There is no doubt that genocidal acts have been perpetrated against the Yazidi people by the Islamic State (ISIS). A recent report by United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has given credence to political declarations in the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and elsewhere that ISIS is waging a campaign to exterminate the Yazidis. ISIS’s particular brand of violent and radical Islam is unambivalent 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 has clearly articulated its intent to exterminate them. But not every way of recognizing a 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 mass atrocity prevention and prosecution — should establish its own International Justice Ambassador.
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 no 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 a 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 when he exclaimed that “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 very same Conservatives who put forward the bill guaranteed that the vote would fail. A few minutes of research would have revealed that the UN 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 with the motion worded as it was. They proceeded anyways. To top it off, at the same time, 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. One such policy would be to establish a position: an International Justice Ambassador.
Creating an International Justice Ambassador would allow governments like 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, coordinating with groups that the government supports, such as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, and which actually collect evidence of international crimes on the ground, as well as 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 needlessly politicizing such decisions. It would also avoid always having to refer to the United Nations for advice whilst simultaneously rebuilding our 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. Few countries boast so many qualified and respected candidates to fill such a office than Canada. But there is no reason why countries around the world shouldn’t establish a similar point-person for international justice-related issues.
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, would help to rebuild the capacity to effectively respond to international crimes, and, in Canada, would give substance to Justin Trudeau’s words that were welcomed by all who expect the country to be a leader on global accountability: “we’re back.”