Olivia Ward and Metta Spencer discuss current global issues with Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN. Metta is concerned about the plight of Russian men who left their homeland to avoid being sent to fight against Ukrainians. Rae sees immigration policies regarding refugees as determined by individual nation states, and the same goes for the enforcement of international law, the issue that Olivia poses here. We will have a rule of law internationally when al the nation states commit to fulfilling that goal. For the video, audio podcast, transcript, and comments column, https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-560-canadas-bob-rae-at-the-un/.
Ambassador Bob Rae
Russia, country, world, Canada, people, security council, aggression, Ukraine, issue, cases, veto, Olivia, war, refugees, United Nations, number, subject, charter, decision, situation
Metta Spencer, Bob Rae, Olivia Ward
Metta Spencer and her colleague Olivia Ward are interviewing Bob Rae, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, regarding the plight of male refugees from Russia who have fled the country to avoid military conscription. Spencer discusses the difficulties faced by these refugees, including the challenges of obtaining immigration papers to countries such as EU nations, potential extradition back to Russia, and the dangers they face if sent back. She seeks to understand what actions are being taken at the United Nations to assist these individuals.
Ambassador Rae acknowledges the complex nature of the issue and explains that the UN High Commission for Refugees treats cases of political dissent and asylum-seeking seriously. However, he emphasizes that the UN system relies on nation-states to decide whether to accept refugees on an individual basis. Rae mentions that Canada, for example, assesses each case individually, considering factors such as security checks and evidence of political dissent or danger faced by the applicants. He also notes that Canada has a special category in its immigration policy to accommodate dissenters and individuals in danger.
Spencer expresses concerns about distinguishing genuine refugees from those who may have ulterior motives, such as spies or supporters of the Russian government who do not wish to fight in the war. Rae explains that immigration processes involve thorough assessments, including security checks and evaluations of an applicant’s history and social media presence. He cites historical examples, such as Canada accepting conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, to highlight that each case should be evaluated individually.
The conversation delves into the nuances of immigration decisions, the challenges of assessing loyalty and political values, and the potential benefits of absorbing refugees into Western democratic societies. Rae agrees that people with diverse political opinions can still contribute positively to society, emphasizing the importance of assessing security risks separately.
Regarding President Zelensky’s statements about Ukrainian refugees, Rae acknowledges Zelensky’s perspective but maintains that decisions on immigration are ultimately made by individual nations based on the specific circumstances of each case. He emphasizes that Canada does not conduct extensive assessments of an individual’s political views unless they pose a criminal or security risk.
Overall, the discussion highlights the complexities surrounding the issue of Russian male refugees and the efforts made by countries like Canada to evaluate cases individually while considering international obligations and security concerns.
Bob Rae, discusses global migration, the situation in Ukraine, and the idea of implementing a Manson passport or a global compact. It is mentioned that nation states are unlikely to fling open their floodgates and cede their sovereignty to the United Nations. The conversation then transitions to the situation in Ukraine and the impact of Russia’s invasion on the country and the international order. The war in Ukraine is described as causing economic and social damage, including the disruption of food, fuel, and fertilizer supplies. There is a division among countries on how to respond, with some advocating for an immediate end to the war and others emphasizing the importance of not giving in to Russian aggression.
The conversation moves on to discuss the functioning of the United Nations (UN) and the challenges it faces due to tensions between Russia and other countries. While acknowledging the difficulties, Bob Rae highlights the important role the UN plays in addressing conflicts and improving the lives of people around the world. The topic then shifts to the reform of the UN Security Council, including the number of members and the veto power of permanent members. Bob Rae suggests the need for expanding the council without adding more countries with veto power, aiming for a simpler package of reforms to enhance its working relationship with the General Assembly.
The discussion delves into Russia’s actions and their implications. Russia’s ability to impose a state of paralysis in the Security Council due to its veto power, makies it challenging to hold Russia accountable for its actions. The potential for censuring Russia in the Security Council is dismissed, given its veto power, but condemnation and concerns are expressed in the General Assembly. The topic of Putin’s accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is also addressed, with Bob Rae expressing the belief that holding Putin accountable is possible and necessary. He mentions the role of international institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the need to enforce the rule of law, even though enforcement can be challenging.
Participants examine the enforcement of international law and the difficulties in taking immediate action against aggression. The limitations of the UN as an international police force are acknowledged and the importance of nation states being willing to enforce the charter is emphasized. The conversation mentions Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows countries to resist aggression and highlights the possibility of countries aiding, including sending troops, to Ukraine if they choose to do so.
Bob Rae discusses the challenging and difficult situation faced by the developing world due to underlying economic and social problems, which have been further aggravated by the pandemic, climate change, and aggression against Ukraine. He acknowledges that many countries desire for the conflicts to stop due to the high cost involved, but he disagrees with that approach, believing that aggression needs to be responded to. He emphasizes the economic and social chaos caused by the multitude of crises and the impact on countries in challenging circumstances.
The conversation shifts to the future of Russia, with growing dissent and unease among citizens. When asked about the potential removal of Putin from power, Rae refrains from speculating but notes that Russia has not emerged from its totalitarian and nationalist past. He highlights the lack of freedom and democracy in Russia, expressing concern about the stability of the country. He states that the future outcome is uncertain, and it is crucial to be prepared for various eventualities.
Regarding accountability for Russia’s actions, Rae supports the idea of an international justice system and believes that those responsible for crimes should be subject to the criminal justice system. He argues that Ukraine is currently a crime state due to Russia’s actions, and anyone in authority in Russia is vulnerable to potential charges. Rae emphasizes the importance of holding individuals accountable for their behaviour and highlights the need to learn from history, mentioning the establishment of international criminal justice systems since Nuremberg.
The conversation briefly touches on Sergey Lavrov, and Rae asserts that decisions on indictments and charges should be made by the court based on evidence. He emphasizes that Russia’s actions have created a situation where everyone should carefully consider their behaviour. The discussion concludes with a mention of accountability in public life and the principle that no one is above the law, emphasizing Canada’s commitment to international justice and the rule of law.
The conversation highlights the complexities and challenges involved in addressing these issues and emphasizes the need for international cooperation and accountability.
Canada’s Bob Rae at the U.N.
This is the slightly edited transcript of an interview with Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, by SPENCER: and WARD: on June 14, 2023.
METTA SPENCER: Hello, I’m Metta Spencer and today we’re going to go to the United Nations. We have an opportunity to speak with the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Bob Rae. My colleague Olivia Ward will be joining me. I want to take this opportunity to introduce her to some of you because Olivia, who was for 30 years or so the foreign affairs correspondent at the Toronto Star, is going to be my successor as editor of peace magazine and she will occasionally be on some of these forums as well. Since she had spent time at the United Nations covering it, some years ago, I’ve asked her to join me in talking with Ambassador Rae. So, good morning, Bob Rae.
AMBASSADOR BOB RAE: Good morning, Metta. Nice to talk to you again.
SPENCER: Great, let me start. I have a lot of things in mind having to do with the human rights issue regarding refugees – in particular, some Russian men. In September, Putin was decided to mobilize 300,000 men and send them to war, up to a million men left the country rather than comply. I’ve been in touch with some of these fellows and many of them are in quite difficult situations. So, I want to talk first about the plight of those who can’t get immigration papers to countries such as any EU country, even maybe Canada, maybe the US.
A lot of the men are going to countries where they never expected to live – such as Thailand or someplace where they don’t know the language or the culture. And that’s if they’re lucky, because at least they can get there. Others are in worse trouble; some of them are vulnerable to actually being extradited back to Russia, on the claim that Russia is making that, because they refused induction into the military, they are criminals.
If they are sent back to Russia, they will go to jail for a long period of time – if not worse, because I understand that a former president of the country has said publicly something to the effect that they might send hit squads and execute these people abroad. So that’s the situation. I want to ask what can be done or what is being done at the United Nations to help these guys?
RAE: The UN High Commission for Refugees obviously treats carefully every issue of political dissent – how people are, where they’re applying and how they’re applying. But fundamentally, the UN system relies on nation states – governments like Canada, to say: Will you take Mr. X, or will you take Miss Y? For Canada, each case is treated individually.
I can’t comment on any individual situation because I don’t know the circumstances, but what you’ve described is a very general problem, a widespread issue that has to be dealt with in a way that responds to each individual circumstance. And we have international obligations. More refugees per capita are legally recognized and processed in Canada than any other Western country, for sure, although the whole world is facing a displacement issue.
The UNHCR announced yesterday that 110 million people have been forcibly displaced across borders. That doesn’t include all the people who have been displaced – because many people are displaced internally, which is another 150 million. So, the number of people who are displaced in the world is at a record high, greater than at any period after the Second World War.
It’s putting a tremendous pressure on the global system. It’s also putting tremendous pressure on most of the host countries, for most refugees are in the Global South, and many of them are poor and facing tremendous challenges on their own. So, the arrival of not a few thousand, but tens or hundreds of thousands is a tremendous challenge.
I do believe that we assess the circumstances surrounding each individual’s application and obviously, it has to be considered in relationship to all the other applications. But certainly, as a government official, I get asked for assistance with cases and I don’t intervene on behalf of one person or another, except to say: This is the process that, that must be followed and ensure that the system responds in a timely way to the cases that are brought to our attention. But I do think you’ve identified a real problem: Conscientious objectors and dissenters from the war in Ukraine number in the tens of thousands.
SPENCER: Some people say a million have left the country,
RAE: People have left the country for a variety of reasons having to do with their own economic situation and their decision to say: I don’t want to want to work in this circumstance. It has caused huge challenges for Russia; they’re losing younger people who have skills in certain sectors of the economy. And they’re not going to go back until the, all the circumstances surrounding the war are resolved. I think you’re doing right, Metta. As you always have done, you’re doing the right thing in being in touch with a lot of different people and using your ability to connect with others to say, “What can we do about these individuals?”
It’s a very important question and governments have to respond. You mentioned the European countries. They may have their own reasons. Canada does not have a blanket ban on anybody. We look at cases on an individual basis and there’s a special category now in our immigration policy that looks at political dissenters – people who are in danger because of the decisions that they’ve made and positions they’ve taken about what’s going on in their country and the world. We will look at those cases and allocate room for them to make application. So, there’s some flexibility to respond to the situations you’re describing.
SPENCER: Well, I believe there actually is a blanket decision in the EU. And even good people – people who ninety percent of the time are on the same side of issues as I am – take more nuanced or ambivalent attitudes on this one. They say: We don’t know how many of these people are just self-serving; they support Putin’s war, but they just don’t want to be the ones fighting it. So, my friend say: We don’t want to let in people like that; we’d prefer to take care of people whose motives are pure.
I can understand that. There is a real question about how to test the loyalty, the feelings, the political values of applicants for immigration. In fact, I doubt there’s any way to do it. If there were lots people whom we wouldn’t want to admit for any number of political reasons, I don’t know how we’d ever find out which ones are the questionable ones.
RAE: In the immigration process, there are security checks. Countries do have information as to what various individuals have been doing and saying. We are able to do pretty thorough searches through things like social media and other ways of finding out somebody’s history. I did legal aid work for refugee claimants in another life fifty years ago and at that time, trust me, the immigration had a way of assessing whether this each was a genuine refugee claim. They ask: Who’s this person? Who’s applying from this country? Is this a genuine refugee claim? Is this a fraudulent claim?
We’re living in a in a difficult time. To put it in historical perspective, a hundred years ago, at least, we took in a lot of people who were avoiding conscription in Czarist Russia or in other countries. That was one reason why people wanted to come to the United States and Canada. And there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t want to fight this kind of a war.” If you say they’re just trying to avoid conscription, or trying to avoid fighting, who can blame them for that? It’s a terrible, bloody conflict, and people who don’t believe in the conflict quite legitimately ask themselves the question, “Why am I throwing myself in front of that?”
Don’t forget, we took 50,000 people from our neighbor, the United States, our ally, when the United States was fighting the war in Vietnam. We accepted conscientious objectors. The United States was not happy that we were taking in so many so-called draft dodgers, and not just draft dodgers – also people who deserted the military. That was our policy at the time. The government said, we’ll consider all these applications on a case-by-case basis. We took in a lot of people.
SPENCER: Suppose I actually knew that a person was a strong Putin supporter but just didn’t want to go to war. Would I consider that a disqualification? I believe the Ukrainian government may have flipped on the question. At first, I think Zelinsky was saying: Good for these guys for refusing to fight and for leaving. But later I think he has said: But they really should stay there and resist the government. Five years ago that would have been a reasonable thing to ask people to do. In fact, I was always urging my Russian friends to do that, but now I don’t think there’s any chance. They would just go to jail and that would be the end of it. What do you think?
RAE: Well, I think President Zelinsky has earned the right to his opinion. He’s fighting a war that’s put tremendous strain on his society, so I think he can make the decisions he makes. I can’t comment at all.
I think the broader question that you raise, though, is this. There is a difference between people having a diversity of political opinion and people representing a security risk. Those are two separate questions. The reality about Russian immigration to Canada over the last 20 or 30 years, which has been quite substantial, is that people come for a variety of reasons and we don’t do a deep dive into all of their political views. That’s not the way we are as Canadians.
If somebody has a criminal record or a record of being engaged in fraudulent activities as a businessperson, or if somebody represents a security risk for another reason, then that’s a judgment made by Canada Immigration, but it’s not based on whether we happen to think anecdotally that somebody was really a supporter of President Putin in the past. Many Russians have been supporters of President Putin in the past, some are supporters of President Putin in right now. For me, it’s important for us to maintain sense of integrity of our system where we say, We’re going to make judgments on individual cases; not everyone will agree with them. They’re based on the best evidence that we have about the circumstances surrounding this individual case. That’s true whether people are coming from Afghanistan or anywhere else. Those judgments have to be made by the Immigration Department. We’ve accepted tens of thousands of refugee cases in the last two or three years since the conflict in Afghanistan and Ukraine have happened. We’d better get used to it, as Canadians, because that’s the nature of the world we’re in now. A lot of people are living in economic risk because of climate change and all kinds of other risks and their cases have to be treated carefully.
SPENCER: I agree. Of course, some people from poor countries – Asian or African countries – are indignant because they believe their cases are not treated as favorably as the Ukrainians who were, at least temporarily, admitted to Canada in large numbers, no questions asked.
RAE: I don’t think anybody is ever admitted “no questions asked.” I think the response of the government and Canadians to the Ukrainian crisis was because of the unprecedented numbers and the speed of the disruption. After the war broke out and in this latest phase in February of 2022, the challenge facing the world was so dramatic and the difficulties were so great, with millions of people coming out of Ukraine, internally displaced and then coming to Europe. I think Canada’s response was right. But yes, we do have to answer all those people who say, Well, what about us? We have to get used to the fact that this is a broad-based issue.
SPENCER: At the UN, you’re often establishing international regulations or norms, not just for Canada and the EU. After World War One, there was something called the Nansen passport that was issued to some 800,000 Russians who left Russia at the time of the revolution, and then to other Eastern European countries and a couple of other places that I that didn’t fit into that category. But all the refugees who left there were able to get this passport, which was the sort of like a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. They could go almost anywhere with it.
RAE: Not really – because nation states protect their borders. That was true after World War One and today. The government would have recognized the travel documents, but there are no Get Out of Jail Free cards in the world, really, because the admission of people to any country depends on the decisions of that country. So, the notion that somehow the UN could magically issue passports to people that would allow them to travel anywhere and would require states to admit them – that document doesn’t exist.
SPENCER: Well, okay, I’m sure you know more than I do. I kind of thought that it might be the solution if we went back to something like a Nansen passport. Give them to everybody who wants one. But indeed, that would be flinging open all the floodgates.
RAE: Nation states are not going to do that and I think that, even in the context of the global compact for migration, people who are opposed to immigration generally, or who want to see fewer people coming into a country, will often say, We can’t go along with a global compact, because that’s ceding our sovereignty to the United Nations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is, Canada retains its ability to control its border. So does the United States, and so does every country in the world.
SPENCER: I want to share some of your time with my friend Olivia, who once was posted to the UN and maybe has some questions to explore with you.
OLIVIA WARD: Thanks. First, as you know, Russia has not only attacked Ukraine, but it has attacked the international order. So, from your perspective at the UN, how much damage do you think it has done with this invasion of Ukraine?
RAE: I think it’s a massive body blow. The longer the war goes on, the worse it gets, because it’s having, not only the terrible impact on the people of Ukraine, but on access to foods, not just food prices, but access to food. And access to fuel, including prices, access to fertilizer and fertilizer prices. Just last night, Russia was bombing Odessa, which is a lifeline for many countries in Africa, to getting supplies from Ukraine and Russia. That is what the Black Sea initiative is about, which has been so important in the last few years.
So that’s the economic and social damage. And responding to that, many countries say: Just stop the war. Stop right now! Just stop. Don’t worry about courts, don’t worry about accountability, don’t worry about the world order, just stop this and settle the issue somehow. Resolve it! Give up!
I think that’s one of the real fault lines in the world right now, as we’re speaking. It’s a big fault line between those countries that say: We can’t give up. Because if Ukraine gives up now, then it’s basically caving to Russian aggression and the message from that will be that aggression pays and if they press hard enough, and harshly enough, they’ll succeed. So, I think this is a major issue for the global community. Canada continues to take the view that the ending of this war has to be based on justice, on a fair solution – and we think all wars should be concluded on that basis. You can’t accede to aggression.
WARD: And at the same time, Russia’s position in the Security Council has virtually enabled it to impose a state of paralysis. So, how has that affected the working of the Security Council? It is often said: Oh, the UN is hopeless; the Security Council is useless; the whole organization doesn’t work; it’s worth nothing. But that is often the work of the people who make up the Security Council and how willing they are to do actual diplomacy instead of shouting ideology.
RAE: Yeah, the UN is in a tough situation at the present time. This conflict between Russia and most of the rest of the world has created tension in personal and political relationships, in ongoing dialogue about a number of issues. It’s difficult to see how we get to a better place. It’s not the first time that has happened, but it’s not the UN’s fault
It’s the behavior of nation states that continues to put enormous pressure on the organization. But when you say the UN is worthless, I say: No, the UN is imperfect, and the situation is really not great at all. But there are things the UN continues to work at regarding Ukraine, the humanitarian situation, and a number of conflicts around the world.
The UN is making life better for billions of people. It’s about countries taking responsibility for their behavior – and yes, the veto does mean the Security Council unquestionably has a harder time reaching important decisions. But then, you have to go around the Security Council. You have to ask what the General Assembly can do. What else can we do? How else can we respond? That’s what we’re doing and that’s where diplomacy comes in. We do diplomacy every day.
WARD: For years and years, there has been a move to reform the Security Council, both in terms of the number of members and the veto particularly. So has that now ground to a halt?
RAE: No, in fact, the Russian veto of February 2022 really contributed to a growing opinion in the UN. The UN Security Council needs reform. It’s like a chess game. The problem is that the five permanent members of the UN – Russia, China, the UK, France, and the US – those countries have a veto. And they also have a veto on abolishing the veto. The veto was in the constitution of the UN Charter. You can’t amend the charter without consensus among the among the P Five, as we call them. And that consensus doesn’t exist on many subjects, if any.
So, this is one of the arguments that Canada makes to our fellow members: Let’s try to expand the council without expanding the number of countries with a veto. We’ve seen what the veto does to the organization.
So, we’ve argued for a simpler package that doesn’t add a whole lot of bells and whistles to it. We want more members in the council. We want a better working relationship between the council and the General Assembly. We want the vetoes to be limited, and that they must be justified. But these can be done by working arrangements between us and requiring the veto-wielding countries to explain themselves to the rest of the world, if that makes a difference. It’s better than nothing. That’s really all we can do. We think that’s the path of reform.
WARD: Has there been any move in the Security Council to censure Russia for its nuclear threats, which, of course, are mounting all the time? The latest one is the move of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
RAE: Olivia, there will be no censure of Russia in the Security Council because Russia has the veto on that and so does China. That’s not going to happen. But the General Assembly has expressed concerns about this, including about the movement of the nuclear weapons to Belarus. So, there’s no lack of opprobrium in the General Assembly for what Russia is doing. The challenge is always: How do you enforce these things? The sanctions are not as complete as we’d like. Russia goes around the sanctions, behaving in a very bad way.
And then the question becomes: How can you successfully apply the rules when you don’t have more unanimity? If we could go back to 1945, we might be a little less willing to concede to Russia and to other dictatorships the ability to basically paralyze the Security Council.
WARD: Putin has caused a growing list of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC has taken note of this and has acted on it. But do you think there is any chance that Putin can be held accountable?
RAE: Yes, I do. I do think so. It’s like other issues involving other heads of state and their accountability. It’s possible and necessary but not easy. This question of enforcement is always the central challenge facing international institutions, including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. But you’ve still got this basic premise of the court, the ICC, and the Rome statute that says, look, 123 countries are agreeing to limit our sovereignty and subject ourselves to the rule of law. And the rule of law will be followed by the court itself, free of political interference. That is a huge step forward.
The big problem is that three permanent members of the Security Council have not signed on – the United States, China and Russia – and a number of other growing powers – India and Indonesia – are outside the framework of the ICC. But I don’t think this problem will prevent the court from doing its work, and from everyone from holding Russia accountable for what’s taking place.
Slowly but surely, you will see signs. Countries will say: You have assets in our country; we have passed laws with respect to what happens to assets of countries that are subject to sanctions or that have clearly violated international law. And we’re not going to let you take back those assets. I don’t at all think that it’s outlandish to expect that Mr. Putin will have to face justice.
SPENCER: I want to ask about that, Olivia, if I may. It intrigues me that the World Court took a stand, almost within days and said: Russia, stop right now and don’t move another muscle. Of course, we knew that that order would be ignored. and it has been. As far as I know, there’s almost no way to really enforce any kind of decision about international law with any certainty or immediacy.
If somebody is breaking into my apartment, I’m going to call the police and the police will be here within minutes and they may stop the guy before he even gets into the house. But the best that you can hope for with enforcing the international law against aggression would be, in this Ukrainian situation, that maybe ten or fifteen years from now, some country will turn Putin over and send him to The Hague. That’s not going to do anything now.
My question is: has anything been discussed about how to actually enforce international law at the moment that it is needed?
RAE: The challenge is still there. The challenge is set out in the charter. Are nation states willing to enforce the charter? Because the UN itself is not an international police force. You’ve just made the speech that I make all the time, and that is to say: Can we not find it within our willingness to actually enforce the charter?
I can think of few clearer examples of a breach of international law or breach of the charter, than Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. So, the question becomes: What are we willing to do as a country to assist in the resistance to aggression?
Article 51 of the charter says, quite clearly: A country is allowed to resist aggression. In other words, what Ukraine is doing in response to the aggression is completely legal.
SPENCER: But let’s say we really do want to help them. It takes six months to get some sort of peacekeeping force and spending that time –
RAE: You’re talking about a decision of the Security Council, but nothing stops Canada or the United Kingdom or any other ally of the Ukraine from saying: We are going to send you not only weapons; we’re going to send you soldiers. We’re going to send troops onto your territory. Nothing legally stops that step from being taken because that’s specifically permitted by article 51.
So, it’s not only self-help in terms of how a country responds to aggression. It’s also self-help in terms of what other countries do in response to a request from Ukraine saying: We need your troops.
SPENCER: But logistically it’s impossible. Unless you have some sort of standing UN Police force that can go overnight, forget it. It’s going to take a year.
RAE: No, Metta, it doesn’t. You’re missing my point. I’ll repeat it, just to make sure we’re clear to everybody. There’s nothing stopping a sovereign country like Canada or the United States or the United Kingdom, from saying: We are going to come to the assistance of a country that’s been subjected to aggression. The classic example in modern times is Kuwait. Kuwait was attacked by Iraq and the President United States said: No, we’re going to send troops and respond to the aggression, and the aggression is going to end. End of subject! And he established a coalition of the willing. He didn’t go to the UN, because the Russians and the Chinese and others would have vetoed it. He said: We’re just going to do it and it’s legal under the charter. The charter does not require every intervention in the world to be conducted by the Security Council, because the Security Council has all these vetoes.
The suggestion you’ve made about a standing force of the UN, again, is up to nation states to say, yeah, we’ll give troops to the United Nations and let the Secretary General decide where and when they’re going to be placed, to deal with a conflict at the request of a country that has been subjected to aggression. But so far, member states have not stood up and said: We’re willing to give you our troops and the ability to move these troops around in response to a particular crisis.
This is not about the United Nations being broken. This is about a more difficult subject – whether nation states, like Canada, like the United States, like the UK – are willing to do that kind of thing, or are they saying: We’ll do it in this instance, but we won’t do it in that instance? We need to be honest and recognize that the reason why NATO is not intervening directly with Ukraine is because we don’t want to broaden the conflict into a major conflagration between Russia and the rest of the world, and potentially a nuclear conflict.
Those are not irrelevant considerations. But you have to say: Okay, there are limits to what we can do, but the limits are not based in the charter. The limits are not in our stars but in ourselves.
SPENCER: You say that there’s no lack of opprobrium in the General Assembly but I wonder about the voting record. When a measure has come up it has been pretty strong in favor of supporting Ukraine. We hear that a lot of countries are not nearly as enthusiastic as I would like to believe. I’m wondering if there’s attenuation of support. Do you sense that there’s any change in the direction the wind is blowing from your post at the UN? Among various member countries?
RAE: The situation is very challenging and difficult, because of the underlying economic and social problems facing the developing world. Those problems have been dramatically aggravated by the pandemic, by climate change, and now by the aggression against Ukraine. So, it’s difficult to say. The principle that this is aggression that needs to be responded to, I don’t think there’s any attenuation of that. Where I think there is attenuation is in the strong desire among many countries to say: Please, just make it stop, because we are paying too high a price. I think that’s understandable. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think that’s the most sensible way to deal with Russia’s aggression. But I think we in the West, must be aware of the economic and social chaos that has been created by this cascade of crises that are taking place. They’re having an impact on countries that are in challenging circumstances.
SPENCER: It isn’t just countries that take surprising positions but sometimes our own friends too.
WARD: Within Russia, there is growing dissent from hardliners, as military casualties mount and operations fail. There’s unease beneath the surface among citizens who are afraid to speak out. So, if Putin were removed from power, how would you see the future of Russia?
RAE: I wouldn’t speculate on that, but you said something that I agree with – that Russia has not been allowed to emerge from its totalitarian and nationalist past.
The Russian people haven’t had a break for a long time from the kind of government that many thoughtful, caring people in Russia would like to see. If somebody tells me that most of the Russian people support Putin, I say: How do you know that? How do we know what information people have? Can they express their dissent? People get locked up for waving a sign, for goodness sake! This is not a free democratic society where people can express themselves.
You can’t start a war like this, which has created such havoc for the Russian people and the Russian economy, and then say: Don’t worry, everything’s fine. It’s not stable at all and what emerges from instability is anybody’s guess. But if you can carry on the kind of attacks and irrational behavior that’s taking place in Russia, you can’t say: Everything’s okay and Okie dokie, we mustn’t talk about instability. Instability is there and everybody knows it’s there. And out of that instability, frankly, a lot of different things could happen. There’s no point in speculating on what they might be. We need to be ready for a lot of eventualities.
WARD: This is not necessarily for publication, but I’m interested in your view because you were facing Sergey Lavrov a great deal in the Security Council. Do you think that he should be included on the list of war criminals?
SPENCER: Wait a minute, this is for publication, and he knows it! (We laugh.)
RAE: I’ll respond to your question the same way I would respond to a question about a Canadian. When I was premier, somebody said, should So-and-So be charged? I would always say: That’s not for the premier to decide. It’s up to the criminal justice system to decide whether somebody should be charged for that. We don’t make those decisions. I’d say the same thing about naming any particular individuals. The court must make a difficult decision as to who gets indicted and named and who doesn’t, and it has to follow the evidence.
One thing I firmly believe is that Ukraine is a crime site right now, because of what Russia has done and anybody in authority in Russia is vulnerable when their country has created such a crime site as in Ukraine. The crimes against humanity, the war crimes that are being committed on a daily basis, the attacks on civilian institutions, the death of children in hospitals, the kidnapping of children! Go down the list, and you say these are the most serious of crimes and I don’t think anybody who’s in authority in Russia can go to bed at night saying: I’m not under any danger of being charged. I think that the possibilities are always going to be there when you see that kind of activity going on.
WARD: Especially if you are in the public face of Russia’s crimes.
RAE: Well, again, that’s not for lay people like us to say. Once you say these are crimes and crimes are subject to a justice system, you must give up a bit of your sense of moral freedom to say he’s a war criminal. All you know is that terrible things have happened, and everybody has to be looking carefully at their behavior, in terms of what they’ve said and done. The orders that they’ve issued, the statements that they have made. Who knows what? What was authorized by governing councils, by cabinets, by people sitting around a table?
The people in 1941 didn’t expect to be found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. They thought they were above the law, that no law would catch them, no police force would ever get them, but that’s not what happened. The purpose of the international criminal justice system that we have been building since 1945, starting with Nuremberg – this is all part of a strategy that we’ve agreed on, that we’re going to hold people accountable for doing terrible things.
SPENCER: Olivia asked you specifically about Sergey Lavrov. I sort of pity this man, because he’s in a situation similar to one you’re in. Somebody in Ottawa yanks on your chain and somebody in Moscow is yanking on his chain. Maybe he would rather have an opportunity to express a different point of view. In your experience, how often do diplomats carry out orders that they’re sent there to do, as opposed to surreptitiously trying to undermine the orders that they were given?
RAE: Oh, Metta, I’m sure you’ll want to take back that statement! But I will say this with great respect to you: Everyone in public life has to understand that when we signed the Rome Statute, or when we signed the Charter of the United Nations, or when we signed the Convention Against Genocide, we are holding ourselves accountable and the notion that one’s official position gives one an excuse to say: I’m not accountable for this or that. We’re all accountable for our actions. and that’s just a general principle that applies to everybody.
WARD: I would add that I’m sure that if Bob Rae were on the Security Council and the prime minister of the day ordered him to say that Canada from now on is going to invade south of the border, because we don’t like having President Trump in office and we’re going to go to war, I’d be very surprised if Bob Rae would continue as the ambassador.
RAE: Well, I don’t have the luxury of speculating about such scenarios. I can tell you that I think Canada’s broad approach on international justice issues is the right one.
We can debate about particular circumstances, but the premise of our position continues to be that no one is above the law. And we always must come back to the fundamental principle of the rule of law, which applies in every conflict, in every war zone, in every situation. We have been one of those countries that has said, clearly and explicitly: We accept the rule of law, and the law is sovereign over us. We accept that we must follow the rules and if we don’t, we will be held accountable. That is foundational to our position at the United Nations and that’s something we must be judged by. Okay. Thank you so much.
SPENCER: Okay, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed it and we’ll share your thoughts with a whole bunch of people who will be just as interested in what you’ve had to say as we have been. So. thank you so very much, Ambassador Rae.
RAE: Good to talk to you. Take care.
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