Canada has announced that it is sending a team of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigation into war crimes in Ukraine. The move is unprecedented. No Canadian government has ever sent or seconded such a team, not even for other investigations that the country has pushed the ICC to conduct. What does it mean for the investigation, for the ICC, and for Canada’s role in pursuing justice for international crimes?
Earlier this month, forty-one-member states of the ICC, including Canada, referred the situation in Ukraine to the Court. It was a remarkable show of collective and symbolic support for an institution that only recently was battling severe and vindictive animosity from the U.S. over its investigation into alleged atrocities in Afghanistan.
In opening the Ukraine investigation, ICC chief Prosecutor Karim Khan asked for help and resources. A number of states followed through, with Canada now also jumping on board. On 28 March, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced that RCMP officers would be shipped out to support the ICC’s efforts. He stated that the Canadian team would assist in collecting and preserving evidence and interviewing witnesses.
Canada’s decision is a welcome one. The ICC is something of a cash-strapped institution. That is in part because states like Canada have insisted over the past decade that the Court’s budget should remain effectively frozen. This has frustrated advocates who lament that while these states ask the ICC to do work investigating international crimes, they don’t back it up with the resources required to undertake complex investigations. Placing money where its mouth is has not been Ottawa’s strong suit. In 2018, Canada joined a group of Latin American states in referring Venezuela to the ICC, but offered no money or investigators to conduct the investigation.
Many thus hope that Canada – and other states – are setting a precedent in bolstering their support of the ICC, not only in Ukraine, but in other situations of mass atrocities, like Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Palestine.
While there is no timeline on Canada’s commitment to the ICC’s Ukraine probe, the government should also make clear that it is in the accountability game for the long-haul. Investigating war crimes is no easy task; it takes painstaking work to link atrocities to the individuals most responsible for their commission. The goal in Ukraine is to reach up to the criminal entourage hiding out in Kremlin. But that won’t be done overnight. Ottawa’s interest must last longer than the headlines and, crucially, longer than the public’s outrage over Russia’s invasion.
While supporting the ICC is important, Canada must also commit to justice for atrocities closer to home.
Minister Mendicino has stated that “it’s important that Canada cannot be used as safe haven for anyone who is attempting to flee justice.” RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki added that her officers will investigate alleged war criminals here in Canada. The Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act allows Canadian authorities to prosecute perpetrators of atrocities in Canada under the regime of universal jurisdiction. War criminals can be tried even if the perpetrator is a foreigner and the crimes were perpetrated abroad. Put otherwise, if a perpetrator of war crimes enters Canada under the guise of being a refugee or migrant, they can be prosecuted in Canadian courts.
But there’s a snag: despite government estimates that some 200 perpetrators of mass atrocities live in Canada, successive governments have abandoned their commitment to universal jurisdiction, viewing international justice as ‘too costly. Instead, they have used immigration law to push alleged perpetrators out of the country, often back to where their crimes were committed and with zero guarantee that they will be held accountable. In other cases, Canadian authorities dither. In 2020, an alleged war criminal from Liberia was murdered in London, Ontario; Bill Horace had lived freely in Canada for over a decade, despite the fact that his war crimes were well-known to the RCMP.
Canada should reverse course. A number of Ottawa’s allies – including all of the Baltic States, Germany, and Sweden – have opened their own war crimes investigations into atrocities in Ukraine. Canada should promise to do likewise and prosecute any perpetrators that may end up on its soil.
When it comes to Canada’s commitment to international justice over the past decade, one word comes to mind: stingy. Ottawa wants the reputation of being a champion of international human rights and global accountability efforts but wants the headlines for pennies on the dollar.
Justice and accountability for Ukraine won’t come cheap – and it may not come soon. If the government’s commitment to support the ICC’s investigation into war crimes represents both a reversal on universal jurisdiction as well as a renewed interest in investing in global justice efforts, it could have a significant impact on achieving accountability for international crimes in Ukraine, in Canada, and wherever else such atrocities are committed.
The investment would be well worth it.
A version of this article was originally posted at The Toronto Star.