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Canada seen to ‘dial back’ UN Security Council bid, say insiders, all ‘rhetoric,’ no action

By Samantha Wright Allen      

While some say there's still time ahead of the 2020 vote, many question whether there's political will to get the job done.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have to roll up his sleeves and take more action on the international stage, observers say, if Canada wants a chance at a UN Security Council seat, where it faces stiff competition against Norway and Ireland. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Canada is behind on its bid to win a United Nations Security Council seat, say former diplomats and foreign affairs officials, which they suggest shows a lack of political will to backstop a Liberal promise that has now become a low priority.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced in the spring of 2016 Canada would be seeking one of the 10 two-year rotating seats opening up in 2021 on the 15-member body that votes on matters of international peace and security. It last held a seat in 2000.

“Canadians benefit when we have a time on the Security Council, but I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous of us to suggest that perhaps the world benefits when Canada has a voice on the Security Council,” he said last year, according to CBC News.

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But Canada has never really leaned into the bid, experts told The Hill Times, and had a late start in its lobbying effort, lagging behind its competition, Norway and Ireland, for the necessary votes in 2020. The three are vying for two available seats in their regional group.

“I think our pitch right now is [all talk]—we’re back, we’re going to participate in peace operations, we are welcoming for migrants, we have a feminist development program,” said Jocelyn Coulon, who advised former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion on the peacekeeping and the UN Security Council bid files.

The intervening years since Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 statement that Canada is “back” on the international in 2015 have not seen the government live up to that promise, Mr. Coulon said in a phone interview June 1 from his home in Montreal, adding that Canada is “falling down” on the resources it commits to development aid.

“[Officials] do lobby when they meet with other governments but it’s almost an afterthought,” said a senior Global Affairs Canada official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to harm their job.

While they couldn’t speak to specifics, the official noted the country needs be seen to be campaigning, and several analysts have observed Canada’s international action doesn’t back that up.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said it’s not ‘vital’ that Canada secure a Security Council seat. The Hill Times file photograph

“We are tending to, I think, dial back a bit,” said the official, which is understandable if it looks like you’re not going to win.

“What’s the point in throwing resources into something if you know you’re going to lose?”

Some, like former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, who described himself as “a committed multilateralist,” said they don’t think it’s “vital” for Canada to be on the Security Council, nor should it be “a driving priority.”

“I think there has been a dawning of the realities of life in a complicated world, and what can you do with so many resources?” Mr. Robertson said.“I think [Mr. Trudeau] puts higher priority on progressive trade policy.”

There’s still time for Canada, said Christopher Westdal, a former Canadian ambassador who also directed Canada’s successful 1988 Security Council campaign. But the discussion around whether the seat matters and if Canada should be pushing for it is unproductive to Mr. Westdal.

“It matters; it’s too late to debate,” he said, especially since we’ve thrown our hat in. “A loss would hurt.”

Global Affairs has 11 working on bid

As of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 11 people were working full time on the bid, Global Affairs Canada said by email, but didn’t offer current numbers. In February 2017, the department reported to The Hill Times that eight people were on the file, at the time broken down to six in Ottawa and two in New York City, where Canada’s permanent representative to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, is based.

That position “matters enormously” said Mr. Westdal, because those personal relationships with the more than 190 people representing their nations at the UN in New York can either give a country an edge or alienate votes.

The government “is pursuing a coordinated campaign” led by the permanent mission in New York, said Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell by email on June 5.

She said an interview with a department official was “not possible at this time” and did not respond to a follow-up questions.

Ms. Maxwell did not provide information about the bid’s budget, but said the campaign expenses “will always be guided by principles of value-for-money, transparency, effectiveness and responsible management of resources,” and that many costs are using “existing departmental resources,” with some “incremental costs” reported “as required.”

Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, said by email Canada will be elected by what it does, not by its “campaign.”

“People in the [Prime Minister’s Office] just got over-enthused about this way before its time,” he said, and should have never made a big deal about the goal. “What we should do consistently is to demonstrate our commitment to the UN ethic and to supporting its transparency and effectiveness.”

It means working hard every day, but instead Canada took far too long “to deliver on a peacekeeping commitment that was meant to be our signature project,” he said in reference to the Mali mission, announced in March with a promise to send six helicopters and, according to several media reports, up to 250 military personnel to the West African nation later this year.

“Other countries see us parsing our votes so as not to separate from the U.S., whose positions are toxic,” Mr. Kinsman said, adding Canada is engaged in “empty grandstanding,” such as the “meaningless” January conference on North Korea in Vancouver.

“We can get there if we show commitment and leadership, including on the tough problems, not the easy ones like condemning Venezuela and Myanmar,” he said.

Canada needs a better strategy: Coulon

Mr. Coulon said there are three aspects to a successful campaign strategy: diplomatic ties, economic interaction, and peacekeeping, or military involvement. By his estimation, Canada isn’t doing enough on any of these fronts.

A good strategy means being aware of the voting blocs in the 193-member UN General Assembly, which to Mr. Coulon’s estimation breaks down to the following: Africa, with 54 votes; Asia, with 46; the Americas with 35; the Oceania countries with 14; and the 44 in the European bloc that Canada can all but write off given its European competitors. 

Ambassadors and high commissioners to Canada from various countries told The Hill Times that it’s the bilateral discussions that really matter. Mostly, the ambassadors who have already supported Canada’s bid were willing to talk, and about a dozen didn’t respond to request for comment on Canada’s approach. Envoys for Moldova, Croatia, Tunisia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Cameroon confirmed their votes for Canada to The Hill Times, while others—Pakistan, Sudan, and Ukraine—would only say they support Canada, but could not confirm a vote.

“I think the final decision will depend not just on the history but also on the [actions] these candidates take,” said Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Shevchenko in a phone interview.

In particular, Mr. Coulon and others say Canada isn’t paying enough attention to African nations, which account for the largest bloc. They point to a number of poor signals from Canada to the international community, such as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s (Vancouver South, B.C.) summer 2016 trip to five African nations, which they characterized as a misguided diplomatic mission that only served to get countries’ hopes up; the delayed mission to Mali; Canada’s aid budget not returning to historic levels; and the failure to reopen embassies in Africa. In 2013, iPolitics reported three embassies had been closed in the previous five years as the opposition NDP criticized Canada’s reduced presence in the continent.

Former diplomat Christopher Westdal, left, with the late Marcel Prud’homme, a Senator and MP. Mr. Westdal said Canada still has time for its bid, and the work of the permanent representative to the UN in New York ‘matters enormously.’ The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Norway, which is a fraction of Canada’s size, has a comparable number of embassies in Africa—about 20—and a generous aid budget, in contrast to Canada’s, which Mr. Westdal described as “shameful.” 

He and others noted because of the fear of criticism back home, Canada is unwilling to spend money on the wining and dining of ambassadors, a necessary aspect to wooing countries to get their votes.

A former political adviser to a Canadian foreign minister said the dynamics of the country competing against two European contenders will make it hard to win.  

“The challenge of course is this government came in and talked about making a big impression on peacekeeping,” said the source, who spoke on an not-for-attribution basis because they still work for government. “The actions may not have reached the rhetoric—that could play a role.”

Above all, don’t underestimate Ireland, cautioned Mr. Westdal, noting they’re good at the horse-trading that goes on.

“It’s an art; it gets very complicated,” he said, adding many might not like it but “don’t pretend it doesn’t happen.”

It used to be that Canada could rely on others knowing and supporting a schedule—that Canada would be named every 10 years, but that cycle has changed.

Len Edwards, who served as deputy minister of foreign affairs from 2007 to 2010, echoed other observations that the historical precedent doesn’t count that much anymore—namely, that officials used to rely on the sentiment that every 10 years “it’s Canada’s turn.”

“We didn’t start early enough,” he said, a repeat of the failed 2010 bid, when Canada entered late and had “a lot of ground to make up.”

And although Mr. Trudeau has greater international cachet than his predecessor, several said he hasn’t departed enough from some of the policies of former prime minister Stephen Harper, such as his support of Israel, which angered some Arab nations, making them unlikely to support Canada now.

“It’s such a highly competitive place, that you really do have to pull out all the stops,” Mr. Edwards said.

—With files from Shruti Shekar

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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