Mark Kersten is a senior researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a consultant with the Wayamo Foundation.
Among the many claims made by protesters converging on Ottawa for the so-called “Freedom Convoy” is that the Canadian government’s vaccine mandate constitutes a “crime against humanity.” For more than a decade, I have studied mass atrocities and worked with people 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 is not 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.” Mr. 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 are legitimate concerns about the possible overreach of governing authorities in response to the pandemic. In Quebec, for example, a lockdown curfew was put in place in 2021 and initially there were no exemptions for unhoused people sleeping outside. The policy may have 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. Toward the end of the Second World War, 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.
Paradoxically, those insisting that Canadian authorities have committed crimes against humanity are now associated with protesters who have brandished the Confederate flag, a symbol linked with white supremacy and slavery; and swastikas, the signature of Nazism. This insignia represents the very mass atrocities that crimes against humanity were intended to address.
For an act to constitute a crime against humanity, it must be “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, and has also become Canadian law. Among the acts which, if widespread or systematically committed, could amount to a crime against humanity are murder, enslavement, torture, apartheid, rape and sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. Missing from this list? Having to wear masks, requirements to be inoculated from a deadly virus or standing six feet apart.
In Canada, the only people with any reasonable basis to argue that they have been systematically subject to these kinds of crimes are members of 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 amounted to genocide – a finding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted.
To call public health policies crimes against humanity dilutes the term’s 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.
In Myanmar, for example, recent reports suggest that the military junta that took power last year has continued its repression of civilians, especially those who dare dissent in the name of democracy or justice. In Yemen, a continuing civil war has resulted in mass civilian casualties. 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 and the need for Canada to stop fuelling them and start addressing them. We shouldn’t be focused on made-up allegations of international crimes. Abusing the term neuters the phrase of its power, distracts from situations where it is actually perpetrated and risks making justice for real victims of atrocities less likely.
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