Among the many claims made by demonstrators converging on Ottawa for the “Freedom Convoy” is that the Canadian government’s vaccine mandate constitutes a “crime against humanity”. For over a decade, I have studied mass atrocities and worked with people in states around the globe to address international crimes. The use of “crimes against humanity” in the context of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just wrong, it is dangerous.
On Twitter, former hockey player Theo Fleury declared that “Trudeau has finally united Canadians. We are united against him. #CrimesAgainstHumanity #treason”. The statement garnered significant support, with almost 8,000 ‘likes’. Fleury was perhaps taking his cue from James Bauder, one of the right-wing organizers of the Convoy, who has claimed that Trudeau “should be arrested… for participating in committing crimes against humanity.”
There have been and continue to exist legitimate concerns about the possible over-reach of governing authorities in response to the pandemic. In Quebec, for example, a lockdown curfew was put in place in 2021 and then enforced by Premier François Legault against homeless people. The policy likely contributed to the death of at least one person, Raphaël André, who froze to death in a portable toilet after being unable to find shelter during curfew hours. There are also open questions over whether the federal government’s closure of the southern border to asylum seekers violated international human rights law or whether the decision of provinces, such as Newfoundland, to close their borders to non-residents was justified.
Still, none of these harms – absolutely none – amount to a crime against humanity.
The idea of defining atrocities as crimes against humanity originates from efforts to abolish the slave trade in the United States. Towards the end of World War II, the term was formalized in law, and the Nazi regime’s leadership was charged with crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. The core idea was that these atrocities were so heinous, so shocking, that they were not just crimes against their victims, but against all of humanity.
A cruel irony of those insisting that Canadian authorities have committed crimes against humanity is their association with figures toting the insignia of the very mass atrocity perpetrators that crimes against humanity were intended to address: in Ottawa this past weekend, some protestors brandished the Confederate Flag, a symbol associated with white supremacy and slavery, and Swastikas, the signature of Nazism.
For an act to constitute a crime against humanity, it must constitute “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”. That is from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which Canada has domesticated, making it Canadian law. Among the acts which, if widespread or systematically committed, could amount to a crime against humanity is murder, enslavement, torture, apartheid, rape and sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. Missing from this list? Having to wear masks, being inoculated from a deadly virus with a vaccine, or standing six feet apart.
In Canada, the only people that have any reasonable basis to argue that it has been systematically subject to these kinds of crimes are Indigenous communities. This much has been made clear in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report as well as the more recent report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which added that the policies of the government over decades also amounted to genocide – a finding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted.
To call public health policies crimes against humanity dilutes the term of its power at precisely the time it needs to be used to address actual atrocities around the world. Communities across the globe are facing governments willing to commit mass atrocities against them with impunity.
Consider the following snapshot. In Myanmar, recent reports suggest that the military junta that took power last year has continued its repression of civilians, especially those who dare to dissent in the name of democracy or justice. In Yemen, an ongoing civil war has resulted in mass civilian casualties, including hundreds of children. One party to that war, Saudi Arabia, uses arms manufactured and sold to them by Canada, despite pleas from human rights groups to end the practice..
At the same time, there are also perpetrators of crimes against humanity here in Canada. The most recent estimates suggest that at least 200 perpetrators of international crimes live in the country. Rather than prosecute them, though, the government seeks to deport them back to where they committed their crimes, with no guarantee that justice will be done.
We should be talking about crimes against humanity, just not made up ones. Abusing the term neuters the crime of its power, distracts from situations where it is actually perpetrated, and risks making justice for victims of atrocities less likely.
A version of this article was originally posted at the Globe and Mail.