The deaths of hundreds of thousands of people at the hands of both government and rebel forces in Darfur have captured global headlines and made a mockery of the international "never again" pledge after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Now, the International Criminal Court is poised to determine whether an arrest warrant will be issued for the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges related to the atrocities committed in Darfur, and the ICC's chief prosecutor has just presented evidence against members of a rebel group related to attacks on UN peacekeepers.
It is a historic moment for the people of Darfur -- and for the future of international justice. If Mr. Bashir and the other individuals accused by the ICC of similar crimes are successfully prosecuted, it will be an important step not only in stemming the violence in Sudan, but also in the deterrence of future atrocities.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of holding criminal trials for those responsible for atrocities such as those in Rwanda, the Congo, East Timor and the Balkans. Yet the ICC has neither the capacity nor the mandate to act as the sole forum for these trials. The role of national courts - including those in Canada - is fundamental to the international criminal justice system, closing the gap that has allowed those who plan and carry out the most serious crimes to escape justice. If Canada wants to make a tangible contribution to stemming global violence, justice through Canadian courts provides one of the best opportunities.
Ensuring justice and other forms of redress for victims of atrocities is directly relevant for Canadians: The 2006 Statistics Canada census shows that more than six million people living in Canada are foreign-born. According to torture treatment experts, up to one-third of immigrants and refugees globally have been affected by war trauma and torture, including such egregious acts as mutilation, rape and the forced disappearance or killing of members of their families.
Canada was among the first states to ratify the treaty establishing the ICC, and at the same time it implemented its treaty obligations by enacting new domestic war crimes legislation. This new law, passed in 2000, clarifies that Canadian courts can hear cases against those accused of committing or aiding and abetting war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Since 2000, however, the government's commitment has waned. In the eight years since the new law came into force, the government has only initiated one prosecution of an alleged war criminal - despite the fact that the government has hundreds of open files on suspected war criminals currently in Canada.
A big part of the problem: The government has not increased its War Crimes Program budget in 10 years. The vast majority of that budget is allocated to dealing with suspected war criminals by sending people out of the country or preventing them from entering in the first place. This gives no regard to the interests of victims and the potential contribution to deterring future atrocities, nor does it take into account the fate of the named individual who has little opportunity to respond to the allegations and may face persecution upon return to the home country.
Canada's civil law system is an equally ineffective means of redress for victims of atrocities who have fled to Canada or who are Canadian citizens. Canadian torture victims have failed in their attempts to sue in Ontario courts governments such as Syria and Iran, because foreign states and their agents have immunity from such claims.
The United Nations Committee against Torture, the body that monitors state compliance with obligations under the Convention Against Torture, has criticized Canada for failing to provide an effective remedy for victims of torture in these cases. For a country like Canada, which has put itself forward as a defender of international human rights and international justice, not to follow through with its moral and legal commitments sends a dangerous signal to other states. In reassuming its leadership role, the Canadian government should focus on both criminal prosecutions and civil law reform.
How? First of all, it needs to increase its funding of the federal War Crimes Program, specifically for investigations and prosecutions of those suspected of having committed the most serious international crimes. At a minimum, the government should reallocate its spending within the program to give investigations and prosecutions of suspected war criminals a higher priority.
Secondly, in order to provide an effective remedy for victims of atrocities committed by foreign states, Canada's State Immunity Act needs to be amended to provide for the possibility of holding foreign governments and individual government officials accountable where they plan, participate in or are complicit in the most egregious violations of international law.
Canadians want an end to violence in Darfur -- and worldwide. The time has come for an unequivocal commitment by the Canadian government to help prevent such atrocities and to provide a measure of redress for victims through the use of Canadian courts.
Lloyd Axworthy was Canada's foreign affairs minister from 1996 to 2000. Penelope Simons teaches international law at the University of Ottawa. Both are affiliated with the Canadian Centre for International Justice.