One decade ago, many Canadian liberals could only watch — aghast, livid and limp — while a humanitarian principle that they’d created was mutilated beyond recognition and manipulated with fatal cynicism in Iraq. Last week, Canadian Liberals actively betrayed the same principle in the same country, refusing to mobilize it for the type of atrocity that it was born to prevent and curtail.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) holds the international community duty-bound to use diplomatic, humanitarian and occasionally military resources to protect large populations from being slaughtered if their own governments can’t or won’t give them this protection. The principle has been variously described as revolutionary, idealistic and the fastest-growing international norm in all of history. But as much as anything else, it is the baby of Canadian liberals, both small and big-L: they took a lead role in conceiving it, they brought it to term in the United Nations, and they are nursing it through its early, precarious stages of development. So while the current federal Liberal leader’s treatment of the principle as it applies to Iraq has been variously described as discreditable, weak and confusing, it is so much worse than that: in terms of ideological custodianship, it’s infanticide.
As though they are Dr. Frankenstein and R2P is a monster they created but can’t control, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have run from a newborn principle that not only needs a strong and sincere guardian, but that counts on it to be one such guardian. In doing so, Liberals are allowing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to appear as though it, by comparison, acts on the principle’s behalf.
Like any grand idea — like any new idea — R2P is vulnerable to deliberate misinterpretation and naïve misapplication. Liberals witnessed its kidnapping by the Bush administration, which veered the young norm off in the shifting directions of whatever might entice the public to go along with a war that the White House wanted to wage anyway. (This way to the WMDs, that way to the evil dictatorship.)
Now Liberals want the guns down (or at least want Canada’s guns down). An understandable reaction, and almost in the spirit of R2P: the heart of the principle is conflict prevention. But its military arm can’t possibly be severed from the norm that stands between sovereignty and mass murder; nor can it be severed fromliberal internationalism, a traditionally cross-partisan Canadian approach to foreign policy that emphasizes cooperation and diplomacy but doesn’t rule out joint military operations.
“Canada’s involvement (in Iraq) is similar to what any recent Canadian government, Liberal or Conservative, would have considered doing,” the University of Ottawa’s Roland Paris tells me. “In that sense it’s broadly consistent with the Canadian liberal internationalist tradition.”
Iraq is a rare instance where the current government has situated its principles within this tradition, though: “The Harper government has tended to disparage many aspects of liberal internationalism,” as Paris says, trying to replace it with a narrative featuring Canada as a valiant fighter in a dangerous world. Canada’s action in Iraq may eventually let Conservatives plot one version of their warrior story around a principle that is, in fact, deeply anti-warrior.
Which is why it’s discombobulating when the government utters the words “responsibility” and “protect” in the same sentence. It can’t even be bothered to appoint a Canadian representative to the global R2P Focal Points initiative, much less strengthen R2P’s foothold in the UN through effective advocacy of its core components and institutional reform. As the policy director for the Global Centre for R2P wrote in April, “Canada has gone from being the most passionate and vocal supporter of (R2P) … to one of its meekest.”
But as of last week, Harper’s Conservatives can share responsibility with Trudeau’s Liberals for R2P’s abandonment. And while both parties embrace only the elements of R2P that they like, ripping it apart in a country that it should call home, the betrayal by its ideological parents is the most profound.