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Tenth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Honourable senators, given Senator Boehm’s admonition, I’ve decided to speak now rather than next week. As a result, my comments may be less organized than I would like them to be.

I have no disagreement with the chair’s summary and I want to thank him, Deputy Chair Senator Harder and all my colleagues for the excellent work that we did on this report.

Colleagues, the report was very much about the machinery and mechanics of our sanctions regime and how we could make it better. It included questions of administration, clarity of sanctions tools, coordination with allies, reporting, as well as consideration of unintended consequences.

We spent much less time, though, on the question of efficacy, which is to say, “Do sanctions work?” On this, the closest we came to a conclusion is, “It’s difficult to say.” That is in the official press statement.

When it comes to the traditional criteria for measuring the success of sanctions — i.e., change of behaviour or deterrence of such bad behaviour in the future — I did not hear a single witness say unequivocally that sanctions have been successful. On the other hand, we did hear that sanctions may be considered successful based on a number of other criteria that are non-traditional. These include the desire to punish, the need to show solidarity with allies and the need to appeal to public sentiment.

Unfortunately, these other criteria are not the ones that we officially cite as reasons to have sanctions in the first place. Perhaps these new criteria are, in fact, the reasons for Canada to have sanctions — but if that is the case, let’s be honest in saying so.

The reason I raise this issue is because, of late, we have become the world champions in autonomous sanctions and perhaps have forgotten, as Senator Boehm has rightly pointed out, that sanctions are one among a number of diplomatic tools that we have to address difficult international problems and, indeed, that sanctions may not even be the best tool for a particular problem.

You know the old saying about the tendency to use the tool you have in front of you to deal with a problem. If you have a sledgehammer, that is what you will use; however, it’s not clear that a sledgehammer is the best tool, indeed.

Ultimately, sanctions are a form of economic coercion, and we take great umbrage, of course, when economic coercion is directed at us.

The proliferation of the use of sanctions, the widespread use of sanctions, the increasing tendency and preference to use sanctions, the finessing and the extension of different types of sanctions, while possibly necessary, is ultimately a statement on the failure of democracy. I’m not sure this is a gold medal situation.

This is a real concern because we’re actually going around the world talking about how we are the world champion in autonomous sanctions. When we say this, I don’t know which of the new criteria we’re using to give ourselves this award. Is it that we get a gold medal because of our solidarity with allies in imposing sanctions? Is it that we get a gold medal because we are the best at punishing people? Is it that we get a gold medal because we are the best at appealing to the political appeal of sanctions, the populist instinct for wanting to do something about a difficult situation? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure that we do not yet have the evidence that the traditional criteria — change of behaviour and deterrence — have been met in awarding ourselves any top prize.

Honourable senators, this problem is compounded by the issue of inconsistency in the application of autonomous sanctions, which, by the way, is one of the findings in our report but probably one that will not be given very much attention. It is important, though, because inconsistency in the application of autonomous sanctions is not just a trivial case of “whataboutism,” but it fundamentally undermines the slender moral authority on which we have to impose sanctions in the first place. It is a recommendation, and I do hope we pay attention to it.

Sanctions have real and long-term consequences for affected countries, even when they are attempts at targeting just the bad guys. They are difficult to unwind once they are applied, which is why I so much agree with one of the recommendations around the sunset clause for autonomous sanctions. This too is an important finding of the report, and I hope it gets serious attention.

To conclude, honourable senators, this report was a very useful exercise in our statutory review of the Sergei Magnitsky Law. I hope the government will take it seriously. When we come around to the next five-year review or — in the case of Senator Boehm’s suggestion — the next ten-year review, I hope that we will be able to say with some satisfaction that we’ve actually reduced our use of sanctions and that we’ve become smarter in the use of ongoing sanctions, not because we are turning our backs on injustices in the world but because we have found a better way to address them. Thank you.

Read the tenth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, entitled Strengthening Canada’s Autonomous Sanctions Architecture: Five-Year Legislative Review of the Sergei Magnitsky Law and the Special Economic Measures Act.