How we lost to Portugal for the UN Security Council seat — and why

For the first time in the history of the United Nations, the member nations of the world community did not support Canada’s bid to be on the Security Council. Once a decade since the 1940s, Canada has joined the permanent members of UN Security Council for a two year term. This year, we lost to Portugal.

This is a bit of a reality check on the uncomfortable (to my ears, at least) jingoism of 2010. The new year dawned with media bravado about the upcoming Olympics. The Globe and Mail front page used super-sized print to proclaim Canada had a new attitude of self-confidence, of ‘take no prisoners’—‘a swagger, even.’ Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed he had brought Canada ‘back’ on the world stage. The G-8 and G-20 were designed to serve a communications strategy in which our Prime Minister stood side by side with world leaders.

The vote at the UN makes it clear that world leadership is not built from photo ops. What may work for domestic political spin fails miserably in the complex world of international relations.

The truth is that Canada’s reputation in the world has suffered. It has been obvious for years that respect for Canada was on the wane. In attending international gatherings and negotiations since 2006, people from around the world have asked me ‘what has happened to Canada?’ They asked in tones of concern and sadness, as though an old friend had died.

There are many contributing factors, but they are all due to the Harper government actions. It has displayed contempt for the United Nations itself while avoiding responsibility on issues from food aid, human rights, climate, abortion, Africa, peace-keeping and the Mid-East.

For example: twice in the last three years, the Harper government has refused requests that we send three peace-keepers to assist the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, having invented peace- keeping and once been the world’s No1 contributor to peace-keeping, we are now 56th.

It has not gone unnoticed that Canada is the only country to leave one of its citizens, a child soldier, at Guantanamo Bay.

This government has cut back development assistance and fewer countries in Africa see the Canadian flag in relief supplies.

The Harper government’s unquestioning support of Israel has included remaining silent about the 2006 bombing by the Israeli forces of a UN observer post on the Lebanon border. Our silence was even more astonishing given that a Canadian working for the UN, Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener, was killed.

In June 2008, when the UN called an emergency meeting on the food crisis, Canada sent no one. When other countries dispatched ministers and some sent prime ministers to Rome (where the Food and Agriculture Organization is based), Canada let our Ambassador to Italy sit there without instructions, speaking volumes about Canada’s concern for the world’s poor and hungry. At the recent meeting on the food crisis, once again, we were unrepresented.

The pursuit of Bush-like policies on maternal and child health also lost us friends. The decision to deny any funding to legal and safe abortions in the package negotiated in Toronto sent a bad message. The fact that our pledge over five years was the same amount we spent on security for the weekend didn’t help.

And, of course, the Harper government’s decision to repudiate a legally binding international treaty on climate has harmed our reputation hugely. I doubt any low-lying island state voted for Canada. For them, the urgent security crisis is rising sea levels. Countries arguing for meaningful climate action see Canada as a rogue state, the only country to have ratified Kyoto and walked away from its commitments.

It may sound too strong to claim that the Harper government has displayed contempt for the UN itself, but the fact that after four-and-a-half years, the Prime Minister’s first speech to the General Assembly was this fall, and in a blatant attempt to secure a seat on the Security Council, speaks volumes. Every September, the General Assembly session begins with addresses from heads of government. PM Stephen Harper has gone to New York, met privately with some leaders and then left without giving a speech. Last fall, with critical discussions to prepare for the Copenhagen climate negotiations, the Prime Minister pointedly left New York for a photo op at Tim Horton’s. This incident led to the recent tag line in The Economist magazine, reporting on Canada’s failure to win a Security Council seat: ‘Better at doughnuts than diplomacy.’

I remember once, a long time ago, when I was at Sierra Club, speaking to a Conservative MP. I won’t use his or her name. I wouldn’t want her (or him) to feel the PM’s wrath.

At that time, Stephen Harper was Leader of the Opposition and I was pushing for any kind of commitment that, in power, the Conservatives would reduce Greenhouse gases. The answer stayed with me. Regardless of how achievable Kyoto would be, this MP saw no chance of the Conservatives being able to support action, because ‘Stephen will always see Kyoto as one of those UN things.’

In the wake of the Security Council vote, a disturbing number of journalists and editorial opinion have attacked the United Nations, instead of admitting, as former UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis has, that Canada no longer deserves to be there. Lorrie Goldstein in the Toronto Sun called the UN a ‘nest of vipers’ and suggested we should pull out of climate talks. The Globe and Mail suggested the Harper government was right not to pander for votes and claimed it was a problem that the UN allowed for secret ballots.

The Harper government itself first blamed Michael Ignatieff, who had said in advance of the vote that, with the Harper government record, Canada no longer deserved the seat. Of course, governments around the world were unlikely to have heard about Ignatieff’s comments. If they had, it is unlikely they would have any more effect than the desperate distribution of maple syrup by Canadian diplomats on the morning of the vote. PM Harper then claimed that Canada stood on principle and that the vote amounted to a ‘popularity contest.’

We have fallen so far, so fast. Where once Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize, where once a Canadian Ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, worked so effectively for the International Criminal Court that the Bush Administration tried to have him fired, where once Canada’s prestige in the world was a function of the heavy lifting we did globally on issue after issue, we now cannot muster the votes to win a seat when the competition is Portugal.

As a country, Canada is still loved in the world. It is not about popularity. It is about being a good country with a bad government. The nations and peoples of the world would love to see us as the kind of country about which Bono said ‘The world needs more Canada.’ We need to be that country again.

Elizabeth May has a long involvement with United Nations agencies and international work. In 1990, she was awarded the United National Environment Programme Global 500 Award.