Canada faces ‘tough fight’ in bid for UN seat, experts say

Canada Politics

[UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke in Ottawa last month./CBC News]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that Canada will seek a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. But some experts say while the country’s return to the council is possible, it won’t be easy.

“It’s a tough fight but I think it’s doable,” University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes tells Yahoo Canada News. “We’ve really got to pick our areas where we can show not just good leadership, but extraordinary leadership.”

Canada last held a seat in 1999-2000 and lost its last bid for a seat in 2010, ending a string of six consecutive decades on the 15-seat council. The federal government withdrew its candidacy then after two rounds of voting made it clear Canada could not beat Portugal for a rotating two-year council seat.

Several UN diplomats told CBC News that the earliest Canada could mount a successful campaign would be 2020, for a term that would begin the next year. The United States, China, France, Great Britain and Russia occupy the five permanent and veto-wielding seats on the council, and the other 10 are distributed on a regional basis.

However, while there are no uncontested seats open in the Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG) before 2020, Canada, which falls under this regional UN group, could take the unconventional approach of launching a campaign earlier. There are votes for two-year seats every year, with the next coming up in June. 

Running before 2020 would give Canada less time to garner enough votes, but would capitalize on the recent positive attention the country and Trudeau have received internationally, says Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a non-profit research organization focused on international aid and policy.

“It is possible that Mr. Trudeau would want to take advantage of the ‘honeymoon period’ and run sooner,” he says. “It would mean upsetting a little bit of the balance within the WEOG, but we’re not part of the European Union bloc anyway. It’s not impossible that we may decide to run sooner than 2020.”

Stiff competition

Even if Canada waits until 2020 to run, the country would still face an election, Robertson says — in the WEOG, Ireland, Norway and San Marino have all expressed intentions to run that year, and there are often more interested countries than available slots in a particular bloc.

And though Canada’s previous terms on the council were successful, even if we wait until 2020 the country will face tough competition from both Norway and Ireland, Mendes says. 

“Norway is probably the biggest competition because they’ve got a good reputation worldwide,” says Mendes, who is also president of the International Commission of Jurists, Canadian Section. The country particularly distinguished itself by taking the lead on the Oslo Process against cluster munitions, he says. 

Ireland also presents still competition for Canada, Mendes says, after it joined Norway in taking up the challenge of fighting against the use of cluster munitions. Canada lost an opportunity to lead on that, he says, after our respected work under then-prime minister Jean Chrétien on the Ottawa Treaty to ban land mines.

“What I think Canada has to do between now and 2020 is regain that leadership in different areas to get the bloc votes from Asia, Africa and other areas,” Mendes says. 

Robertson agrees that broad support is important for Canada’s campaign, because all UN countries vote on Security Council seats. While EU members tend to vote for each other, he said, Canada could garner support from fellow countries in the Commonwealth or the International Organisation of La Francophonie.

Campaigning for a seat on the council is a usually a years-long process. Canada’s chances are improved somewhat by the way Trudeau has managed to both receive international notice so quickly after his election, Mendes says, and how the prime minister has used that opportunity to signal a change from the country’s time under Stephen Harper, whose government was less focused on the kind of multilateralism that involves working with the UN.

For that reason, Canada’s relationship with the UN under the past government isn’t necessarily an indication of how the country will fare in any upcoming votes for a council seat.

“It’s a different scenario,” Robertson says. “You can’t look to the last election and say, “Oh well, we’re going to lose.’ I think we’ve got a government that is actively committed to internationalism and multilateralism and the UN system.”

Points in Canada’s favour 

Trudeau will be in New York on Wednesday for meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. When the two met in Ottawa last month, the prime minister said then that Canada would seek a two-year council term.

Trudeau plans to focus on gender equality and parity during his trip, and that’s one area where Canada can really distinguish itself as the country campaigns to return to the council, Mendes says.

“Canada does have a reputation in particular for promoting gender equality of the girl-child,” Mendes says. Equality for girls around the world has been a focus of not just past Liberal governments but also Conservative ones, he says, calling former prime minister Brian Mulroney an “unspoken champion” of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And right now is a particularly important time to focus on the rights of girls, Mendes says, given threats like sexual slavery of teenaged girls under ISIS, the violence faced by children in Syria, the use of child soldiers and the “weaponization” of rape in countries like South Sudan.

“Maybe Canada can take on that and be the leading organization in the world to try and get a major international consensus,” Mendes says, “that this is an evil that has to be stopped, and has to have the entire Security Council behind it.”

Canada’s chances of returning to the council are also improved by the Trudeau government’s stated commitment to refocusing its international efforts towards peace operations, Robertson says. For example, by changing its role in the anti-ISIS mission.

As well, the country’s commitment to bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees is another tangible example of how Canada’s international contributions have changed, he says.

“Already, we’re building up a record, and a platform on which we can run,” he says.

However, in order to truly stand out on the global stage and return to the Security Council, Mendes says, Trudeau’s administration needs to continue to back up talk with action. That includes putting money back into areas that the previous government moved away from, including aid to Africa, he says.

It also means focusing on positive initiatives of the past government — improving maternal health, for example — but doing it in a way that removes them from ideology or potential commercial benefits for Canada.

“Let’s focus on what we can do well,” Mendes says, “and do it really, really well.”