The name Canada use to conjure up blue helmets, UN peace-keeping missions and international human rights in the minds of people all over the world. After all, this is the country that produced John Humphreys, an international legal pioneer who wrote much of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and then Louise Arbour, Chief prosecutor for the UN tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the President of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
But that has been changing for the worse, for many years, in large part because of a systematic policy of the current government designed to eschew the necessary moral relativism of the UN and its affiliated institutions that develop and enforce international human rights law. In its place, Stephen Harper and his Foreign Minister John Baird have quite heavy-handedly been creating a different image for Canada in the world based on a less subtle set of militaristic foreign policies that include a prolonged military occupation in Afghanistan (albeit one with an international mandate), military strikes against then Libyan dictator Muhamar Gaddafi and giving its unqualified support and moral cover for Israel’s war of aggression in Gaza.
That why it’s no surprise that the government came out against the announcement by the UN Human Rights Council that it had appointed a committee of experts (including George Clooney’s fiancée and international lawyer, Amal Almuddin) to investigate alleged war crimes committed by both sides (that means Hamas might be indicted as well) during a month of carnage that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 Palestinian and 3 Israeli civilians.
What is rather shameful if not surprising, is that by calling this legitimate exercise in fact-finding and humanitarian law (i.e. laws of war) a “sham”, our Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is by extension, throwing one of the best jurist’s on the subject in the world , not to mention a proud Canadian, under bus.
William Shabas is a highly respected international law professor at the University of Middlesex in England. He has taught law in a number of countries as well as Canada (including my current law school, the University of Montreal in Quebec) and has received numerous awards and distinctions for his extraordinary work in the field of humanitarian law as well as having published over 300 journal articles. Shabas is a member of the Order of Canada, and, as such, you would think worthy of at least a modicum of respect from the Canadian government.
Instead the work on the Committee is now being denigrated by DFAIT and their Minister as some sort of morally bankrupt anti-Zionist, hate-fest, as are, by implication, anyone foolish enough to be involved in it before it has even begun.
The suggestion that Mr. Shabas is somehow biased because of past criticism of the Netanyahu government and that that disqualifies or discredits him from leading an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza is nonsense and should be ignored. The truth is, that the vast majority of international lawyers would, by that logic, be unfit to hold any position at the UN, for having made any type of public stand that goes against a particular member state. International law experts are meant to hold public opinions on a wide-range of legal issues that they are expected to weigh in on. Frankly, to expect total neutrality from academics on a matter of humanitarian law as a prerequisite for working for the UN or any other Inter-governmental organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights and international relations, is to show a complete lack of understanding about the nature of academic scholarship and the important contribution that people like Mr. Shabas have made.
Other articles by David DesBaillets
Canadians are being kept in the dark by Harper government on CETA negotiations
Has the Harper government declared war on Canadian charities
Canada offers much more than moral support for Israel’s war in Gaza
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