Principled Abstention: Why Liberal MP Irwin Cotler Abstained From Iraq War Vote

by: Obert Madondo  | Published Thursday, Oct 9, 2014

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler. (Photo: McGill Reporter)

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler. (Photo: McGill Reporter)

Did Liberal MP Irwin Cotler rebel against party leader Justin Trudeau when he abstained from Tuesday’s House of Commons vote on Harper’s decision to drag Canada into an unwinnable military campaign in Iraq?

Before the vote, Trudeau and his foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau had assured us that the Liberals would unanimously vote NO. The moment came and four Liberal MPs – Mauril Bélanger, Stéphane Dion, Lawrence MacAulay and Cotler — weren’t in the House of Commons for the vote. Cotler, a respected human rights advocate and former justice minister, once called for air strikes against the genocidal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Parliament voted 157-134 to authorize the Harper government to launch an initial 6-month bombing campaign against Islamic State or ISIS terrorist group.

Canada will now send two Aurora surveillance aircraft, 6 F-18 fighter jets and 600 troops to join a coalition involving the United States, Jordan, Denmark, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Australia, United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Belgium. Harper also indicated that he’s willing to cooperate with Assad and carry out military air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

RELATED: Trudeau “cannot and will not” support Harper’s Iraq war motion

The absence of Cotler opened a floodgate of criticism against the Liberals. However, instead of interrogating Trudeau’s abysmal performance during the debate leading up to the vote, and his failure to make his 34-member caucus speak with one voice, the continuing criticism focuses too much attention on Cotler and other dissenting Liberals. As Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert pointed out in her column on Wednesday, Trudeau is the main culprit here.

“For more than a year, pollsters have reported that a plurality of Canadians see Trudeau as the prime minister-in-waiting. But the Liberal performance they were given to watch this week was more reflective of a third-place opposition party than of an aspiring government,” wrote Hébert. “While the Conservatives and the NDP both made substantive cases for and against Canada taking on a combat role against the Islamic State, the Liberals never really got beyond their leader’s initial contention that the government had failed to make a case for war.”

Most importantly, Cotler explained his “principled abstention” from the Iraq war vote in a blog entry published on the eve of the vote. He said:

For the last several weeks, Members of Parliament and the Canadians we represent have been seized with the genocidal incitement and mass atrocities committed by the violent extremist group known as ISIL. I know that my colleagues on both sides of the House have been horrified by ISIL’s brutality and depravity, and take seriously the question of how best to combat it.

The motion put forward by the Government in this regard recommends a combat mission as a central part of an international coalition response that I have been advocating for some time. Indeed, I have been a long-standing proponent – together with my Liberal colleagues – of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which states, simply put, that where there are war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, and the government of the region in question is unable or unwilling to take action – or worse, is the author of the criminality – the international community has a responsibility to intervene to protect targeted innocent civilians.

Admittedly, R2P is not limited to military action. Together with my colleagues in the Liberal Party, I have long proposed a series of non-military initiatives to come to the aid of civilians in Syria and Iraq, including enhanced humanitarian assistance, protection for victims of sexual violence, and criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of international crimes, including Syrian President Assad. Yet, when confronted by radical evil – by the genocidal slaughter of innocents – force may be required. Indeed, it is because of international inaction three years ago against Syria’s criminal Assad regime that radical jihadists – including ISIL – have been able to take root, develop, and engage in a campaign of abhorrent brutality.

At the same time, the Government’s motion lacks clarity about what the strategic nature and limits of Canada’s mission will be. It mentions airstrike capability as only one element of a larger contribution of unnamed Canadian military assets; it does not specify where these assets will be deployed; and it has been less clear than warranted about the mission’s objectives, costs, command, and rules of engagement.

In particular – and this is reason enough for me not to support the motion – I am deeply disturbed by the Prime Minister’s statement that Canada would require the approval of the criminal Assad regime to carry out operations in Syria. To allow the perpetrator of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, to green-light Canadian intervention is to turn R2P on its head. Assad should be a criminal defendant, not a coalition partner.

Moreover, the Government has neither briefed nor consulted with the leaders of the opposition, nor has it shared more fulsome information about the mission that would have helped Parliamentarians to make an informed choice.

Accordingly, on principled grounds, I will abstain from voting on the motion regarding Canada’s combat role in the fight against ISIL. As such, I am in my riding this evening to honour a longstanding commitment.

I have the greatest respect for my fellow Members of Parliament, including my colleagues in the Liberal Party of Canada and our leader Justin Trudeau, who are bringing their perspectives and experiences to bear on this critical issue. We all support the members of the Canadian armed forces who will participate in this mission, and we share the hope that those threatened by ISIL’s abhorrent crimes – including the Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, Muslims, members of the Syrian opposition, and others whom I have met – will yet achieve the security and freedom they yearn for and deserve.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on

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Obert Madondo

Publisher and editor
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based independent journalist and progressive political blogger. He's the publisher and editor of The Canadian Progressive.