Canada quietly pulls out of UN convention to combat drought, desertification

Whether you like it or not, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is reshaping Canada's relationship with the rest of the world.

From last year's withdrawal from the admittedly ineffectual Kyoto Protocol on climate change — which as CBC News noted will save the government $14 billion in penalties for missing its targets — to the disappearance of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as a stand-alone body, Ottawa seems to be abandoning the multilateralist approach that dominated its post-war foreign policy.

Nowhere does that seem more evident than in its relationship with the United Nations.

The government botched a bid to take one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council in 2010. And its staunch support of Israel in the General Assembly contrasts with the more nuanced positions previous governments have taken in the thorny problem of Middle East peace.

Now we learn that the Conservative government has quietly withdrawn from the UN's convention to combat desertification, the only country in the world to do so.

[ Related: Some welcome CIDA's shuffle to foreign affairs ]

The Canadian Press discovered the cabinet made the decision last week on the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

That was news to the UN secretariat that administers the convention, which only learned about it when a CP reporter called their office.

Canada signed on to the convention in 1994 and ratified it the following year, along with 194 countries and the European Union, CP noted. It aims to find ways to prevent drought and the creeping encroachment of desert into farmland, especially in Africa.

A meeting scheduled for April 9-19 in Bonn, Germany, will bring together scientists, officials and non-government groups to discuss the economic implications of desertification, land degradation and drought, according to a UN Environment Program notice.

Now it looks like Canada won't participate.

CP reported the cabinet order “authorizes the Minister of Foreign Affairs to take the actions necessary to withdraw, on behalf of Canada, from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, in those Countries Experiencing Severe Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa.”

The convention secretariat told CP no one from the Canadian government had contacted them about the withdrawal.

Characteristically, the government was loathe to provide a public explanation. Baird's office bounced CP's questions to CIDA, which in turn refused to comment.

A spokesman for Julian Fantino, minister responsible for the agency that will soon be folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said via email that “membership in this convention was costly for Canadians and showed few results, if any for the environment," CP reported.

No one would elaborate but CP found government documents showing Ottawa provided a $283,000 grant to support the convention from 2010 to 2012.

Faced with an information vacuum, we're left to speculate. Drought and desertification are thought to be made worse by the effects of climate change. The Conservatives are lukewarm at best on that issue, especially when it butts up against economic-development priorities such as oil sands extraction.

The Harper government has been heavily criticized for apparently shifting policies to favour business over the environment.

[ Related: Kyoto climate change treaty sputters to sorry end ]

CP noted it shut down the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which had warned Canada would not achieve its goals for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions without putting a price on carbon, which the Conservatives oppose.

Baird suggested Ottawa defunded the round table because the government did not want to pay for advice that didn't jibe with its policies, CP said.

The Tories are also under fire for preventing government scientists from discussing their work publicly, and for shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario, which scientists see as vital window onto the impact of global environmental threats.

Withdrawing from the UN convention on desertification “shows … that the government is clearly outside of what is international norms here," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar told CP. "We’re increasing our isolation by doing this.”

Green party Leader Elizabeth May seemed to embrace that theme in a tweet that compared Canada to another notorious international outsider.

That didn't impress Heritage Minister James Moore.

The National Post reported the government's belated response Thursday to CP's initial story, saying Canada pulled out of the convention because it was too bureaucratic. Harper said less than 20 per cent of the $350,000 contributes goes to actual programs. Baird called the convention a "talkfest."