Commentary  One giant leap for justice

Canada starts taking crimes against humanity seriously

On October 29, a quiet revolution took place in a Montreal courtroom.

Having handed down a guilty verdict in May, Quebec Superior Court Justice André Denis sentenced Désiré Munyaneza with the maximum penalty allowed under Canadian law: life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years. The crimes committed: two counts of genocide, two counts of crimes against humanity, and three counts of war crimes.

None of these atrocities were perpetrated in Canada, or anywhere nearby. A Canadian court, however, was condemning Munyaneza for his role as a militia commander for the majority Hutu government during the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide. For international humanitarian law, this is a breakthrough.

As part of its obligations as a signatory of the 1998 Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court (ICC), Canada was the first nation to enact domestic legislation that allows it universal jurisdiction over humanitarian crimes. Under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, our judiciary has the power to indict individuals for offenses they may have committed thousands of miles away.

The Munyaneza case was the first test of the Act’s effectiveness. The precedent set by Denis’s decision is unequivocal: Canada will not tacitly accept the legacy of war criminals. By bringing them within our jurisdiction, we as nation have taken a concrete step toward accepting the cosmopolitan obligation to administer justice not just for our own citizens, but also for those who have suffered abominations in other states. I’m sure Kant is smiling down at us, somewhere.

To be sure, the universalization of jurisdiction over humanitarian crimes is still the subject of criticism from some quarters. However, we should always remember exactly where those quarters lie. When such venerable humanitarians as President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (whose government is responsible for the policy of genocide in Darfur) and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (whose policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and Angola, to name a few, led to suffering and human rights violations on a massive scale) disparage international criminal law as a violation of national sovereignty, one can’t help but wonder how much more concerned they are about their own locked cabinets of incriminating files.

Accusations that the internationalization of law as propagated by the ICC mandate is just another neo-colonial mechanism that targets the Third World while exempting more powerful nations are not without grounds. The U.S., Russia, China, and Israel have all, for obvious reasons, denied that the Court has jurisdiction over their nationals. So far, all those indicted by the court have been from Africa.

However, that is changing. On Thursday, the United Nations announced that it was backing the findings of the Goldstone Report on war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas during the Gaza invasion and would, if necessary, refer the case to the ICC. The statement remains a gesture, but it still signals that norms are shifting. Even Israel, an ostensibly democratic U.S. ally, is not going to escape international legal scrutiny. Getting the U.S. government to submit to the Court will be another feat entirely, but very slowly the playing field is levelling.

Canada is already playing a leadership role in this process, and it is in a special position to be able to do so. As a first-world nation with a relatively unblemished humanitarian reputation, Canada is unlikely to be accused of hypocrisy or double standards in pursuing the prosecution of foreign war criminals. Our persistence lends legitimacy to the complex enterprise of eradicating international impunity.

Before we go patting ourselves on the back too heartily for the success of the Munyaneza case, we should remember that we too sat back along with the rest of the world and left Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda and one of our own nationals, to helplessly bear witness to “the preventable genocide.” We did not strengthen his mandate. We did not send more troops.

Never again. We have said it too many times, only to necessitate its repetition. In the wake of what has passed, however, we can only offer justice as a small token for all that has already been lost.

Adrienne Klasa is a U3 Honours Political Science and Philosophy student, as well as the editor of the McGill Foreign Affairs Review. Extend your jurisdiction to her at