state by the UN General Assembly and, now, for its interest in referring itself to the ICC.
It’s one thing if the Canadian government wants to play a constructive role in establishing a lasting and durable peace between Israel and Palestine and genuinely believes that getting the ICC involved would hamper rather than help the Middle East peace process. Indeed, the utility of Palestine going to the ICC is debatable (see here and here).
Baird’s statement, however, is yet another example of the current Conservative government’s blunt ideological approach to international affairs getting in the way of reasonable and responsible policy-making in the international arena. This has – and will – come at a significant political cost. Any leverage the government may have had in pushing Palestine and Israel towards peace has been further squandered. It didn’t have to go down like this. Canada had previously played a constructive role as a mediating middle-power. As one observer wrote in the wake of Canada’s threats against Palestine when it sought recognition of statehood at the General Assembly:
It wasn’t always this way. Canada traditionally played a much more even-handed role in the conflict, realizing the need to support both Israel’s security and Palestinian aspirations for statehood. But over the last decade Canadian policy on the Middle East conflict has become increasingly one-sided in its affinity for Israel.
For its part, Palestine has been left stunned by the Canadian government harsh response. In response to Baird’s threats, Palestine’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat stated: “We do not know why Canada is showing all this hostility against us.”
But it is another thing altogether to threaten unspecified – but clearly coercive and punitive – “consequences” because an international judicial institution might be requested to investigate alleged crimes against humanity under its jurisdiction. In this context, Baird’s comments aren’t just a threat to Palestine, they are a threat to the ICC. In effect, Baird is suggesting that the Canadian government will undermine international justice if the ICC investigate Israel or Palestine.
Sadly, it comes as little surprise that the current Canadian government would act so brazenly against the interests of international justice. I have previously written on the widespread concerns over the Canadian government’s recent record in terms of its commitment to human rights and international obligations. In one case, that of the Afghan detainee transfer scandal, prominent international legal scholars, including William Schabas and Michael Byers, have even suggested that the ICC investigate alleged war crimes committed by Canadian forces. More recently, as David Petrasek points out in an excellent article on the subject, the Canadian government refused to support a Swiss-led initiative to have the Security Council refer the situation in Syria to the ICC – and has yet to explain its reasoning. The government’s record is in sharp contrast to the reputation the country built as a state which was leader in matters of human rights protection, atrocity prevention and the international rule of law.
In short, the Canadian government hasn’t just lost influence in Middle East Peace process. By conflating its staunchly and unrelentingly “pro-Israeli” approach with the need to do all that it can to ensure that Palestine does not seek recourse to the ICC, the Canadian government also risks undermining the Court and international criminal justice more broadly. Baird’s approach thus poses a rather uncomfortable question: has Canada lost faith in the ICC as an institution?