Canada and Syria (April 2013)

Canada’s failure to support international action to prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria demonstrates clearly the extent to which, internationally, Canada a has gone from being one the world’s most outward-looking, diverse and cosmopolitan powers to a diminished and fading power in the global community.

As one of the drafters of the 2005 doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative adopted by all the world’s states on the 60th anniversary of the UN Charter’s passage, Canada should have joined with other states to take firm action against a murderous Syrian dictator who has clearly crossed the line of “genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and grave and systematic war crimes” against his own people.

What is happening in Syria is a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions. Effective civilian protection at the very least requires buffer zones and safe routes for wounded Syrians and refugees fleeing violence to reach sanctuaries either in that buffer zone or in neighboring countries. Effective international action requires the provision of intelligence and communications equipment, antitank and mortar weapons, as well as air support against Syrian government tanks and troops. This would also mean disabling Syrian air defences.

Despite some disjointed support for the Syrian opposition, Western governments may be too late to achieve their goal of strengthening moderates among the increasingly Islamist-leaning rebels. And the war may well soon extend over Syria’s borders. Turkey and Jordan now fear Mr. Assad’s retaliation. Israel fired a missile into Syria on March 28 after its troops were shot at on the Golan Heights.

Canada should not be sitting on the sidelines with respect to the Syrian conflict. Even if military intervention on our part is not appropriate, constructive diplomatic intervention is critical. More generally, Canada should be an active and helpful participant in the movement to build a new international legal order that no longer emphasizes “state security,” defined by borders, statehood, and territory, but focuses on “human security”: the protection of persons and peoples. We should be helping to lead the 21st-century recasting of international humanitarian law, the laws of war, and international criminal justice.

Among other things, we will not merit the respect of future generations if we do not have a clear and firm position on the urgent need to reform United Nations structures – to prevent the vetoes of a minority of Security Council members and coalitions of anti-democratic regimes with disgraceful records on human rights, from blocking action by the world community to put an end to genocide, crimes against humanity, and the lethal arms trade.