Two Moral Hazards and a Policy Dilemma in Canada’s Fight against the Islamic State

November 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I support Canada’s participation in the fight against ISIL. The scale of human rights violations and threat to international peace and security posed by the so-called Islamic State fully justify our combat role. I also support our Government’s incremental approach at this early stage of what will be another long war. Our objective, as stated by Prime Minister Harper to Parliament is to “limit the ability of ISIL to engage in full scale military movements and to operate bases in the open.”

There is no end game, yet. But we need one pretty soon.

The failure of the respective Syrian and Iraqi governments to control their territory or responsibly govern their citizens, combined with the scale, territorial advances and momentum of ISIL, tell us that we are in for a major international campaign. Right now, the confidence of the Canadian  public in the Canadian Forces is rock solid. For this to remain so, it is important that we recognize and prepare for the moral hazards that a fight of this nature inevitably entails for Canada and our military. Two come to mind.

Civilian Casualties of the Air Campaign: Thankfully, technical briefings by the Canadian Forces show that the Canadian air campaign has not incurred any civilian casualties yet. But it may happen in the future. The moral hazard of innocent civilian casualties can be attenuated by providing fair compensation for victims. How do we plan to do this?

Human Rights Conduct of the Iraqi Armed Forces and Peshmerga: The refrain has been repeated many times that this will not be about Canadian or American combat boots on the ground. The success of the campaign and our reputation will be affected by the conduct of our partners. We saw this with the issue of detainees in Afghanistan where we decided that Canada needed to directly monitor prisoners after they were passed to Afghan custody in order to prevent torture. Human rights violations by our partners would taint our policy and create yet another layer of grievance to complicate future governance. Are we monitoring the human rights behaviour of our regional military partners?

When the military has turned the tide against ISIL, the requirements of stabilization and reconstruction will come into focus. It will be huge and hugely expensive. It wasn’t until years after we had committed ourselves to Afghanistan that we came to understand the true cost and duration required. A duration that spanned electoral cycles. The policy dilemma is when to decide and seek parliamentary approval for the composition and cost of Canada’s whole of government commitment – and whether to make it proportionate to the challenge.  

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