Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Comparing British and Canadian Perspectives on International Law

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Comparing British and Canadian Perspectives on International Law

Article excerpt

After signposting some of the developments towards a self-confident and self-consciously Canadian voice in international law, this article asks what the Canadian perspective on international law actually is. It suggests, through a comparison with the UK along three axes (government, courts and media portrayals of international law), that the Canadian international law reflex has been multilateralist/internationalist but that this description needs to be nuanced. An accurate description of the Canadian perspective(s) on international law must take into account: disconnects between stances taken by the federal government on the world stage and implementation of international obligations at home; instances where Canadian governments and courts have treated international law in a less than principled way while nonetheless paying it 'lip service'; and the Canadian public's lack of understanding and engagement with international law.

PRIOR TO THE ELECTION OF Stephen Harper's Conservative government in 2006, a prevailing view among foreign policy commentators in Canada was that the country's stature in international affairs was in decline and had been for some time. Several high-profile commentators argued that in aid, trade, diplomacy and (especially) military engagement, Canada had marginalised itself and betrayed its once proud record as a country of influence. In his best-selling book While Canada Slept, journalist Andrew Cohen contrasted Canada's role in the world today with a 'golden age' following the Second World War: 'We are no longer as strong a soldier, as generous a donor, and as effective a diplomat, and it has diminished us as a people' (Cohen 2003: 2). Canada, once a middle-ranking power, was said no longer to have a claim to that title while, by contrast, the UK was said to 'punch above its weight' (Welsh 2004: 169-70). An evaluation of these claims is beyond the scope of this article, but it is ironic that in the field of public international law during the last decade or so, Canada has been bold and active, providing leadership in a range of areas. To twist Cohen's phrase, we are at least as strong an international lawyer as we have ever been. Canada has taken the initiative with respect to the global ban on landmines (the Ottawa Landmines Convention),1 the International Criminal Court,2 and the notions of human security and the international responsibility to protect vulnerable populations (Breau 2006). In particular, Canada's refusal to participate in the Iraq invasion of 2003 was seen as a strong, principled stand for international law (while the UK's participation in the attack was believed by many to be illegal). Furthermore, Canada is often viewed as a leader in terms of the implementation of its international human rights obligations and opening itself to outside scrutiny.

But if Canada was, and possibly remains, a leader in promoting the rule of law among nations, is there a uniquely Canadian perspective on international law? Does it differ from the UK perspective, or, for that matter, the perspectives of other countries that are similar in terms of political and economic development? Karen Knop has posed the question in this way: '[I]f there is something distinctive about the field of international law in Canada, in what sense is it "Canadian"? Is it only that we are more devout internationalists than everyone else - but then what separates our approach from that of the Nordic countries, for example?' (Knop 2005). This purpose of this article is to suggest concrete points of comparison between the UK and Canada which may shed light on what the Canadian perspective is, or more accurately, what Canadian perspectives are. Briefly put, the paper argues that successive Canadian governments and courts have adopted positions on international law that are broadly multilateralist and internationalist, in line with other likeminded states, including the UK in many respects. Nonetheless, the labels 'multilateralist' and 'internationalist' - as well as being generic - mask at least three facts. …

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