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Irwin Cotler, MP

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My principled abstention from the ISIL vote

Posted on October 7, 2014

Today, October 7, 2014, the Hon. Irwin Cotler issued the following statement:

“For the last several weeks, Members of Parliament and the Canadians we represent have been seized with the genocidal incitement and mass atrocities committed by the violent extremist group known as ISIL. I know that my colleagues on both sides of the House have been horrified by ISIL’s brutality and depravity, and take seriously the question of how best to combat it.

The motion put forward by the Government in this regard recommends a combat mission as a central part of an international coalition response that I have been advocating for some time. Indeed, I have been a long-standing proponent – together with my Liberal colleagues – of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which states, simply put, that where there are war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, and the government of the region in question is unable or unwilling to take action – or worse, is the author of the criminality – the international community has a responsibility to intervene to protect targeted innocent civilians.

Admittedly, R2P is not limited to military action. Together with my colleagues in the Liberal Party, I have long proposed a series of non-military initiatives to come to the aid of civilians in Syria and Iraq, including enhanced humanitarian assistance, protection for victims of sexual violence, and criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of international crimes, including Syrian President Assad. Yet, when confronted by radical evil – by the genocidal slaughter of innocents – force may be required. Indeed, it is because of international inaction three years ago against Syria’s criminal Assad regime that radical jihadists – including ISIL – have been able to take root, develop, and engage in a campaign of abhorrent brutality.

At the same time, the Government’s motion lacks clarity about what the strategic nature and limits of Canada’s mission will be. It mentions airstrike capability as only one element of a larger contribution of unnamed Canadian military assets; it does not specify where these assets will be deployed; and it has been less clear than warranted about the mission’s objectives, costs, command, and rules of engagement.

In particular – and this is reason enough for me not to support the motion – I am deeply disturbed by the Prime Minister’s statement that Canada would require the approval of the criminal Assad regime to carry out operations in Syria. To allow the perpetrator of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, to green-light Canadian intervention is to turn R2P on its head. Assad should be a criminal defendant, not a coalition partner.

Moreover, the Government has neither briefed nor consulted with the leaders of the opposition, nor has it shared more fulsome information about the mission that would have helped Parliamentarians to make an informed choice.

Accordingly, on principled grounds, I will abstain from voting on the motion regarding Canada’s combat role in the fight against ISIL. As such, I am in my riding this evening to honour a longstanding commitment.

I have the greatest respect for my fellow Members of Parliament, including my colleagues in the Liberal Party of Canada and our leader Justin Trudeau, who are bringing their perspectives and experiences to bear on this critical issue. We all support the members of the Canadian armed forces who will participate in this mission, and we share the hope that those threatened by ISIL’s abhorrent crimes – including the Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, Muslims, members of the Syrian opposition, and others whom I have met – will yet achieve the security and freedom they yearn for and deserve.”

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