Mass Atrocity Prevention in Canadian Foreign Policy

By: Misha Boutilier - August 23, 2014

Recent episodes of mass killing in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq demonstrate that mass atrocity prevention is a pressing global policy problem. This paper will: Assess the current state of Canada’s policy framework towards mass atrocities; Analyze Canada’s policy framework in light of global best practices; and, Make recommendations to improve Canada’s ability to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.

Importance of Mass Atrocity Prevention

Following the horrors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, the community of states has largely embraced a responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. This began with the 1948 Genocide Convention. Since then, international focus has expanded from the specific crime of genocide to mass killing in general. In 2005, the member-states of the United Nations embraced the Canadian-sponsored principle of the Responsibility to Protect civilians from the four mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

Failure to prevent mass atrocities carries the serious risk of conflict spillover, which leads to reactive international responses that dwarf the probable cost of successful preventative action. For instance, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide seriously destabilized the Democratic Republic of the Congo and provoked mass atrocities, sexual violence, and civil strife that led to the dispatch of 20,000 UN peacekeepers.

More recently, the ongoing brutality of the Syrian Civil War led to the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its violent incursions into neighbouring Iraq. IS’s depredations have produced massive refugee flows and led to American military intervention. The conclusion of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict in 1997 that prevention is overwhelmingly less expensive than intervention is ever more valid today.

Current Actions of the Canadian Government

A cross-partisan societal consensus on mass atrocity prevention is clearly present in Canada. TheAll-Parliamentary Working Group on Genocide Prevention boasts prominent representatives from all parties. Admittedly, the Conservative government generally does not use the term “Responsibility to Protect.” Still, the Prime Minister and his ministers have been outspoken on mass atrocity prevention. At the April 2014 Genocide Conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird reminded states of their “solemn duty to defend the vulnerable…both at home and abroad.” The Minister said that Canada’s multiculturalism strengthens its resolve to prevent mass atrocities. Indeed, numerous Canadian civil society organizations conduct research and advocacy on mass atrocity prevention.

Reflecting this consensus, the current government has taken steps to prevent mass atrocities in Libya, Sudan, and Iraq.

In Libya, Canada played a leading role in the NATO-led intervention that prevented the Gadhafi regime’s forces from committing massacres in Benghazi. Canada made a military contribution second only to that of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. In the Sudan, in 2010-2011 the government devoted nearly $90 million to the Sudan in long-term development aid and humanitarian relief to stabilize this potential mass-atrocity zone. This aid supported vulnerable populations and contributed to the success of the 2011 referendum on South Sudanese independence.

Most recently, the government’s decision to airlift weapons to the Kurds reflects the Prime Minister’s determination “to provide effective protection to Iraqis faced with the barbarous attacks [of IS].” Also, Minister Baird made clear in his speech to the Genocide Conference that the government’s newly-created Office for Religious Freedom sees combating religious persecution as a way to prevent mass atrocities.

Mass Atrocity Prevention Best Practices

In order to accurately assess Canada’s performance, it is first necessary to understand the policies that constitute emerging best practices in mass atrocity prevention and response.

First, states have created government institutional structures enhance the political status of mass atrocity prevention and better coordinate responses. For instance, 41 states have appointed a Responsibility to Protect Focal Point, a senior-level official responsible for promoting mass atrocity prevention. Also, in 2011 President Barack Obama established the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) to plan a whole of government approach. The United States’ strong and coordinated response to mass atrocities in the Central African Republic likely reflects the influence of the APB.

Second, states have developed specific military doctrines to combat mass atrocities. For instance, the United States military recently developed Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) military doctrine and has integrated MARO into military education, training, and war-gaming. Similarly, Australia’s Civil-Military Centre has sponsored research projects and seminars on the military protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Third, states have made mass atrocity prevention a distinct foreign policy focus. Mass atrocity prevention is not identical to conflict prevention or development. Armed conflict often occurs without mass atrocities, and recent mass atrocity crimes in North Korea and Burma took place in the absence of armed conflict. Effective mass atrocity prevention also involves specific policyinstruments that are distinct from those employed by broader security and development agendas. Therefore, in recent years, the US has made mass atrocity prevention a specific focus in military training, multilateral diplomacy, humanitarian aid, economic sanctions, and international criminal justice.


Assessing Canadian policy against these three best practice criteria reveals major institutional deficits.

First, there is no independent institutional mechanism in the Canadian government for coordinating policy towards mass atrocities. In Afghanistan, Canada learned the importance of integrating military, diplomatic, development, and other key capacities into a whole of government approach to achieve national aims. However, it does not currently apply this approach to mass atrocity prevention. This is not a minor oversight. The absence of such a mechanism during the Darfur genocide crisis led to a confused and delayed response, causing then Prime Minister Paul Martin to establish the Sudan Task Force to coordinate policy. The current government recently abolished this region-specific task force. This leaves Canada with neither global nor regional coordination mechanisms for mass atrocity prevention.

Second, the Canadian military has not adopted a MARO model to date. The Canadian Forces have a long tradition of peacekeeping expertise, and also gained experience in stabilization, reconstruction, and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. However, these skillsets cannot be simply transferred to MARO, which constitute a specialized field of military planning. The genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica both demonstrated that military forces lacking this training are often unprepared to respond effectively to mass atrocity scenarios.

Third, there is little evidence that the government has made mass atrocity prevention a specific focus of Canadian foreign policy. For instance, Canada has made “Promoting Stability and Security” one of five aid priorities. However, the government does not specifically include mass atrocity prevention under this priority, though it does emphasize preventing terrorism and other security threats. Such broadly focused development efforts do not constitute a strategic plan to prevent mass atrocities.


This paper recommends that the Government of Canada implement the best practices by:

1.  Creating an institutional structure for mass atrocity prevention;

2. Incorporating such a structure in Canadian military doctrine; and,

3. Making it a distinct foreign policy focus.

Mass atrocity prevention has a broad cross-partisan support, and the current government has made both rhetorical and material commitments to this goal. Still, Canadian efforts to date constitute ad hoc responses that are disconnected from a broader atrocity prevention strategy. This reflects the fact that Canada has yet to implement emerging best practices and institutional reforms in the field of mass atrocity prevention that the United States and other countries have pioneered. By adopting these best practices, the Government of Canada would establish a more coordinated, whole-of-government approach to mass atrocity prevention. It would thus significantly improve its ability to use its instruments of national power to meet its self-proclaimed mass atrocity prevention policy objectives at little additional cost.

This policy paper was written by Misha Boutilier and published as a guest post on the Young Diplomats Forum. Please note that the expressions, opinions, and conclusions of this guest submission should not be construed as a representation of the views and perspectives of the Young Diplomats of Canada.