Are the Conservatives politicking with Responsibility to Protect?

WATCH ABOVE: Government votes on ISIS mission extension. Vassy Kapelos reports.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t have to make too much of an effort to stump for support on extending and expanding the mission against ISIS into Syria. The Conservatives hold the balance of power in the House of Commons and a majority of Canadians, across party lines, appear to support their plan.

Monday’s debate in the House of Commons was merely a matter of process and the Conservatives passed their motion 142 to 129.

Still, in the run-up to Monday night’s parliamentary vote on the future of the mission, Harper and the Conservatives pegged the opposition as being against a mission that will protect ethnic and religious minorities from genocide.

“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?” Defence Minister Jason Kenney asked in the House of Commons last Thursday.

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The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a United Nations framework that makes it a duty for the international community to “prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities” when a government fails to protect those at risk itself. The need to act supercedes sovereignty. But, the decision to act and intervene in such a scenario, on the basis of R2P, lies in the hands of the UN Security Council. The international coalition against ISIS is not a UN-mandated mission.

“It’s a little too cute by half to hear the minister who refused to even say the words [Responsibility to Protect] before, suddenly discover it and use it irresponsibly,” NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar told Global News, prior to the vote. “I find it’s interesting that they would bring up R2P all of a sudden, and it would appear that they are only bringing it up to kind of wedge or to cast dispersion on [the] intent of our position.”

READ MORE: ‘They broke it, they fix it’: have the Conservatives taken a 180 on Iraq stance?

Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, said Kenney’s reference to R2P was warranted, even if it wasn’t an actual invocation of the principle and has no real bearing on Canada’s expanding its operations into Syria.

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“I think that if they mention R2P… everyone has a responsibility,” he said, adding it’s “problematic” that the NDP and Liberals are opposing the Conservatives expanding operations into Syria.

“ISIS is committing genocide. It’s using its base in Syria to commit genocide in Iraq, against Christians,” he explained.

He said it’s especially disappointing that the Liberals planned to vote against the Conservative motion, considering it was former Liberal Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy who championed R2P to UN members.

READ MORE: Destruction of Iraq’s ancient artifacts a ‘cultural genocide’ say researchers

But that’s likely why the Conservatives made such a reference, said Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

“It would be a clever political move for the Conservatives to invoke that language or allude to that language as they seek to undermine the Liberal Party on this issue,” Byers said in an interview with Global News on Monday. “[But] any allusion to R2P here is secondary to that main argument that they are advancing.”

He explained this debate has more to do with domestic politics and national security, than human rights.

“If we were concerned about human rights and atrocities in Syria, I think we would have hopefully been doing a lot more to undermine and remove the Assad regime, which has been engaged in well-documented atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons,” Byers said.

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Matthews agreed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in the country’s four-year civil war, but he said those atrocities don’t amount to genocide, and toppling his government at this time would only worsen the already dire refugee crisis and turn Syria into a “Somalia on the Mediterranean.”

READ MORE: Would Canada’s Syria mission bolster Assad’s regime?

Degrading ISIS, as the Conservatives argue Canadian airstrikes aim to do, is a bigger priority because the risk ISIS poses beyond Iraq and Syria, Matthews said.

“I think what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is that there is now this combination of humanitarian interest and national interests by governments, and it’s only when we see that mix that we see action,” he said.

And with the claims ISIS has carried out acts of genocide against Christians and Yazidis, Canada would actually be violating international law by not acting, Matthews added, because Canada is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Marc Garneau said it’s not about whether there is a need for intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. “They have defined a mission that is totally unclear and open-eneded, and we can’t support that,” Garneau said.

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