This week Canada indicated that it plans to pull out of a United Nations convention aimed at preventing drought. The 1994 Convention to Combat Desertification has been ratified by every member of the United Nations – that’s over 190 countries – and Canada will be the first and only country to reject it. Canada initially did not provide reasons for leaving the uncontroversial convention (the government did not even bother to tell the UN Secretariat that it had decided to withdraw).
This demonstrates a marked disdain for international law and multilateral co-operation on even the most basic of issues. Sadly, however, this decision is par for the course under the government of Stephen Harper and is the latest in a series of actions demonstrating the Conservative government’s isolationist agenda.
It wasn’t always this way.
Not so long ago, Canada was revered for its role in developing, respecting and protecting international law. For decades, under both Conservative and Liberal governments, we were the nation of peacekeepers. In the 1990s, we were leaders in the process that led to the International Criminal Court, an institution seeking to bring those who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes to justice; even the chairman of the international conference that created the Court was Canadian.
We were the sponsors of the commission that developed the Responsibility to Protect, an international law doctrine which seeks to emphasize the obligation of states and the international community to protect those suffering from atrocities. The Canadian delegation ensured that negotiations on the Draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) moved forward in the early 2000s. In 2002, Canada stood strong refusing to join the invasion of Iraq, unless it was sanctioned by the United Nations. Without UN sanction, Canada insisted, military action would be inconsistent with international law.
Canada’s role, however, has changed over the last seven years. Under the Harper government, Canada has become something of a pariah on all things international law.
For instance, shortly after the Harper government came to power, Canada’s position on the UNDRIP took an about-face. In 2008, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the declaration at the UN General Assembly. This rejection came despite support for the declaration by a majority of the House of Commons, and by senior officials in both the Department of Foreign Affairs and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. The government eventually issued a qualified endorsement of the UNDRIP in 2010.
Canada has disregarded the decisions of international institutions. Among the most dramatic examples, Canada deported two young men: Jama Warsame to Somalia and John Michaël Dauphin to Haiti. In doing so, the government unapologetically disregarded decisions by the UN Human Rights Committee stating that deportation in both cases would violate Canada’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Similarly, the Conservative government rejected efforts to bring Canadian Omar Khadr, who UN officials described as having lived the “classic child soldier narrative,” home from Guantanamo Bay.
The government’s position on international regulation of the environment follows a similar pattern. At the Copenhagen Climate Change talks, Canada was declared by non-governmental organizations as the country most significantly blocking progress. Similarly at the subsequent Rio talks, we were singled out for our involvement in weakening the draft blueprint for sustainable development signed there. More recently, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, which, in the mid-1990s, it was active in drafting.
And the list goes on.
The change in Canada’s approach to international law has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Respect for Canada in international institutions has diminished. For the first time in the history of the UN, Canada failed to secure a nomination for a position on the Security Council – a loss that many experts blamed on the change in Canada’s foreign policy and approach to international organizations.
It is time for Canada to reclaim its role as a respected member of the international community, and to reject the Harper government’s isolationist moves. Our political capital on the international front has been disappearing rapidly, and with decisions like the rejection of the Convention to prevent drought, it won’t be long before it’s all dried up.
Ryan Liss is a Humphrey Fellow in International Human Rights Law and an LLM candidate at Yale Law School. Joanna Langille is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.