From founding father to backslider: Canada and the R2P

In the 90s and early 2000s, Canada's Liberal government begged to differ. During its international heyday, Canada became the patron of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Whatever happened to Canada's commitment to the R2P under Harper's Conservative government?

Canada’s national interest is often said to center around one single objective, namely a close but independent relationship with the United States. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (1993–2003) and his Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy (1996–2000) clearly disagreed. During their time in office, the country’s foreign policy strongly reflected the guiding principles of liberal internationalism[i] and an active involvement in international organizations. The liberal government’s international flagship projects included the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (the Ottawa Treaty), the introduction of the concept of Human Security[ii] into the international debate, and the emergence of the norm of the responsibility to protect (R2P).

Genesis of the international responsibility to protect

The concept of the responsibility to protect was first introduced into the international political arena in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Commission, convened at the initiative of then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, worked under Canadian authority. The key principle of R2P states that the international community is obliged to intervene in cases of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity if the state on whose soil the atrocities take place is unable or unwilling to protect its own population. The principle thereby holds that the individual right to life and security of person has primacy over state sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.

After the Commission’s mandate ended in mandate in 2001, Canada remained one of the key countries to promote the acknowledgment of the responsibility to protect as a principle by the United Nations. At the UN World Summit in 2005, 150 heads of state unanimously agreed to paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which reaffirmed the international community’s responsibility to protect.

Harper’s turnaround

After the parliamentary elections in 2006, in which Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada received the highest percentage of votes, Canada’s foreign policy took a U-turn. According to former government officials, shortly after the change of government a number of Canadian ambassadors received instructions from Ottawa to no longer use the terms “international responsibility to protect,” “human security” and “good governance” publicly. Any linguistic association with the preceding Liberal government was to be eliminated on all governmental websites, in the government’s departmental structure as well as in public announcements.

Starting in 2009, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAID) then engaged in another turn-about, indicating a greater involvement of Canadian diplomats in the dialogue to implement the R2P doctrine. Since then, Canada has resumed to mention the responsibility to protect in public announcements, albeit usually as a foot note. Harper’s critics attribute this change in rhetoric to the election victory of President Obama in 2008, which led to the appointment of Susan Rice as UN Ambassador for the United States. Upon taking office, Susan Rice was perceived to be a strong advocate of the R2P, which she intended to drive forward by means of building a coalition of like-minded states. In addition, Canada’s ultimately unsuccessful candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010 is likely to have contributed to a resumption of the mentioning of the R2P in diplomatic circles.

When asked whether the Harper government fully backs the responsibility to protect, former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence Chris Alexander said in 2011: “[…] the way we put it these days is that we are recommitting ourselves to the fundamental values that brought about the existence of the United Nations, to human rights, to the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights], to that view of the world with the human being at the centre, with priority on creating opportunity.”[iii] A full-fledged endorsement of the R2P of course sounds very different.

Libya – a baptism by fire

Declarations and appeals lie at the heart of international diplomacy. But how is the Harper government approaching the application of the responsibility to protect in practice? The R2P doctrine was first evoked by the United Nations in 2011 as a means to justify military intervention in the face of an imminent massacre in the Libyan city of Benghazi. On March 18, 2011, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, which explicitly refers to R2P in its authorization of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan citizens against Gaddafi’s forces.

In the spring of 2011, Canada was one of the first countries to participate militarily in the NATO-led operation Unified Protector aimed at enforcing a no-fly zone and an arms embargo against the Libyan central government. Yet, in a Canadian parliamentary debate on March 28, 2011, the Harper government distanced itself from the responsibility to protect. “‘Responsibility to protect’ are easy words,” said Laurie Hawn, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, in the debate in the Canadian Parliament: “[…] we can talk about supporting freedom or we can act to support freedom. That is what we are doing along with our allies.”[iv]

The disintegration of Syria, Iraq and the fight against ISIS

Similarly, for the longest time Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird preferred to make no reference to the responsibility to protect in the longstanding debate on a humanitarian intervention in Syria. It was only after the United States, in early fall 2014, decided to take charge of the fight against the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that the Canadian government changed its tactics. Accordingly, the Canadian parliamentary debate on September 16, 2014 then danced to a different tune. All of a sudden, Defence Minister Jason Kenney made an explicit appeal to the responsibility to protect, in this case regarding the necessary protection of the Iraqi people: “If the responsibility to protect means anything, if our moral obligation to defend human dignity means anything, it must mean that we act in this instance.”[v] In addition to fighter jets, tanker aircraft and reconnaissance missiles, Canada has since been involved in the military intervention in Iraq with around 600 troops and 69 Special Forces commandos.

On March 30, 2015, the Canadian Parliament voted for a motion to extend Canada’s contribution to the anti-ISIS mission by one year (142 for, 129 against). In the debate preceding the vote, Defence Minister Jason Kenney appealed to the responsibility to protect: “If the responsibility to protect means anything […] does it not mean in an instance such as this, preventing genocide, preventing ethnic cleansing, preventing sexual slavery of women and preventing the execution of gay men by throwing them off towers?”.[vi] But the Defence Minister made things sound all too simple. In fact, the decision on the legitimate use of R2P is at the sole discretion of the UN Security Council, not of a nation state or a “coalition of the willing.” The international anti-ISIS coalition under the leadership of the United States, however, does not have such a UN mandate.

Consequently, the opposition countered that the Harper government was apparently driven mainly by domestic political considerations and national security interests rather than by concerns for civilian protection. If the government were truly motivated by the protection of human life and the prevention of mass atrocities, so the opposition, should it not have done much more to weaken the Assad regime, which engages in well-documented mass atrocities?[vii] Yet, instead of supporting international action against the use of Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons against innocent civilians, the Canadian government preferred to engage solely in the fight against ISIS. It thus proved to be blind in one eye when it comes to the protection of civilians in Iraq and Syria.

The long shadow of a political legacy

While Canada’s support of the responsibility to protect has become at best half-hearted over the last eight years, a number of civil society associations have since fully committed themselves to the implementation of R2P. Among these are think tanks and non-governmental organizations from around the world, most notably the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. Moreover, the international Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect now has 44 members[viii], and 49 countries have appointed a Focal Point[ix] from among their government ranks (to date, Canada has not appointed such a Focal Point). Despite the setbacks in Libya and Syria, the raison d’être of R2P is no longer questioned by the overwhelming majority of the international community, such that discussions revolve primarily around the interpretation and implementation of the principle. This progress, in spite of all its imperfections, will be forever associated with Canada’s high point as a pioneer of international humanitarian initiatives. Even after eight years as head of state, Stephen Harper has not been able to erase this legacy.

This article was first published on the website of our North America office.


[i] Liberal Internationalism is a very normative-oriented school of international relations that it based on the fundamental values of freedom, self-determination, prosperity and peace. The doctrine is based on the assumption that states are not (any longer) the main actors in international relations. Instead, it recognizes a plurality of key actors composed of social groups, transnational corporations and international organizations.

[ii] The concept of “human security” marks a departure from traditional foreign policy in that its focus is not on nation states but rather on the security and rights of individuals. The concept is often associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC), the responsibility to protect and international initiatives to combat child soldiers, landmines and small firearms.

[iii] “‘The Responsibility to Protect’ at 10“, Embassy, published on 11/07/2011, retrieved on 8/2/2015:

[iv] “Responsibility to Protect facing biggest test”, Embassy, published on 03/30/2011, retrieved on 7/30/2015:

[v] “When to invoke Responsibility to Protect: The case for Iraq”, Open, published on 9/24/2014, retrieved on 8/5/2015:

[vi] “Tories say waging war on Islamic State is a humanitarian effort”,  The Globe and Mail, published on 3/26/2015, retrieved on 8/5/2015:

[vii] “Are the Conservatives politicking with Responsibility to Protect?”, Global News, published on 3/30/2015, retrieved on 8/2/2015:

[viii] The international Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect is currently co-chaired by the Netherlands and Rwanda. Its members include: Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Czech Republic, Denmark, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, South Korea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.

[ix] Since September 2010, 49 states have appointed a national R2P Focal Point. The list of countries can be viewed at