In her foreign policy speech to the House of Commons in 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland declared Canada’s commitment to a rules-based international world order. She emphasized the importance of institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, multilateral efforts such as peacekeeping and combatting climate change, and Canada’s intentions to strengthen international ties. However, one signature Canadian policy was notably absent from this speech; support for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC was established in 2002 when the Rome Statute came into force. The Rome Statute is an ambitious international agreement, with 123 States Parties, it establishes the Court’s authority to try individuals charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and in some cases the crime of aggression. When the ICC was created, there was hope it could become one of the most important international institutions of the 21st century by ensuring those who had acted with impunity were held accountable, and further atrocities were prevented.

This omission was highly unusual for a Liberal foreign minister, as the ICC has become a cornerstone of Liberal foreign policy. In 1998, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy led Canadian advocacy on the creation of a new court to hold those accountable for the most serious crimes. Under Minister Axworthy’s leadership, Canadian diplomats engaged in extensive lobbying to increase support for the institution globally. In 1998, Canadian diplomat Philippe Kirsch was chosen to chair the Committee of the Whole at the Diplomatic Conference in Rome, a crucial forum for negotiating the Rome Statute.

Canada became entrenched in the Court’s history. After the Rome Statute was drafted, Canada was instrumental in the Preparatory Commission’s work. With Kirsch again chairing the commission, Canada assisted in the development of the Court’s governance structures. Kirsch later went on to be a judge at the ICC, and became the Court’s first president.

Prime Minister Martin’s Foreign Minister Bill Graham, was willing to stand up to Canada’s most important ally by publically criticizing the United States (US) for its refusal to ratify the Rome Statute.

Canada’s efforts to support the ICC declined under Prime Minister Harper’s Foreign Minister John Baird. Minister Baird vocally opposed the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to join the ICC in 2015, and dubbed the action a huge mistake when Palestine was admitted. Similarly, Baird opposed the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to refer the Syrian crisis to the ICC, siding with Israel. However, Canada did sign onto this effort in the final hours of the vote.

Outside of Canada, the Court was facing threats to its credibility with African states labelling the institution neo-colonialist due to its focus on atrocities committed on the continent, and threatening a mass withdrawal. In response, when Foreign Minister Stephane Dion was appointed he made the Court one of his priority areas, positioning Canada as the intermediary that could broker goodwill for the institution when many in the world were turning against it.

When Minister Dion attended the Assembly of States Parties in 2016 he acknowledged that some concerns about the Court had emerged, but that parties to the Rome Statute must work together to fix it. In his address, he noted that Canada was actively reaching out to countries that had expressed their discontent with the Court. Minister Dion himself visited Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia with the express purpose of opening up a dialogue on the Court.

Canada’s engagement with the Court dropped sharply when Minister Freeland replaced Dion. Canada has not sent a high-level political representative to the Assembly of States parties, or any event related to the ICC since she took up the position.

Beyond a recent call for the ICC to investigate Venezuela, Minister Freeland has made few remarks about the Court. On July 17, 2018, the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, Minister Freeland issued a brief statement recalling Canada’s role in establishing the Court. The occasion went otherwise unmarked, despite the potential for holding a high-level event or announcing funding. This opportunity would have had clear links with Canada’s attempts further entrench the international rules-based world order, and supported Canada’s ambitions to win a United Nations Security Council seat.

In this environment, further threats to the Court’s survival have emerged. In September, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the US would “use any means necessary” to prevent the ICC from investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Afghanistan since 2003. Bolton has threatened to ban the Court’s judges from the US, and to impose sanctions on the Court’s financial assets within the US. The US’s objections to the Court’s investigation are founded in the mistaken belief that they can’t be subject to its jurisdiction because the US is not a party to the Rome Statute. However, the Court can validly exercise its jurisdiction over the conduct of individuals in the territory of any State Party to the Rome Statute, which includes Afghanistan. Therefore, the US’s behavior can be characterized as a flagrant threat against the institution of the ICC, and established international legal norms.

Despite the opportunity to gain domestic political capital by opposing the US, Canadian officials have failed to defend the Court. Even in the age of Twitter diplomacy, not a single statement condemning the US’s behavior has been issued. It begs the question, why has Minister Freeland remained quiet? Perhaps it reflects a hesitance to criticize American actions during tense trade negotiations, or concern that Canadian troops active in Afghanistan in 2003 may fall within the scope of the Court’s negotiation. Regardless, this silence is certainly at odds with a rules-based international world order.

Minister Freeland has had an exceptionally difficult job since taking up her post, acting both as foreign minister and leading Canadian input into trade negotiations with the US and Mexico. With trade talks wrapping up after preliminary agreement to the USMCA, it’s time for her engagement to focus on other key Canadian foreign policies.

Perhaps then Canada will devote more interest to the ICC as the United Nations Security Council vote looms closer. In late September, Minister Freeland announced that Canada is joining Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru in referring the situation in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity. This is the first time in Canada’s history that it has taken steps to refer another country to the ICC.

The last time Canada lost its bid for the United Nations Security Council, Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail remarked, “Canada said things, but just wasn’t there.” At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly this week, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations delivered a speech on behalf of Minister Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Ambassador Blanchard’s remarks reiterated Canada’s role supporting key institutions in the rules-based international order. Encouragingly, he mentioned the ICC twice, urging the United Nations Security Council to refer the Syrian crisis to the Court, and underscoring the importance of referring the Venezuela situation to the Court. The speech was delivered several days late, to a half empty room.

This security council campaign Canada’s saying things, but nobody’s there.



Liliane Langevin is a candidate for a joint Juris Doctor from the University of Ottawa and a Masters of Arts from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.  Please direct any comments on this piece to

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia

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