Make Law Not War?

By Carvin, Stephanie | International Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Make Law Not War?

Carvin, Stephanie, International Journal

Canada and the challenge of international law in the age of terror

"I believe in peacekeeping, not policing!" - or so went "Joe Canadian" - the protagonist in the famous beer advertisement that played across Canadian television screens in April 2000. Presumably, Joe was upset at the failure of other nations to acknowledge the difference between Canada and the United States of America, including a difference in approaches towards the settling of international disputes. The same might have easily been said for approaches to international law ("I believe in United Nations resolutions, not coalitions of the willing!")

Or could it?

Canadians who pause to consider their nation's place in global political relations often rest quite happily on the idea of Canada as a "middle power." These are the states that are not great powers, but still are able to exert some power (usually "soft power") in the international sphere. Lloyd Axworthy extends this standing to that of a "moral power" and Jennifer Welsh argues that Canada should be a "model power" for other nations.1 These conceptions view Canada, and in particular its foreign policy behaviour, as mostly ethical, peace-loving, and certainly international law-abiding.

But how well does history confirm this image of Canada as a law -loving state? Certainly it would be hard to dispute that the promotion and advancement of international law and international legal institutions has been a key foreign policy goal for Ottawa, for both moral and pragmatic reasons, since the end of the Cold War. Additionally, it is clear that Canadians have a strong preference for policies they see as promoting the international rule of law.

Yet it is also plain to see that this has not always been the case. With the onset of the Cold War, Canadian diplomats were more concerned with finding political solutions to international crises rather than legal ones. It was only with emerging national interests (the need to protect national resources and borders) that Canada began to see the benefits of an international legal regime where it could "punch above its weight." The Canadian policy towards international law has its origins in an attempt to secure its sovereignty and interests, rather than concerns over international morality and values.

In the 1990s, however, this approach changed to one that viewed international law as a moral force for good in terms of the protection of human rights and the promotion of "Canadian values." Adherence to international law became one of the key tests against which many Canadians evaluated their foreign policy. Since then, Canadian governments have had to walk a fine line between values and interests as they formulate their foreign policies.

Viewed from this perspective, the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent US-led "war on terror" have raised problems for the Canadian approach to international law. Many of these problems stem directly from the threat of international terrorism itself, but they also arise from the often-striking ways in which the post-9/11 American security and foreign policies clash with perceived Canadian values and interests.

Therefore, this article has two goals. First, it seeks to examine briefly how Canadian foreign policy towards international law has developed. Second, taking the prior discussion into consideration, the bulk of the article will look at the challenges that the war on terror has created for Canada in terms of international law. The article will concentrate on those aspects of public international law that relate to Canadian national security policies.


While Canada's foreign policy typically has leaned towards an internationalist position, this has not always been so in a legal sense. In the immediate post-World War II era, Canada did make major contributions to the development of international law through its support for the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, and through the development of major United Nations treaties such as the declaration of human rights (1948).

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