Interview: Canadian UN Ambassador Bob Rae on Contemporary Challenges to the Rules-Based International Order

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, does not shy away from tough questions.

Though many in a position such as his might shy away from argument, Rae seems to relish the opportunity to engage in some intellectual sparring. It was in this context that I requested an interview as Canada grapples with multiple foreign and domestic policy crises.

The author pictured with Bob Rae, 2015.

In addition to representing Canada on the global stage, Rae has a robust political background, having served as Premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995 and interim Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2011 to 2013. He was elected to federal and provincial parliaments eleven times between 1978 and 2013. He is also a distinguished scholar, holding a bachelor’s degree with Honours in Modern History from the University of Toronto and a Master of Philosophy in Politics from Oxford University, which he earned as a Rhodes Scholar. He completed his legal education at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law in 1977, earning the designation of Queen’s Counsel in 1984. From 2013 to 2020, Rae taught law and public policy at the University of Toronto while serving as a partner and senior counsel at a prestigious law firm, specializing in indigenous law and constitutional issues.

In short, he is uniquely well suited to speak to Canada’s foreign policy positions and their consistency with the rules-based international order.

But I also know from past encounters with Rae, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in 2015, and when previously working as a journalist in 2018, that he would truly engage on more divisive matters underlying contemporary Rule of Law concerns.

With his illustrious career in politics, academia, law, and diplomacy, Rae could easily retreat to an ivory tower, insulated from the perspectives of ordinary Canadians. His willingness to engage with dissenting viewpoints sets him apart in this respect, and demonstrates his commitment to fostering openness and dialogue. Ultimately, his willingness to engage is a core strength in Rae’s political arsenal, and JURIST was the grateful beneficiary in this case.

This interview was conducted on Mar. 1, 2024. 

Pitasanna Shanmugathas: At JURIST, we have a large readership, with over one million users yearly visiting our website from almost every country and internet domain in the world. To our readers who are not Canadian, how would you characterize the principles which underlie the foreign policy of the Justin Trudeau government?

Bob Rae: First of all, it is a great pleasure to be with you and to be with your readers. I think the important part to stress is that the approach the current government takes is consistent with the approaches that the Canadian governments have taken over many years and many decades. I think our overall commitment as a country to the rule of law and to the principles of fundamental justice are very much embedded in our domestic policies as well as our foreign policies. I think a lot of Canadians became more aware of the nature of our constitution and our obligations in 1982 when our constitution was repatriated from the United Kingdom and when the key amendment made to our constitution, which established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as setting out the constitutional commitment to the indigenous people who live in Canada in Section 35, so I think it is important to stress that, while of course there are areas of particular emphasis of the Trudeau government  which I am happy to talk about, it is important to understand this is part of a long history. Canada was signatory to the Treaty of Versailles, we became members of the League of Nations, we, of course, were signatories to the Charter of the United Nations and we become part of the framework of the rule of law looking back at a number of UN conventions and UN treaties and I think this really stems from two fundamental realities of our approach to things. The first is that we are a country of now 40 million people, whose constitutional evolution has been a long time coming and is continuing, and our economic interests are very much tied to the need to establish rules and laws and regulations which are mutually respected because we are, very much, a middle power. We are not a country that can make rules. We are a rule taker. We have to recognize that in making rules, in making sure that they are enforced, we have a strong interest in establishing multilateral, in the case of our most important trade treaty [North American Free Trade Agreement], trilateral agreements in which it is very important for the protection of our interests that those who are economically stronger and bigger don’t get to make all the rules, and don’t get to decide all the rules, and don’t get to determine the outcome of every issue and every dispute.

Related to that, of course, is the fact that our commitments to human rights, to women’s rights, to equality rights, to indigenous rights, to the end of racial discrimination, are tied to our own evolution as a democratic country. We moved from being a colony of an empire to being an independent sovereign nation in the heart of the British Commonwealth, but not only the Commonwealth of Nations, but many other regional organizations. So, we have not only become members of the United Nations, we have treaty relations with our NATO partners, we have treaty relations with our Organization of American States parties, you just go down the list and you can see all the number of bilateral, multilateral, treaties and agreements that we have written. They are made, out of principle, out of a desire to share certain principles, to protect and advance them. But also they are made as a matter of necessity to protect our interests, and like all countries in the world, and like all people in the world, we are interested in protecting our rights and freedoms and recognizing our responsibilities and also interested in advancing our own interests—not at the expense of others—but to ensure that our rights and values are protected and are advanced which is a long way of saying that the rule of law is a foundational principle of Canadian foreign policy, as it is of Canadian domestic policy, it is a foundation of Canadian public policy both domestically and around the world.

Shanmugathas:  And, on that point, the Justin Trudeau government has talked about how Canada’s foreign policy is centered on rules-based international order. Can you give an example or two about what are some of Trudeau’s foreign policy accomplishments that have been carried out which have sought to strengthen the rules-based international order?

Bob Rae: Well, I would say most recently I think are our very active support of Ukraine’s right to sovereignty in international law, which is something that we have advanced not only at the United Nations but also in our bilateral relationship with Ukraine, which is founded on Ukraine’s right not only to sovereignty but also to self-defense, which is set out in Section 51 of the United Nations Charter and how that Charter right is also protected by various other bilateral treaties we have with Ukraine and many other European countries. So, I think that now takes the form of joining with Ukraine in its arguments in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on a number of issues which have led to an interim decision by the international court with respect to refusing Russia’s claim that their war was a war of self-defense because of previous infractions of Russian sovereignty by Ukraine, arguments which were very much rejected by the Court. I think, in addition to that, we have been advancing a number of issues in front of the Court with respect to the use of sexual violence as a method of war at the International Court of Justice. We have joined with the Dutch government in raising questions around the breaches of the torture convention by the government of Syria. We have seen a steady growth in a number of applications by nation-states to the International Criminal Court as well as to the ICJ so we are very supportive of the extension of the rule of law and also the application and enforcement of the rule of law. That has been a foundational principle. I had the opportunity, as you may know, to serve as Vice President of the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court for three years between 2021-2024 and that is a reflection of Canada’s continuing role. We were instrumental in the drafting of the Rome Statute and very much supporters of it. We have been drafters of legislation at the World Trade Organization, very active Canadian participation in the development of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), I think that the decision by the Trudeau government to accept it, without hesitation or qualification, the UNDRIP was a shift from the policy of the previous government and one that I think has a continuing impact on our relationship with indigenous people at home and also overseas. As you may know, the Trudeau government has also passed legislation that makes UNDRIP part of our federal law, and the government of British Columbia has done the same. It would be up to other provinces whether they are going to do the same as well. But from a federal and British Columbian point of view, UNDRIP is now good Canadian law.

Shanmugathas: The Trudeau government has pledged to the international community to slash national emissions by at least 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. However, Canada’s Environmental and Sustainable Development Commissioner Jerry DeMarco suggests the government’s plan falls short on several fronts. Furthermore, a recent report published in Journal Science in January of this year suggests that Canadian tar sands pollution could be up to 6,300% higher than reported.  How does the Trudeau government intend to rectify the shortcomings in its climate change policy, especially the absence of specific strategies to encourage heavy industries to adopt greener technologies, as emphasized by DeMarco’s report? 

Bob Rae: First of all, I think it is fair to say, like many international treaties—and this is one of the challenges facing international law—the strength of the Paris treaty is that we have a voluntary pact of countries agreeing to reduce emissions of which Canada is one. And we will have a variety of people who will be monitoring and expressing their views with respect to the adequacy of national plans around the world. So, I think to single out Canada on this issue, to put it mildly, is a little unfair. I think the reality is that a great many countries have faced challenges of one kind or another with respect to meeting targets and commitments. I am not diminishing the challenge. I think it is correct to say that it is a challenge—

Shanmugathas: It is Canada’s environment commissioner that has made these—

Bob Rae: I am aware of who that is; I even know him. I am aware that DeMarco made that submission. I am just saying that in a federal country like Canada, it takes a tremendous amount of political coordination and political will to make the kind of changes that we have to make, and we all agree have to made. I am sure that the Commissioner’s report will be carefully considered by the government as we move forward to setting out the basis upon which we are going to meet the targets that have been set. I would argue that one of things Canada has done, which not every other country has done, is to not only sign the Paris Agreement but also indicate the degree to which we hold ourselves accountable and are willing to accept criticism with respect to our ability to actually reach the targets that have been set out. I would argue that—if you wanted to talk about a more fundamental challenge facing the Paris treaty—it is that, like many other international agreements, it is weak on enforceability. And the weakness on enforceability in international law, I think, is one of its great challenges. It is the same problem we have with the [UN] Charter;  the problem with the Charter is that it doesn’t have sufficient means to enforce it. This is not a new problem with international law; it goes back to the very foundation of international law. But to suggest, for example, that somehow Canada is not interested in meeting its targets, or that we are not ready to make the changes that are necessary to get there, I do not think that is true or fair.  And I do not think that is fair. But I think what we do have to recognize is that we all need to do more in order to reach the targets we set out, and that have been set out in the Paris Agreement and in the various COP Agreements that are reached every year and will be reached for the foreseeable future.

Shanmugathas: Why does the Trudeau government refuse to ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and consistently votes against resolutions in the UN General Assembly advocating for its adoption, despite calls from former Canadian foreign ministers like Lloyd Axworthy and the late Bill Graham, as well as international support for the treaty, and how does this stance align with Canada’s commitment to a rules-based international order, particularly considering the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ assessment on global security issues, including the urgency represented by the Doomsday Clock

Bob Rae: The answer to that is quite simple. I think it is because the government feels that—as  high minded as a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons is—first of all, let’s be clear that Canada does not have nuclear weapons. Canada is one of the few countries, together with South Africa, and a few others,  like Ukraine, for example, Canada, because of our engagement in all of the scientific research that went into the manufacturing of the first atomic bomb, and because of our uranium supply, Canada could readily have produced a nuclear weapon up until the 1940s and 50s.

Shanmugathas: Although Canada does not have nuclear weapons, there were accidents involving these weapons. One of them was in British Columbia.

Bob Rae: I am not sure what accident you are referring to, my friend.

Shanmugathas: There was a 1950 British Columbia B-36 crash where there was a nuclear accident.

Bob Rae: I am not aware of that—so you have got me on that.  But I think the point is we do not have nuclear weapons. And, as I said, Canada is one of the few countries that has made a conscious decision not to become a nuclear power. From a weapons perspective, we use nuclear power to generate electricity, and we use nuclear power for medical purposes. But we do not use nuclear power for other purposes. We do not have any intention of developing a nuclear weapon. We are, however, in a world where a number of major countries have nuclear weapons. And ever since the failure of the world in the years after 1945 to establish a clear and enforceable means of ensuring that no country can develop a nuclear weapon, we are not prepared to say, as a matter of policy, we think country X or Y should not be able to have a nuclear weapon. The reality about nuclear disarmament is that it has to be mutual and it has to be controlled and it has to be effective, and it has to be enforceable. My comments I made earlier, about the problem facing treaties in general, and in particular, facing the Paris treaty on the environment—my problem with it is that you need to be thoughtful about how nuclear disarmament is likely to be achieved unless it is done in a way that is mutually enforceable and that ensures no one, no rogue actors are going to be in a position to develop nuclear technology, nuclear weapons. Much of my time is spent focusing on these questions trying to figure out how we get to where we would like to get to. As much as I admire and appreciate the advice of Lloyd Axworthy and Bill Graham, I think the position of the government is that the mechanism of simply passing a treaty saying there will be no nuclear weapons—it is very high minded—it doesn’t have very much meaning unless it is attached to a mechanism of enforceability. We have to recognize that we are part of a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). We are not a neutral country. We are a country in which members of NATO, like the United Kingdom, France, and the United States have developed nuclear weapons. But they have subjected themselves to every nuclear inspection, every means of ensuring the accountability of what it is that they do. The only way we are going to get the nuclear genie back in the bottle is if everybody has to do it, and until that happens, it isn’t going to happen so we need to be at least thinking through the effectiveness of these treaties. In the late 1920s, many countries signed a treaty saying that they would never go to war. What happened to that treaty? It didn’t work because many countries said, ‘No we are not going to sign it.’ And so it is not possible for countries to disarm unilaterally, it is not the right thing, and that is true for nuclear disarmament. It isn’t going to happen that way.

Shanmugathas: Amid the recent escalation in the Israel-Gaza conflict and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both of which have tested the rules-based international order, and with ongoing protests in Canada urging the Trudeau government to suspend arms sales to Israel, particularly considering the authorization of over $28 million in exports of military goods and technology since the October 7th offensive, does Canada intend to halt such sales, aligning with domestic and international arms control laws, to affirm its commitment to a rules-based international order? 

Bob Rae: Let’s be very clear.  You are mixing and matching a whole bunch of different words in that question. I think it is important to be very clear. Canada does not export arms to Israel. We do not export lethal weaponry to Israel. We do not do that. We have not been doing it. We are not doing it now. The use of the term, I think you used, military technology or something of that nature, covers a whole range of kinds of equipment which have nothing to do with arms or weaponry. And the Minister of Foreign Affairs has a responsibility to approve any exports which she feels—Minister Joly—would or could be used in an inappropriate way or in advance of anything that is illegal.

Again, your question makes an assertion and an assumption about the illegality or the nature of Israel’s participation in the conflict in Gaza. A couple of things need to be understood. First, under the Charter of the United Nations, a country that has been attacked has the right to defend itself.  Secondly, in that self-defense, every country that is defending itself has to [conduct itself] according to the rule of law. The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court have the authority and jurisdiction to determine where there have been breaches in the rule of law, the application of international human rights law, and the application of international humanitarian law with respect to the conduct of any country in a conflict. So, these points need to be firmly understood. 

Canada has participated actively in discussions about ending the conflict in Gaza. We have voted in favor of resolutions in the United Nations in favor of a humanitarian ceasefire. We have made it very clear to Israel that we believe it will not be possible to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza without a cessation of hostilities. We have called on Israel, Hamas, and any other party to the conflict to cease the conflict, and we are continuing to do that. We are continuing to press that bilaterally in our discussions with the State of Israel. [Although] we do not have diplomatic relations with Hamas, we have  made it very clear this should be done. [It] needs to be done. 

We stand firmly on the principle that the conduct of any party in a war—[be it] Israel, Hamas, [or] anyone else—has to be held to account. No one is above the rule of law, including Canada. So your assertion that you made in your question, unilaterally, that Canada is in breach of the rule of law is frankly untrue. It is not the case. And so you can say it as many times as you like, but it doesn’t make it any more true.

Shanmugathas: Respectfully Ambassador, if I can seek a clarification, I think the criticism that is made is that while Canada may not transfer full weapons systems to Israel, Canada’s weapons components which are then sold to US weapons companies, and then given to Israel, those components are used in Israel’s offensive in Gaza. I think that is the criticism that is made, and as a result of that, it implicates Canada directly in human rights abuses.

Bob Rae: Well, I don’t agree with your assumption, and I don’t agree with your assertion.

Shanmugathas:  Why has Canada consistently voted against UNGA resolutions criticizing Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories even though Global Affairs Canada’s own policy explicitly recognizes Israeli settlements in the occupied territory as illegal under international law? Is such a position consistent with Canada’s stated adherence to rules-based international order?

Bob Rae: Yes, it is. Our position is very clear. We consider the settlements to be illegal. That position has not changed. Some countries have recently changed their position to say that. Canada has been very consistent in saying it. The reason for a number of our votes in the General Assembly over many years, the last fifteen years, has been because we have been deeply committed to the principle that there are two parties to this dispute which has been going on for a very very long time. It is important that one-sided resolutions that only look at the conduct of one party are not conducive to the resolution of the dispute. We have been consistent in supporting negotiations going back to the Oslo Agreement, which we fully endorsed, prior to that the Camp David Agreements which we fully endorsed, and we questioned in the past the utility of establishing or piling up a number of UN resolutions as [if] this is somehow going to lead the parties to a better place to reach an agreement. Every time the parties have been in negotiation, including Oslo, and since Oslo, direct negotiations which have come in some cases quite close to an agreement, there were active discussions between the parties about how some kind of understanding would have to be reached about the status of different pieces of land, which are referred to by some as settlements. It is important for everybody to understand that continues to be the case in active negotiations that are underway. I think it is fair to say that, certainly since I have been at the United Nations, we have tried to be as clear as we can and have made every possible assertion to this effect. We support the establishment of a Palestinian state. We believe in a two-state solution. We voted in favor of resolutions on the principle of self-government and sovereignty for the Palestinian people. We will continue to urge for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. And what happens in future resolutions will depend very much on the extent to which there seems to be any possibility of an effective negotiation between the two parties. But we continue to call on both parties to negotiate in good faith, on the principle of two-states, which has been a UN principle since 1947. It was a Canadian judge, Justice Rand, who was a very distinguished judge in the Supreme Court of Canada who came down very strongly in part of his role as part of the UN Commission on the issue of partition of Palestine, in favor of partition, in order to allow both communities to have a strong, safe, geographic basis in the region. And that remains the position of the Government of Canada, that position has never changed. It took a very long time for a number of states to willingly recognize the existence of the State of Israel. After all, it was in 1948 that the State of Israel became a member of the United Nations, and two states for us remains the foundational principle of how to go forward.

Shanmugathas: How does Canada reconcile its support for Palestinian self-determination, demonstrated by repeated votes in favor of recognizing this right at the United Nations General Assembly since 2019, with its opposing votes on resolutions criticizing Israeli settlement building, given that settlements pose obstacles to the creation of a viable Palestinian state and thereby the fulfillment of Palestinian self-determination? 

Bob Rae: For the reasons I just gave you. If you want me to repeat the reason—because there has been a recognition, a practical recognition, in every significant negotiation that has taken place in the Middle East between Palestinians and the Israelis, including in the Oslo Accords, that there would be a recognition of two states and there would be a willingness to consider what needed to happen in order to allow that to take place. And that remains the case. I think you have also heard, very clearly, Mr. Trudeau say, and I have said it as well, and so has Minister Joly, that there are a lot of activities that are taking place with respect to the construction of new settlements and with respect to the relationship between these settlements and Palestinians living there that are deeply problematic to being able to get to a peaceful and effective solution and resolution to that. Our reasoning behind the votes at the UN, I think, is trying to place this in a somewhat larger context than just taking it simply resolution by resolution. We have to look at it on a much broader basis in terms of how do we make the UN discussion conducive to achieving a settlement that is based on an effective recognition of both parties.

Shanmugathas: Is Canada’s decision to cut off aid to UNRWA, based on unproven allegations from Israel regarding Hamas affiliation among some employees, consistent with the rules-based international order? Especially in light of the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza, exacerbated by incidents such as the killing of 100 Gazans and the injury of over 700  by Israel on February 29th as they attempted to obtain flour amid an imminent famine. What is the rationale behind Canada’s decision in this context? 

Bob Rae: The statement, again, I hate to be a difficult responder to your questions, but your statement that Canada has cut off aid to UNRWA is false. Canada is fully paid up for its commitments to UNRWA through this fiscal year. And what was announced by Minister [of International Development] Ahmed Hussen was that Canada would be reviewing its future funding of UNRWA because of the seriousness of the allegations with respect to the events of October 7th. I have found it interesting that you have not asked me any questions on what happened on October 7th and what we are doing about the responsibility of those who committed a series of atrocities. But I will leave that aside for a moment.  Let me tell you exactly what Canada has done. Canada has met together with a number of countries that have taken similar decisions as Canada, Canada has met with the [UN] Secretary General on a number of occasions, we have met with officials of UNRWA, we have listened carefully as the Secretary General has agreed to launch an internal investigation with respect to the events that took place on October 7th in relationship to the activities by UNRWA employees. Canada has, in addition, announced an additional 40 million dollars of assistance immediately. Simultaneously announced, by the way, is the same time we announced a pause with respect to the future funding, not the current funding of UNRWA, but what funding would take place after the end of March. And we have been reviewing with the Secretary General, and with UNRWA, as we will continue to do, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini will be coming to see us in the General Assembly on Monday afternoon. The Canadian government is actively working, together with a number of other governments, to see how we can get more aid into the Gaza Strip, how we can deal with the extent to which things are clearly broken down in the Gaza Strip, and the difficulty of getting aid into Gaza at the moment.

We are doing everything we can to make sure the monies we have already spent, and have already transferred to a number of humanitarian agencies—including UNRWA—how the supplies that were bought with that money can get into the places where they are vitally needed. There is no disputing that there is a humanitarian disaster taking place in Gaza which is why, since December, Canada has been calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. At the same time, I think there clearly needs to be an investigation with respect to what happened on [February 29th]. It is an awful situation, a terrible tragedy, but your assertion that you know—from wherever you are sitting—that you know exactly what happened and you have exact certainty that you know who did what to whom. As a lawyer, and as a diplomat, I have to say it is a terrible situation, it should never have happened. It is a human tragedy. We have to find out who was accountable, how it could have happened, and how we can stop it from happening again. That is what I call the rule of law, that is what is called due process, and that is important in wanting to be an effective legal arbiter of this kind of situation.

Shanmugathas: I understand, Ambassador, and I do appreciate the constructive feedback. My position is just informed by reading human rights reports and by speaking with Canadians, and I have seen frustration with reports of Israel carrying out numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions and a lack of evidence of the Canadian government reprimanding them in any way.

Bob Rae: Excuse me. Canada, in principle, reprimands anybody who carries out a human rights violation. We ask for investigation of human rights violations. We insist on the accountability of all parties. We are doing whatever humanly possible to get assistance into Gaza and we have called for a ceasefire. We believe in the rule of law. We believe that any breaches of human rights law, whether committed by Hamas—an organization that Canada considers to be a terrorist organization—and I think given the events of October 7th we feel that is a legitimate description, we continue to call for the rule of law. The problem we face right now, with respect to UNRWA, is that there are goods that are stored up outside of Gaza, in Israel, that are not able to get into Gaza. That is the big humanitarian crisis we are facing right now, people are dying, kids are not getting fed, the situation is horrendous. That is why we want a ceasefire. That is why we want to make sure food and healthcare and other assistance can get into Gaza. That is the position of the Government of Canada.

Shanmugathas: After two years since Russia’s flagrant violation of international law with its invasion of Ukraine, resulting thus far in an estimated 20% loss of Ukrainian territory and more than 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed, with no signs of relenting from Russia despite billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine from Western nations, including Canada, and escalating tensions including Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear war threat in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion to send Western troops to fight in Ukraine, would Canada be willing to advocate for a diplomatic solution to end the war? Could such a solution entail acknowledging both Russia and Ukraine’s legitimate security interests, possibly including guarantees of Ukrainian neutrality and non-NATO membership in exchange for the return of occupied territory by Russia? 

Bob Rae: You’re kidding. Are you serious?

Shanmugathas: The situation right now we are seeing, as I mentioned, Emmanuel Macron is suggesting to send Western troops into Ukraine—I don’t think it is an ideal situation, but it seems that more and more Ukrainians are dying so in a way to end—

Bob Rae: Why are Ukrainians dying?

Shanmugathas: It is because Russia is engaging in this offensive.

Bob Rae: Correct. And you think Russia should be rewarded with territory in exchange for its aggression against Ukraine?

Shanmugathas: I think it is a really bad situation right now, Ambassador. But Russia will not relent until their security interests are acknowledged. When the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States felt this was an existential threat to its survival. As a result, when countries with nuclear weapons are encountered with an existential threat, they will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. In this case, Russia considers the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO to be an existential threat to its survival. And Putin has indicated yesterday [February 29th] he is likely to use nuclear weapons if the West is going to escalate this conflict by sending troops. So, in that respect, a diplomatic solution seems to be the only way we can prevent more Ukrainians from dying.

Bob Rae: I have to say, of all your questions, many of which have been pretty argumentative and based on several assumptions, I find it extraordinary that you, as a student of law, and as an organization that is upholding the principles of the rule of law that you would argue that the answer to this horrible conflict which has caused, according to the International Court of Justice, Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine have no merit. You say now we are going to forget the decision of the International Court of Justice, we are going to ignore the universal 140 nations deploring the aggression by Russia, we are going to—simply because President Putin says ‘I’m being threatened’—and nobody’s threatened President Putin, nobody’s threatened nuclear war against Russia, nobody,  President Macron didn’t, nobody else did. So, to argue that now we are responsible for a nuclear threat to the security of Russia is complete nonsense. It is exactly what Hitler said in 1938-39, you create a reason for your aggression that is made up, synthesized, and then you say, let’s go. And your answer is to say this is the approach to the rule of law?

Shanmugathas: I just want to say that I condemn Russia’s invasion, it is a flagrant violation of international law. My position was just that looking at the situation—individuals like John Mearsheimer, Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky—they have all cautioned that the situation is escalating in a manner where the only solution could be a diplomatic one.

Bob Rae: I know the people you refer to; I must confess I do not agree with them. I am very familiar with their arguments. My shorthand answer is that appeasement never works, and to dress up appeasement as diplomacy is an affront to diplomacy.

Shanmugathas: In October 2023, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a multinational security mission to help the Haitian police combat rampant gang violence. Ambassador, I know that you were previously involved in conducting a diplomatic mission in Haiti. Trudeau has been vocal about promoting a Haitian-led solution to end the current crisis.  However, many are questioning whether having Kenyan forces spearheading this multinational mission is an indication of a Haitian-led solution especially since Kenyans don’t speak Creole, the predominant language of Haiti.

Bob Rae: First of all, prospection is not the answer. We need to address the security situation in Haiti. Every political actor I spoke to in my diplomatic mission said that the security issue is preeminent, and until that security issue is resolved, we are not going to be able to get to a better path. What the Security Council approved, and what CARICOM—the regional agency of Caribbean countries—has been arguing is that the Haitian national police can’t do it on its own, and therefore there has to be some different form of international engagement. Whatever form that engagement takes it will be criticized by some people. The mission is a challenging one—I would be the first to agree with that. I think it has constantly been difficult for us to find ways of supporting greater security, an end to kidnapping, an end to gang violence, rapes, systematic violence against women, and the Haitian state, and the Haitian police have asked for assistance, have asked for help, they have asked us to engage. And whatever form that engagement takes, there will be critics of it, and it will be difficult. We have to keep working on the security situation, but Canada’s view is that security is a significant part of the problem, but there are many others. There is tremendous corruption. The rule of law in the country is absent, the court system can’t function, and the development system can’t function well. The Haitian economy is in deep trouble. Canada’s position has been ‘let’s work with all of the Haitian political actors, try to get them to work together, try to get them to be more supportive of building stronger common institutions, try to insist in improving the security situation and the development situation and the democratic and human rights environment.’ We have no favorite candidate to become President of the country, we have no favorite political party or agenda of that sort. Our only agenda is to promote peace and security and the rule of law, which is where the Security Council is coming from.

Shanmugathas: As far as promoting a Haitian-led solution, the nation’s first democratically elected leader Jean Bertrand Aristide, he was noted for ushering in popular policies of education, combating HIV/AIDS epidemic, land reform, he is still enormously popular among  the Haitian poor—if Canada is willing to promote a Haitian-led solution, given the strong support Aristide still has in Haiti, does Canada have any plans to consult with Aristide and perhaps have him as a transitional figure in the Haitian government to restore democracy and a sense of order to the nation?

Bob Rae: Our officials in Haiti meet with former President Aristide all the time. He is a respected political figure; [so] we meet with him. We meet with all the political figures in the country. I know our Ambassador was meeting with Mr. Aristide just last week. So, of course, we consult with him and many others. But there is a contradiction, it seems to me, in saying you want a Haitian-led solution, and then you say you favor one leader over another leader.  Our problem has been [that] we don’t have an agenda of saying we want this leader and not that leader. We can’t impose one leader or another. It is up to the Haitian political actors, including the political movement which Mr. Aristide continues to be involved in, to decide who is going to be involved in the future governance of the country. We support any feasible negotiated solution that works out a transitional structure that will lead to elections.

Shanmugathas: In December, the foreign ministry of Canada sanctioned Gilbert Bigio, who is often referred to as Haiti’s richest person, because of his role in financing armed gangs in Haiti. A UN report also implicated the former Haitian President Michel Martelly for using gangs and financing them to extend his influence. Given that both Bigio and Martelly live in Florida, the United States does have jurisdiction to arrest them, and by doing so, it could significantly cut the needed financial lifeline for the Haitian gangs.  Will Canada call on the United States to arrest Bigio and Martelly for their criminal conduct in financing these gangs?

Bob Rae: We have led the way on sanctions. We led the way on sanctions independent of any other country and independent, frankly, of the UN Security Council, which we felt was taking a long time to get going on the sanctions, which we felt were important, and we think that sanctions have had some effect, and we have had external experts indicating the same thing to us. I can’t give advice to the government of the United States on how to uphold the rule of law. Their obligations are clear. I think the United States also has a very clear obligation to deal with the export of arms out of Florida, which is a major problem, and I think that is something which clearly lies within the jurisdiction of the United States. They made their decisions independently of us and we make our decisions independently of them.

Shanmugathas: The writers here at JURIST comprise law students from all around the world—Canada, the United States, Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia. As a lawyer and former law professor, you have an extraordinary legacy of diplomacy and service not only within the Canadian government but also abroad—so I would like to ask what advice do you have for law students here at JURIST.

Bob Rae: I came to the law after doing some graduate work at Oxford and not being sure what I wanted to do next. I then went to work at a community in North London where I got involved working with people who were homeless. And in doing so, I worked with a legal aid centre, and began to feel that the law gave me the opportunity to combine service and engaging with people and working in a framework of rights. I came back to the University of Toronto, went to law school, and went into politics and did a whole bunch of other things. But I always come back to this conversation that I had with the fellow who ran the legal aid centre, who had been  a very distinguished barrister, who gave up his barrister role and went back to being a solicitor in London and just said I want to get into the nitty-gritty of helping people, and I think that the law is a basis on which you can do that. But I think the other thing is that as somebody who has now extended my scope into working at the UN, I think the critical challenge facing as lawyers is the question of enforceability which has been a part of our conversation. And that, I think, takes us back to a simple dictum of the thinker Blaise Pascal who said, words to this effect, that law without enforcement is impotent and, at the same time, power without law is tyranny. So that is the conundrum that Pascal described and that is the conundrum of international law. I think it is frustrating and difficult. International law cases take a long time. It takes time to get enforcement. We have expanded, dramatically, the scope of international law in terms of its content—numerous treaties, conventions, and statutes and so on. But the capacity of law to be enforced has not been strengthened and that, I think, is the ongoing challenge that we face and that will be a challenge for years to come. But we don’t give up. And I think it is important for people to feel a need to be critical, to understand that things that should be happening are not happening, I think it is important for us to listen to those concerns. But I think it is also important to understand that without a legal framework, all we have is tyranny. Without a framework of law, ethics, and morality, we have no basis to act consistently, and I think that for me has been an underlying lesson for life and something that I try to abide [by] in practice. And with that, I think I will have to close.

Shanmugathas: Absolutely, Ambassador. Thank you so much for speaking with JURIST.

Bob Rae: You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.