top of page

The Retreat & the Return:

Canada's Chance to Re-enter the World Stage

MAY 2021

August 2017 saw the beginning of a genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority living in Myanmar.

The catalyst for the genocide was an alleged terror attack carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that resulted in 12 deaths.


In response, the Myanmar army began a concentrated attack against all Rohingya Muslims living in the country. This lasted until approximately mid-2018, when various groups and countries began to advocate for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses. 


In November 2019, Gambia brought a legal case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that cast blame for the genocide and the Rohingya Muslim minority's persecution in Myanmar on the Myanmar military and their civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The case focused on their involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity.


In December 2019, hearings took place in the International Court of Justice, which concluded with the UN General Assembly issuing an emergency order. This order ensured that there would be legal protection placed on the remaining Rohingyas in Myanmar.


Kelly Grounds,

UofMosaic Fellow

Cohort: 2019-2021


Canada's Retreat from the International Stage

A year earlier, in 2018, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously voted to recognize the violence in Myanmar as a genocide. This followed the removal of Aung San Suu Kyi's honorary Canadian citizenship in response to the violence. But why did the country not take the extra step and pursue a legal case against the parties like Gambia? In the same year, humanitarian groups had even pressured Canada to bring the case to the International Court of Justice themselves. After all, Canada is a major supporter of peacekeeping and human rights, right? 


If one looks at the ICJ's list of past cases, Canada has only brought forward three. Of those three, only one, brought in 1999, focused on human rights, and it was part of a larger group action on the legality of the use of force in Serbia and Montenegro. The other two cases, brought in the 1980s, focused on maritime and fishing law. In contrast, Canada has become the world leader in refugee resettlements, taking the United States' spot in 2019. These records highlight a trend of foreign policy that focuses on responding to crises rather than prevention and peace building.

This was not always the focus of Canada's foreign and security policies. Following World War 2, Canada's strategy became one that tried to prevent future wars and diffuse potentially destabilizing events. This strategy led to the creation of initiatives like peacekeeping, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and human security as a world view. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Canada embraced these concepts and practices and became a world leader in peacekeeping. By the mid-1990s, Canadian troops made of 10% of all of those involved in peacekeeping missions. Then that number began to decline.


While there are many reasons for the decline of peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, ranging from several unsuccessful missions to cuts to the country's defence budget, they do not explain the continual decline throughout the 2000s and 2010s. During this time of declining international engagement, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, began to characterize Canada as a defender of human security and champion of peace. This characterization has proven to be inaccurate as Canada entered the 21st century a disengaged middle power. Today, Canada is 34th on the list of peacekeeping contributors, and their international aid budget has been cut in hal

Too Much Talk

Despite the apparent decline in international engagement and proactive protection of human rights, the Canadian government has continued to refer to Canada as an engaged country. The Prime Minister argued that Canada was an essential country in global defence and human rights protection. However, despite the strong narratives emerging from the government, Canada has seen limited successes, their main one being the continued resettlement of refugees. This is primarily due to a reliance on virtue-signalling in lieu of concrete actions.

When Saudi Arabia ordered the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Canada publicly criticized the government's poor record on human rights and their assault on the free press. Despite these strong words, Canada took no concrete actions against the regime and instead sold a record amount of military hardware.


Following global revelations of Uyghurs being detained on a massive scale in China, Canada joined a group of countries to criticize China at the UN Human Rights Council. However, Canada has repeatedly avoided the question of sanctions and other, more punitive measures, even in light of new revelations. Once the international community became aware of the genocide being perpetrated in Myanmar, Canada voted to officially recognize it and revoke the honorary citizenship of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, they still did not take the case to the ICJ, despite already recognizing it as a genocide. 


Since the middle of the 1990s, Canada has consistently pulled back from the international stage while trying to retain its title of human rights defenders. However, following Canada's failed bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, it has become clear that the country must stop relying on only talk. Canada needs to back up its self-image with concrete actions that turn its image into reality. But how can they, after decades of decline?

The Way Back

First, Canada needs to return to the peacekeeping roots that initially gave them their human rights defender title. However, they can no longer treat peacekeeping initiatives as a part of the nation's image but instead as a path back to it. They will also need to adapt their old playbook to the new rules of the 2020s, which means placing an increased focus on gender, the environment and sustainable solutions to peacebuilding. This will help Canada combat the new host of threats and challenges emerging in a post 9/11 environment. Still, they will also have to do more than what was previously expected of middle powers to make a significant impact. 

Being a successful and internationally engaged middle power on the world stage is not a zero-sum game. Sustainable peacebuilding is more successful when there is a larger support base for the process. If Canada wants to truly impact and embody their self-narratives, they need to increase the international community's capacity. Canada is a self-described middle-power, and middle powers are the most effective when supported by other, like-minded middle powers. Having other countries working with Canada will make it easier for the country to actively address threats that may go beyond their regional scope. It will also support the country should they choose to take on new initiatives designed to manage systemic global challenges to peace.


One of Canada's most effective ways to make this impact will be reengaging in the alliances that they are already a part of with new vigour. Specifically, NATO. Currently, one of Canada's key NATO contributions is their leadership of the Latvia battlegroup as part of the Alliance's response to the Russian invasion of Crimea. The battle also contains contributions from Albania, Czech Republic, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, allowing Canada to work in a leadership position with multiple other middle-powers. This is also a key example of Canada successfully working with other countries to address a threat that they would not normally have the capacity. In the future, Canada should proactively seek out more opportunities like the battlegroup, rather than waiting for the opportunities to come to them.


In short, Canada has consistently become less engaged from the international community while telling themselves that they were still the same country that led the world on peacekeeping decades ago. After missing their chance to stand up for human rights in Myanmar and losing their bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Canada must come to terms with the fact that they have lost their standing in the world. But, instead of accepting defeat, the country should treat this as an opportunity for a comeback. Rather than attempt to go back to the status that they had achieved in 1993, Canada should instead aim to become a leader in sustainable peacebuilding and protection by adapting to the new circumstances and building up their peers. Without this new focus, Canada will be trying to engage with a world that has since passed, and they will miss the next chance to stand up for human rights in a substantial way as they did in the case of Myanmar.


Al Jazeera. ‘Timeline: How the Crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya Unfolded.’ Al Jazeera and News Agencies, 9 December 2019.

Behringer, R. M. ‘Middle Power Leadership on a Human Security Agenda.’ Journal of Nordic International Studies Association 40, no. 3 (2005): 305–42.

Bernard Jr., P. ‘Canada and Human Security: From Axworthy Doctrine to Middle Power Internationalism’. American Review of Canadian Studies 36, no. 2 (2006): 233–61.

Cecco, L. ‘Canada Doubles Weapons Sales to Saudi Arabia Despite Mortarium.’ The Guardian, 9 June 2020.

Connolly, A. ‘Canada Loses High-Profile Bid for United Nations Security Council Seat.’ Global News, 17 June 2020.

———. ‘House of Commons Unanimously Votes to Call Myanmar Rohingya Killings a Genocide.’ Global News, 20 September 2018.

Freeland, C. ‘Address by Minister Freeland on Canada’s Foreign Policy Priorities.’ Global Affairs Canada, 2017.

Harting, H., and S. Kamboureli. ‘Introduction: Discourses on Security, Peacekeeping Narratives and Cultural 

Imagination in Canada.’ University of Toronto Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2009): 659–86.

International Court of Justice. ‘List of All Cases’. Permanent Court of Justice, n.d.

Jaynes, A. ‘Canada Needs to Take “Concrete Action” to Help Uighurs, Says Activist’. CBC News, 25 November 2019.

Kilpatrick, S. ‘What Is Canada’s Role Now That a Genocide Case Against Myanmar Has Been Launched?’ CBC The Current, 13 November 2019.

MacCharles, T. ‘Canada Revokes Honorary Citizenship for Aung San Suu Kyi.’ The Star - Ottawa Bureau, 27 September 2018.

NATO. ‘Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast’. NATO. Accessed 6 January 2021.

Neiberg, M. S. ‘A Middle Power on the World Stage: Canadian Grand Strategy in the Twentieth Century.’ Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 14, no. 2 (2012): 1–21.

Pocuch, S. ‘The Fall of Canadian Peacekeeping: Should It Be Revived?’ NGO. NATO Association of Canada (blog), 23 September 2019.

Radford, J, and C Phillip. ‘These Are the Countries That Accept the Most Refugees in the World.’ International Organization. World Economic Forum (blog), 27 June 2019.,per%20million%20than%20the%20U.S.

Robertson, C. ‘Prime Minster Justin Trudeau: A Foreign Policy Assessment 2015-2019.’ Think Tank. Canadian Global Affairs Institute (blog), January 2020.

Simons, M. ‘Myanmar Genocide Lawsuit Is Filed at United Nations Court.’ The New York Times, 23 January 2020.

Vanderklippe, N. ‘Canada, Western Countries Condemn China at UN for Repression of Muslims’. The Globe and Mail, 6 November 2018.

Welsh, J. M. ‘Canada in the 21st Century: Beyond Dominion and Middle Power.’ The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 93, no. 376 (2004): 583–93.


Meet Kelly Grounds

My name is Kelly Grounds, and I am in my fourth year completing an Honours Degree in Political Science with a Minor in International Studies at Simon Fraser University. My areas of focus are NATO, terrorism, Russia, international diplomacy, and the media coverage of international affairs.


I became a UofMosaic Fellow to learn how to apply my project management skills to global issues. For my paper, I decided to write about Canada's foreign policy and international engagement and its decline since the 1990s. I chose to write about this topic shortly after Canada lost its bid for a UN Security Council Seat in 2020. The argument that I make is that while Canada's engagement in the global community has sharply decreased since the 1990s, the country's perception of itself is still stuck in the 1990s, creating a rhetoric that is not accurate in the present.


My topic aligns with the UofMosaic theme of Global Citizenship. The paper will show that Canada's most effective way to get to a standing similar to that of the 1990s is by becoming more active in the global community and, in a sense, a better global citizen.

bottom of page