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Canada Must Continue To Fight Impunity For International Crimes

11/28/2016 02:55 EST | Updated 11/28/2016 02:55 EST
Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion listens to a question after delivering a speech at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada, March 29, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

This open letter is signed by 28 researchers, practitioners and students in law and international justice. Their names are listed below.

During the last electoral campaign, we urged the next government "to step up to the plate" and commit itself to making the fight against impunity a foreign policy priority.

Almost a year later, we are pleased to see Canada moving in this direction. In addition to meeting with the International Criminal Court ("ICC") Prosecutor and her deputy as well as with the ICC President, Minister Stéphane Dion outlined the Canadian government's new policy in the field of international criminal justice at the 15th session of the Assembly of States Parties to the ICC ("ASP") that took place in The Hague between 16th and 25th November. He made a strong statement of support for the ICC, much more in line with the aspirations of the Rome Statute's promoters than that of the previous government.

It is clear that there is much to be done, in Syria and elsewhere.

Canada's welcome change in tone and attitude goes beyond showmanship. According to civil society sources, Canada has already been more proactive in promoting international criminal law and a rules-based system. It is too soon to say that the fight against impunity is now a diplomatic priority for Canada. It is clear, however, that there is much to be done, in Syria and elsewhere. The announced intention of Burundi, South Africa and the Gambia to withdraw from the court raise new challenges for the project of international justice.

We are convinced that Canada can and must do more in this field. The 15th session of the ASP was an opportunity to mobilize international support for the ICC, but Canada's efforts must not stop there.

Countering demagogic and populist discourses

It's fashionable to talk about the ICC without regard to the facts. Canada must promote a constructive and pragmatic discussion about the court's role -- one that is based on an accurate description of its mandate and experience.

The claim that the ICC targets Africa is incorrect. Most of the African cases at the ICC have been referred by African states themselves. It is equally distorted to say that African states are united against the court and are about to leave the ICC en masse, following Burundi, South Africa and the Gambia. These three states do not represent the entirety of Africa nor of African civil societies. On the contrary, 31 other African states are not rushing to withdraw, and many reaffirmed their strong commitment to the ICC.

Canada must also promote the ICC's successes. At its inception, few believed that the ICC would have over 124 member states today. Even with the announced withdrawals, this is a success and we need to build on it. We should also celebrate the court's focus on sexual and gender-based violence, set out in the Office of the Prosecutor's policy on sexual and gender-based crimes. This led to the first conviction of a political leader for the use of sexual violence by his subordinates, and the first indictment for the direct commission of sexual violence.

As such, our proposal last year that Canada should appoint an ambassador for international justice remains relevant, and could provide the opportunity for discussions throughout the year.

The Elephant in the Room

Some African states, including South Africa, argue that their obligation to cooperate with the ICC by arresting current heads of state is incompatible with their obligations to facilitate peaceful conflict resolution. Many states avoid this discussion for fear of undermining the principle of equality of all before the law.

However, this debate could be beneficial as it would allow for a thoughtful discussion of the complexities of securing state cooperation. The recent policy of Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is a step in the right direction. Canada's refusal to offer immunity to incumbent presidents, expressed at the ASP, is another.

Canada must continue to defend the denial of immunity to government officials found in the Rome Statute, while seeking to build constructive solutions to any legitimate concerns.

Supporting Justice and National Initiatives

The fight against impunity goes well beyond the ICC -- it must be waged in every state. In this manner, the Rome Statute can be used by civil society as a "sword of Damocles" to convince reluctant states to implement justice. Canada should support civil society efforts in this regard, as it has committed to doing at the ASP.

Canada should also support states which exercise universal jurisdiction to pursue alleged Syrian war criminals who are now abroad. Canada could set an example by reinvesting in its own war crimes prosecution program.

Finally, it is important that Canada continues to be actively involved in supporting those documenting the atrocities committed in ongoing conflicts, particularly in Syria, in order to prepare for the eventual realization of justice.

Signatories:

Me Érick Sullivan, Laval University

Prof. Fannie Lafontaine, Laval University

Prof. David Petrasek, Ottawa University

Me Philippe Tremblay, Lawyers Without Borders Canada

Prof. François Larocque, Ottawa University

Prof. Robert Currie, Dalhousie University

Prof. Payam Akhavan, McGill University

Prof. Julia Grignon, Laval University

Fergus Watt, World Federalist Movement

Prof. Stephan Brown, Ottawa University

Prof. Joanna Quinn, Western University

Prof. Darryl Robinson, Queen's University

Prof. Penelope Simons, Université d'Ottawa

Joao Velloso, Ottawa University

Mark Kersten, University of Toronto

Frederick John Packer, Ottawa University

Matt Eisenbrandt, Canadian Center for International Justice

Prof. Valerie Oosterveld, University of Western Ontario

Prof. Jo-Anne Wemmers, Université de Montréal

Edouard Delaplace, Lawyers Without Borders Canada

Kathleen Tanner, Dalhousie University

Ayodele Akenroye, McGill University

Kirsten Stefanik, University of Western Ontario

Jessica Dufresne, Ottawa University

Claire Magnoux Laval University

Daniel Melo Garcia Laval University

Carrie Kopersky, University of Alberta

This op-ed is written in the framework of the "Strengthening Justice for International Crimes: A Canadian Partnership" funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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