Activist and Vancouver-raised author Yves Engler isn’t surprised by the appeal of a made-in-Canada doctrine called the “responsibility to protect”. This doctrine was formulated about eight years ago by an international commission that included then–Harvard academic and current federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
“I think it’s captivated a big chunk of progressive opinion in Canada because it sounds good,” Engler told the Georgia Straight by phone just before an event in Vancouver that would launch his new book, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Fernwood Publishing, 2009). “Everyone would like to think that when there’s serious human-rights violations somewhere, they should be stopped.”
Ignatieff is a strong advocate of the concept, which declares that a sovereign state is responsible for protecting its people from crimes against humanity, such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. If a country is unable or unwilling to carry out this duty, that responsibility shifts to the international community. Sovereignty yields to the imperative of humanitarian protection.
While Engler noted that the doctrine touches on a “very humanistic trait”, the Montreal-based writer argued that it’s a “dangerous” principle. “It also speaks to quite a serious political naiveté, and I think quite a sector”¦of liberal—not in the political-party sense, but in the political sense—opinion that is seduced by imperialism with a nice covering,” he said.
In The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Engler examines Canada’s long record of actively supporting imperialism, from fighting on the side of the British Empire to being the modern-day ally of the U.S. Canada participated in British suppression of the slave rebellions in the Caribbean during the 19th century. After the First World War, Ottawa lusted after Britain’s Caribbean colonies but was turned down by London. In 2004, Canada supported the U.S.–inspired coup against Haiti’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Engler writes that Canada’s policy in the Middle East over the last 50 years, including its unyielding support of Israel, has been “designed, above all else, to guarantee U.S. control over the region’s energy resources”. Canada’s chief of defence staff, General Walter Natynczyk, helped plan the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. In 2004, Montreal-based SNC Technologies, now owned by Virginia-based defence contractor General Dynamics, became part of an international consortium that has provided millions of bullets to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Mexico was on the receiving end of Canada’s first recorded use of gunboat diplomacy when the destroyer HMCS Rainbow was dispatched to an area near Mazatlán in 1915. According to Engler, Ottawa has supported dictators in many Latin American countries where Canadian companies had mining interests. Within weeks of the bloody coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, Canada recognized Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military junta.
Engler also notes that Canada helped prop up pro-American dictators in East Asian countries where Canadian mining companies were operating, such as Suharto in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. During the Vietnam War, Canada supplied $2.5 billion in war materials to the U.S.
Canada’s long-time involvement in Central and South Asia is currently represented by its combat mission in Afghanistan. According to Engler, Canadians fought alongside the British in the Third Afghan War in 1919.
When interviewed, Engler said Canadian foreign policy is influenced by “support for empire”—historically the British Empire and more recently the American empire—as well as support for Canadian corporate interests around the world. He recalled a debate in Parliament about a year ago during which Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to use the term “responsibility to protect”, apparently because it has a strong association with the Liberal party.
“To me, it kind of encapsulated Canadian foreign policy,” Engler said. “The Harper government, their form of imperialism is just, ”˜We do it, we support the Americans, we believe in our interests, and we believe in militarism.’ ”
He added that “more sophisticated supporters of capitalism” need to create an ideological justification for intervening in other countries’ affairs. “But they need to do it in a more high-minded kind of way because it does catch a lot of people who are not politically astute,” Engler said. “They get kind of caught up: ”˜Oh, this is about responsibility to protect, it’s about humanitarian intervention—it sounds good.’ And the sort of economic or the geopolitical interests that are driving the process, those are left aside.”