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Lieblein: Canada’s quest to win a seat on the UN Security Council

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at an event in Hamburg, Germany. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS PHOTO)

Ten years after the Harper government’s vocal pro-Israel stance was blamed for Canada losing its seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using every means at his disposal to win this time around.

Having traveled personally to Africa in early February along with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, and having dispatched Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to the Carribean Community (CARICOM) Summit in Barbados later that month, Trudeau appointed former prime minister Joe Clark as a special envoy to represent Canada to governments across the Middle East in March. Permanent Representative to the UN Marc-André Blanchard is also part of the lobbying team, as is former Quebec premier Jean Charest.

Representatives of Foreign Affairs Canada confirmed that the participation of special envoys are “standard practice for countries campaigning for a UNSC seat.” The special envoy positions are unpaid, although their personal expenses will be covered.

Although campaigning has obviously been suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government hopes these charm offensives will give Canada the edge over Norway and Ireland at the 2020 United Nations Security Council elections, to be held on June 17 of this year in New York City. Canada requires 128 votes from the 198 UN member nations to secure one of two seats representing the Western European and Other States Group, which they will hold for two years if successful. Critically, each member nations’ vote is weighted equally, so the Canadian team was expected to travel to every continent looking for support.

Before losing the seat in 2010, Canada sat on the Security Council once every decade since its inception in 1945.

The Security Council “maintains international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations” and is responsible for monitoring situations that threaten world peace and is charged with leveling economic sanctions. There have been 225 Security Council resolutions passed relating to Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the majority of which condemn or deplore Israel’s actions.

Rob Oliphant, the Don Valley West MP and parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, said that Canada would “represent the aspirations of Central and South America” if elected to the council.

The 15 member council currently includes the United States as one of its permanent members, along with the Central American country of the Dominican Republic. France, Russia, the United Kingdom and China are the other permanent members. Rounding out the rest of the council are St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, South Africa, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Oliphant also cited Canada’s feminist foreign policy, the country’s ability to build bridges, and a “long history of not being a colonial power” as advantages for Canada in this election. He also praised Clark’s “statesman-like quality” as a special envoy and his record in fighting apartheid in South Africa as being particularly useful in appealing to the African bloc, which comprises 54 voting countries.

Foreign Affairs representatives confirmed that, if the bid is successful, Canada would focus on the five priorities of “sustaining peace, addressing climate change, promoting economic security, advancing gender equality and strengthening multilateralism.” They could not confirm whether Canada would be able to push for independent initiatives or would vote out of step with majority opinion on the UNSC if elected.

When pressed on how Canada would vote on resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Oliphant reaffirmed that Canada would be committed to a “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” He reiterated Canada’s support for Israel while also claiming that the government would continue to be a “strong ally and friend of the Palestinian people.”

“It will not be easy and it will not be quick, but Canada will never waver,” he said.

International affairs expert and author Adam Chapnick cautions that it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the government’s campaigning, given that the voting will be done by secret ballot.

“Even when countries do publicly promise to vote for someone, we never know whether they have actually followed through,” he said, while allowing that the visit to Africa likely made a difference given that it was long overdue.

“The African (nations) have been vocal about how Canada has neglected the continent for years,” Chapnick said.

It is widely believed that China will oppose Canada’s bid in retaliation for Trudeau allowing a request by the United States to detain Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou back in 2018. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been detained by the Chinese government on charges of treason.

However, there is little worry that China will be able to do more than cast a single ballot against Canada.

“The great power tradition is not to lobby too actively in these elections because they must work with whomever gets elected,” Chapnick said. Oliphant echoed these sentiments, saying that in his experience, “China doesn’t come up” in the discussions around the campaign.

Russia is another permanent member nation unlikely to vote in favour of Canada, or support Canada on the Security Council, although Chapnick believes that the United Kingdom, the United States and France will balance them out.

Other newcomers to the council will include India, whom Chapnick believes has a “challenging” relationship with Canada. Indo-Canadian relations have not recovered after the prime minister’s infamous 2018 trip there. However, Canada is likely to have warmer relations with Mexico, who will also be joining the Security Council, as well as the representative of the African Group, which will be either Kenya or  Djibouti.

With respect to Canada’s competitors for the seat, Norway is considered to be the tougher opponent of the two.

Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg have been active campaigners in their own right, appearing at all the same events as Trudeau and his team. Norway has also spent more time developing relationships with UN member countries than Canada has.

“I think one of the differences, of course, is that we have been on the steady same path for a very long time,” Solberg said in an interview with the CBC. “The African (leaders) know us.”

Oliphant confirmed that the Canadian government’s strategy for dealing with the Irish and the Norwegians will be a friendly one. “We’re for Canada, not against anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s bid has been slowed somewhat by a recent change in government, where Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael party was upset by the nationalist Sinn Fein in the February elections.

“All of the vote swaps that Ireland has made to this point risk being put into question,” Chapnick said. “The Irish are going to have to spend a fair amount of time reassuring some of their supporters that their promises are still good, and this will be very hard to do until a new government is formed.”

However, there is one area where Canada lags behind their competitors: foreign aid. Norway contributes nearly 1 per cent of its GDP to international assistance, compared to just 0.28 per cent for Canada, while Ireland contributed 0.22 per cent. Jack Harris, the NDP foreign affairs critic, agrees, arguing the government should do more to show they are “serious about reclaiming the seat.”

“The Liberal record on foreign policy, from low levels of international aid to abysmally low peacekeeping numbers, may make it hard for Canada to win,” a statement from Harris’ office said. “Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would be a good place to start. Additionally they should … recommit to contributing 0.7 per cent of gross national income to official development assistance.”

The NDP also argues that the Canadian bid will also suffer from the fact that peacekeeping has fallen off in recent years. The Opposition Party calls on Canada to “enhance peace-building and peacekeeping efforts”.

Norway had 66 active peacekeepers contributing to UN operations as of April 2019. Canada has 45 and Ireland has 533 as of a January 2020 Troop and Police Contribution report published on the UN’s website.

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to requests for comment from The CJN.

In the event that the Canadians do win the seat, the chances that their voting record, on Israel and other issues, would largely remain the same.

“Apart from one controversial vote at the end of the Chrétien years, we have generally been fairly consistent,” on the Security Council, Chapnick said. “Winning the UN Security Council election is unlikely to make a big difference to the way we vote at the UN General Assembly.”

Oliphant says that it is also unlikely that Canada’s domestic policy would change as a result of winning the seat. “Domestic and foreign policy go hand in hand on the issues Canada cares about,” he told The CJN.

However, Chapnick contends that foreign policy may win out if the two conflict. “The government will have no choice but to dedicate significantly more time and energy to any issue that the council faces, regardless of whether it has direct implications for Canada’s national interests,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Norwegian Prime Minister Solberg. “You have to take a stand on some policy issues that, as a non-member, you don’t have to,” she told Canadian reporters.

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