Canada on Ice: at the UN

Stephen HarperCanada’s defeat in elections for a temporary seat in the UN Security Council has implications that reach beyond being an upset for Stephen Harper’s conservative government in Ottawa. It reinforces how far most UN members are from supporting other nations that unconditionally accept Israeli behavior in the Middle East. It also, ironically, lends some support to Ottawa’s longstanding opposition to increasing the number of permanent Security Council members.

In a secret ballot election in early October, UN General Assembly members cast votes for which nations would fill the non-permanent seats on the Security Council for the next two years. While the Asian, African, and Latin American seats were uncontested, the two seats for the Western European and Other group (which includes Canada) were up for grabs. Germany won the ballot outright. In the second round, Canada lost to Portugal, 78 to 113. This rout should have been a wakeup call for the Canadian electorate. Sadly, it is unlikely to disturb the isolationist reveries of Stephen Harper and his right-wing Canadian government.

Indeed, some Canadian diplomats quietly suggest that Harper and company scarcely noticed the Security Council candidacy was coming up for a vote until the last moment. They then did little or nothing to prepare for it and seemed insouciant of how conservative policies had tarnished the country’s once golden reputation. This reflects the isolationism of the party’s domestic base.

The defeat has implications extending beyond Canadian discomfort. Discussions have been underway for reforming the Security Council, including increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members. In January, five of the countries aspiring to these new permanent seats will be sitting as elected members. Germany, India, and South Africa were elected this year to join already sitting Brazil and Nigeria among the putative permanent members. Canada, which opposes adding new permanent seats, will not be at the table even in a temporary capacity.

Losing Status

Although the rather arrogant Harper government did not expect this outcome, more objective observers inside and outside of Canada were not surprised. It was only one more sign that the shelf life was expiring on the prestige accumulated by previous governments.

Since the beginning of the UN, Canada has been up there with Sweden as the very model of a modern UN member and has been almost automatically elected to any position in the organization. This is not just because Canadians were polite or that the Mounties had nice red uniforms. It was based on an independence of spirit that could happily defy London and, more importantly, Washington on issues of principle and international law. With the traditional social-democratic and liberal attitudes of much of the Canadian electorate, Harper’s government has not been able to live up to its conservative aspirations at home. But since the executive branch has more unbridled influence over foreign policy, it has been able to overturn longstanding international attitudes.

In times past, Ottawa had defied its giant neighbor to establish relations with China and later maintained trade, travel and diplomatic links with Cuba. Before the Harper administration, Canada supported important pillars of international law, such as the international tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court. It pioneered the articulation of the Responsibility to Protect, which established principles for genuine humanitarian intervention that avoided acting as a cover for aggression. It also led such important campaigns as the ban on land mines.

Then Stephen Harper and the new breed of rebarbative and reactionary Canadian conservatives took over. They began by emulating President George W. Bush at almost every level, and in some ways went further. Canada showed hostility to Russia and China, more on atavistic Cold War grounds than because of any deep concern for human rights, since Ottawa developed a U.S.-style expediency on that subject. Its troops in Afghanistan handed over prisoners to the CIA. Its officials did nothing at all about Canadian citizens that the United States kidnapped in New York and sent for torture in the Middle East or held in Guantanamo.

Harper’s Canada reversed 60 years of Canadian practice. The country that almost invented peacekeeping stopped contributing blue helmets to peacekeeping forces. The inherent isolationism of many conservatives was also reflected in the retrenchment of foreign missions and foreign aid.

Changes in Middle East Policy

Canada’s pre-Harper policies on the Middle East conflict, reflected on the official foreign ministry website, had been exemplary statements of international law and accepted UN decisions. As such, Canada refused to recognize the annexation of the territories, declared settlements to be illegal, and called for an independent Palestinian state.

Although the website has not changed, executive decisions have profoundly changed the interpretation of these policies. The government has withdrawn contributions to UNRWA, which feeds and educates Palestinian refugees. It defunded grants to NGOs that investigate Israeli human rights abuses as well as Arab Israeli human rights research. And whatever you think of the principle, what government with any sense of diplomacy signs a trade agreement with Israel days before asking for nonaligned votes?

There could be an expedient argument for kowtowing to a neighboring superpower, but Ottawa does not seem to have noticed the last election in the United States. In fairness to Canadian independence, Harper’s government was not so much emulating Bush as pandering to deep-rooted domestic conservatism and accommodating its own right-wing Israel lobby in the hope that traditionally Liberal constituencies with a large Jewish vote would switch to Harper’s Conservatives.

That at least partially explains why Harper continues to pander to Bushism even now Bush has gone. Harper’s about-face puts Ottawa out of step with Washington, at a time when the Obama administration has taken steps to reach out to Arab and Muslim countries despite denouncements by right-wing hawks that the United States is turning anti-Israel. Dragged to the right by the unforgiving Likud-inclined lobby, the Canadian government now acts as if Israel can do no wrong. In contrast with the usual abstentions of the EU when Israel is on the agenda, Canada has recently opposed any scrutiny of Israeli actions. For instance, it voted against the UN Human Rights Council even considering Operation Cast Lead.

Some in Canada’s Conservative government blamed Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the opposition, for the Security Council defeat, Earlier this fall, Ignatieff had questioned whether his nation should earn a seat given its failure to pay attention to the UN and its current foreign policy. Indeed, there is little opposition even from the Canadian opposition to the proposition that Israel is always right.

UN Reform Stalled

Ironically, the defeat of Canada vindicates a longstanding Canadian proposition that no additional permanent Security Council seats should be created. Rather, Canada has supported the creation of more elected seats with the option for renewable terms. Ironically, this eminently sensible proposal might also have cost Ottawa some support from would be permanent seat holders. In any case, maybe Ottawa’s defeat this time will send a message to other aspiring powers about the need to listen to their international colleagues.

Since the existing permanent five can veto any attempt to take away their veto – and frankly the United States, Russia, and China would probably quit the organization without it – the proposal does not compound the injustice by creating new permanent seats, let alone new permanent seats with vetoes. Rather, it ensures that Brazil, Egypt, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, or South Africa would have to truly reflect the views of their regions and the UN community to be re-elected.

In a way, the line-up of newly elected members is almost a dry run for such a Council. The United States and the rest of the Permanent Five will not likely be able to ignore non-permanent members who have serious power in the real world rather than simply power by virtue of their position in the Council.

Smaller members have also played significant roles when seated in the Council; Ireland, Jamaica, Mauritius, and others provided more consistent and less expedient opposition to the Iraq War than France. But a Security Council composed of seriously sized emerging powers, representing smaller members in their regions, could shift the global center of gravity away from the “G-Forces” the G8 and G20.

Canada’s defeat is a salutary lesson for nations -– and their leaders — who ignore world opinion. Ignatieff’s fact-based assertion that the country simply did not deserve a Security Council seat under the Harper government demonstrates that the opposition is more in touch with the international order than the government.

The traditional pro-UN Canadian position can draw some comfort from the Canadian defeat, which points the way for genuine Security Council reform – ensuring that its members represent the world in ways more profound than bean-counting regional representation. No member of the Council should have impunity for their geopolitical behavior – as perhaps the Obama administration will soon discover when the UN tries to reconcile unilateral Palestinian declarations of statehood with unilateral and illegal settlement-building.

Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to FPIF, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.
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