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In the past week, amidst the crisis in Mali and the hostage crisis at the gas plant in southern Algeria, the world's attention shifted away from the continuing bloodshed in Syria. This perhaps explains how the Canadian media missed what appears to be a major, and disturbing, shift in our policy towards Syria.

Last week, Canada declined to join with dozens of other countries – and almost all our major allies – in supporting a call on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Despite all the energy Foreign Minister John Baird has devoted to denouncing the violence in Syria and the Assad regime's culpability for massacres and the targeting of civilians, Canada refused to endorse a major international effort to hold Mr. Assad and his regime accountable.

Only in the past few days, the BBC's Lyse Doucet provided first-hand and gripping evidence of a massacre of up to 100 civilians in Haswiya, on the outskirts of Homs. In recent weeks, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the death toll in the conflict since it began almost two years ago is much higher than previously reported, and that at least 60,000 people have been killed

Against this background, a group of countries led by Switzerland undertook a new initiative to spur Security Council action. As Syria has not ratified the ICC statute, the Court cannot investigate war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria unless expressly authorized to do so by the UN Security Council. This is the mechanism whereby the Court gained jurisdiction to investigate war crimes in Sudan (Darfur) and Libya, in both cases leading to international criminal indictments of the leaders responsible. Although advocacy groups have long urged the Security Council to take this action in Syria, there had been no concerted effort by UN Member States to pressure the Security Council to do so.

China and Russia, of course, have vetoed two prior attempts at the Security Council to sanction the Syrian regime. But neither of those failed resolutions included mention of the ICC. Switzerland apparently hoped that if a significant and representative coalition of states appealed to the Security Council – and only on the ICC issue as opposed to the broader questions of sanctions or the shape of a possible political transition – it would be harder for the Russians and Chinese to oppose such a move. To maximize the pressure, they timed their appeal to coincide with the appearance of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights before the Security Council, where on Jan. 18 she similarly argued in favour of an ICC referral.

While not quite wishful thinking, the proposal is unlikely to succeed. Because the vote to refer Libya to the ICC (a vote that Russia and China backed) was quickly followed by the vote to authorize a NATO intervention in Libya, both countries say they fear the same sequence in Syria (although, of course, with their vetoes they could block such a move). Nevertheless, even if it fails to win Security Council support, the Swiss initiative sends an important signal to all those in command of both regime and opposition forces in Syria.

Almost all of Canada's allies and EU Member States signed the letter, including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries – in total almost 60 countries. What explains Canada's absence on the list of supporting countries? No statement was forthcoming from the Foreign Minister. No international criticism arose either – although given the diminished role Canada has played in recent years at the UN, this is perhaps less surprising; our allies have stopped noticing our inaction.

In the absence of any governmental explanation, we can only speculate on the reason for Canada's refusal to join the Swiss initiative. Perhaps, along with Sweden (the only EU Member State not to sign the letter), the Foreign Minister believes that an ICC investigation would only further isolate Mr. Assad, giving him no exit? Or perhaps Mr. Baird felt Canada should not endorse an initiative with so little chance of succeeding?

Both explanations seem unlikely since Mr. Baird consistently insists that Canada should act on principle, and the principle here is that we should do all we can to bring to justice all those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, however difficult or elusive. Is it because the U.S. has long been hostile to the ICC (a fact that in the past has not prevented Canada from being a strong advocate for the Court)? Or is it that Mr. Baird wants to distance Canada from the Court now that Palestine is considering ratifying the ICC statute, opening up the possibility of war crimes investigations in Palestine?

Whatever the reason, the trend is clear: Canada will continue to denounce the violence in Syria, but we will be selective in joining multilateral efforts to end that violence or hold the perpetrators accountable.

Just over two years ago, Canada failed in its bid to win a seat on the Security Council – a decision lamented at the time by both supporters and opponents of the Harper government (although for different reasons!). Given positions such as that taken by Canada on the Swiss initiative, one can only breathe a sigh of relief that it was Portugal (who were fully behind the Swiss), and not Canada, that won the vote.

David Petrasek is interim director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, and associate professor of Public and International Affairs. A version of this article appears on the CIPS blog.

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