Mobilizing the will to intervene

More than fifteen years after the appalling slaughter of the Rwandan Genocide, in which no less than 800,000 innocent civilians lost their lives, governments the world over have still not developed national strategies for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes. Decision makers continue to cling to an outdated and traditional view of the national interest that relegates the prevention of mass atrocities as a secondary foreign policy priority.

The international community, which is code word for the collection of national governments seated in the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, failed at stopping the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. National governments were not forthcoming in providing the UN with the tools, resources and political support required to arrest that genocide once it had begun. As a result, unnecessary human suffering in the Great Lakes region of Africa continues unabated to this day, which has destabilized an area geographically larger than continental Western Europe and set in motion a dangerous domino effect that transforms developing countries into failed states.

The same process can now be observed emanating out of Sudan’s Darfur region, where mass atrocities since 2003 have acted as a trip wire to regional chaos, pulling Chad and the Central African Republic into an unnecessary downward spiral.

The lessons learned from the Rwandan Genocide created a momentum in the 1990s for legitimate humanitarian intervention to prevent mass atrocities. Encoded in the Responsibility to Protect principles, a concept of sovereignty that obligates all states to protect their citizens was advanced. The emerging norm stipulates that if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its own people from gross human rights violations, then the international community has a responsibility to engage and fill the protection void. The use of military force is permitted as a last resort and only in instances when all soft power strategies have been exhausted.

While the UN General Assembly members, including Canada, endorsed the Responsibility to Protect principles at the 2005 World Summit, rhetoric supporting action remains more prevalent than action itself.

As a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, preventing mass atrocities has been subjugated to the margins of international security policy. An unfortunate consequence of the international focus on Afghanistan is the corresponding failure to consider the international effects of predatory violence directed at civilians in Africa. Sustained and well-planned strategies are needed to end the worst conflicts on that continent, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

That pre-9/11 momentum for humanitarian intervention now needs to be rebuilt, painstakingly and carefully, with national governments taking the lead. Canada can and must do more to prevent future Rwandas.

Strategic imperative
Mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity – are too prevalent in our modern age to warrant outright dismissal as unfortunate occurrences that are irregular and impossible to anticipate. In the 21st century, the combined impact of poverty and inequality, rapid demographic growth, nationalism, and climate change will drive the kind of deadly violence that will not only threaten international peace and security, but will also affect Canada’s domestic security and economic prosperity as well.

In today’s unstable and interdependent global environment, the traditional national interest approach to foreign policy is no longer effective.

Why must Canada and its citizens re-engage in creating domestic political will to prevent mass atrocities? Besides the obvious moral imperative and the legal obligation of national governments to respond to situations when intelligence indicates something sinister is unfolding, there are also many far-reaching consequences that ultimately will affect Canadian society in a negative manner. We are now only beginning to understand how truly interconnected our world is through globalization.

Mobilizing the Will to Intervene: Leadership and Action to Prevent Mass Atrocities, the report issued by the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, lays out in meticulous detail why preventing mass atrocities should concern our policy elites. The report urges elected officials and high-level government officials to adopt a concept of the national interest that incorporates the notion that preventing genocide and mass atrocities serves the interests of Canada and not doing so puts the welfare of Canadian citizens at risk.

First, mass atrocities pose a serious risk to our public health. Deadly violence unleashed against civilians’ generates internal and external displacement, destroys critical health infrastructure, spreads AIDS through rape as a weapon of war, and halts inoculation and vaccination programs, thereby creating the ideal conditions for infectious diseases to immerge. In addition, those who are forced to flee genocidal violence often have no choice but to seek shelter and protection in overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps. These sites become breeding grounds for disease outbreaks that sow the seeds for future global pandemics.

Second, mass atrocities generate serious security threats over time. Security challenges now include a wider variety of international and transnational threats affecting states and their citizens. There is widespread recognition that geographically isolated countries, if allowed to fall into disarray through the self-immolation process that mass atrocities tend to generate, will come back to haunt us as failed states. Failed states become ungovernable spaces that, rather than contributing to regional peace and stability, morph into transnational challenges of the first order. Witness the operational havens they become for terrorist groups, as exemplified by pre-2001 Afghanistan. The recent emergence of large-scale piracy surrounding the shores of Somalia, where Canada has deployed its naval forces under a NATO-led operation, is another recent example. States that will not or cannot stop mass atrocities will eventually become the kind of states that will not or cannot prevent territory from being used as a base for terrorism, human trafficking, drug and arms smuggling, and other serious threats.

Third, as a result of the growing multi-cultural makeup of the Canadian population combined with present day communication technologies that allow for news and images of real time human suffering to be relayed across the world in a matter of seconds, mass atrocities occurring in far away countries can undermine the foundations of political stability and social cohesion in Canada. The recent conflict in Sri Lanka is a case in point. In March 2009, more than 120,000 members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Toronto protested against the policies of the Sri Lankan government towards the Tamil minority. Their protest demonstrations paralyzed downtown Toronto, as they demanded that Canada pressure the Sri Lankan government to halt its military operations against the Tamil Tigers so that civilians could be allowed to escape from the conflict zone. In May 2009, this group sustained protests on Parliament Hill for weeks, and shut down a major highway in downtown Toronto. Political leaders and senior government officials in Ottawa were taken aback by the mobilization of this particular diaspora group. The demonstrations also disrupted the Ontario Provincial Government and overwhelmed Toronto’s municipal authorities and police force. As this case indicates, international crises are no longer inconsequential to domestic politics.

New tools, new era
Not all is lost. Even middle powers like Canada can play a constructive role in shaping and creating the future world that we aspire to live in. As the Will to Intervene Project report proposes, policies need to be implemented to enhance government coordination and build soft and hard power capacity. These recommendations provide a framework for action that is both pragmatic and strategic. Small structural changes can have a real cumulative effect in harnessing all elements of Canada’s national power more effectively to prevent future genocides.

In the domain of improving internal government coordination, the creation of an interdepartmental Coordinating Office for the Prevention of Mass Atrocities would encourage Canadian civil servants to channel intelligence to key decision makers and permit the identification of who is responsible for decisions in a timely manner. This would replace the ad hoc and temporary inter-departmental task force model. The creation of a permanent structure should also be accompanied by the establishment of standard operating procedures for disseminating intelligence concerning the risks of mass atrocities throughout the whole of government. At present, there are no established governmental processes or mechanisms in Ottawa designed for preventing and responding to genocide. Addressing this would help in overcoming competing departmental interests and cultures, as well as enable Canada to better employ the diverse competencies of the civil service.

Robust civilian and military capacities, which that are field deployable and sustainable, are essential to preventing future genocides. However, the ongoing Canadian engagement in Afghanistan has depleted much of the country’s diplomatic, development and military resources. The strategic establishment of a Canadian Prevention Corps would create a permanent civilian standby team based in Ottawa for preventive action. A critical mass of multidisciplinary experts could be drawn from federal agencies and departments to work with high-level special envoys for preventive diplomacy and fact-finding missions. This critical investment would augment Canada’s diplomatic capacity to monitor countries for early warning signs such as hate propaganda, suspicious arms shipments, political extremism, exclusivist nationalism and state discrimination on ethnic, religious, political or gender grounds. In addition, this initiative should be accompanied by an increase in Canada’s diplomatic and development presence in fragile countries.

On the hard power side, there is a need to continue enhancing the Canadian Forces’ capabilities by increasing its force strength and developing operational concepts, doctrine, force structure, and training to support civilian protection and engage in the complex scenarios of counter-insurgency as the centre of a spectrum of intellectually based use of force versus pure experiential and immediate use in extended self-defense situations.

The continued development of an officer corps, nurtured and matured within an inter-disciplinary set of skills that permit pro-active engagement in conflict resolution without immediate reverting to the use of force, will provide a more flexible and innovative protection force. Education in the arts and sciences of anthropology, sociology and philosophy will provide depth of knowledge to complete the warrior skills of our field commanders and leaders. By addressing the size of the military, its rapid deployment capacity, and operational effectiveness in complex and dangerous environments, Canada will be better positioned to assume a greater leadership role in civilian protection operations.

These vital steps will transform the short-term political calculations that today characterize Canada’s response to mass atrocities and begin a long-term policy shift in favor of preventive action. If we chose not to move towards the path of prevention, we will make little progress toward solving the recurring global problems of mass atrocities and their lethal ripple effects.

The upcoming challenge
Consensus is forming that Canada can play a leadership role by revising outdated policies, developing new approaches and increasing national capacities to prevent mass atrocities. Canada needs to redefine its national interests more broadly, not only to help states from going over the abyss of self-destruction, but also to help and protect Canadians. Our stake in international and domestic security has converged with our stake in humanitarian principles as never before.

As one of the world’s leading democratic and pluralistic societies, Canada has a responsibility and a national interest in putting the issue of genocide and mass atrocity prevention at the forefront of its international security and foreign policy agendas. Our borders cannot be sealed hermetically from the transnational chaos mass atrocities produce. Indifference threatens Canada’s public health, domestic security, economic prosperity and social cohesion in the long term.

Kyle Matthews is the lead researcher for the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University. Previously, he worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. LGen Roméo Dallaire commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1994. He was appointed to the Senate in 2005 and serves as member of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights.

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