Opinion: An examination of Canada’s failed bid on the Security Council

By Paul Li

For the first time since the creation of the United Nations, Canada failed in its bid to become temporary member of the Security Council. Prior to this attempt, Canada has won the right to sit on the council on six prior occasions: one every decade since the 1940s. After two series of votes at the General Assembly, where all member countries have one vote each, Canada was outperformed by Germany and Portugal.

The Security Council is composed of five permanent members: the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, and 10 non-permanent members that sit in for two-year periods. By agreement, these seats are distributed around the regions of the world, with two seats corresponding to the Western European and Others Group, of which Canada is member.

With both seats up for grabs, Germany was widely accepted to be the top choice and was quickly confirmed in the first round of voting. As the third round of voting was commencing, the Canadian ambassador announced that Canada would be withdrawing its candidacy instead of facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat. The result of the election, which is carried out by secret balloting, was a blow to Canada’s ambitions in the international arena.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office promptly placed the blame at the feet of the head of the Opposition and leader of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff.  “I would say a big deciding factor was the fact that Canada’s bid did not have unity because we had Mr. Ignatieff questioning and opposing Canada’s bid,” said to the press David Soudas, Harper’s communications director. “Canada did not have that required advantage. We had an Opposition Leader that opposed Canada and clearly was not in it for Canada on this one.”

Ignatieff rejected the blame as “ridiculous,” saying that “The blame game is a sign of a government that is unwilling to absorb the lessons of defeat.” Considered to be well versed in international politics, Ignatieff commented that the loss was the price paid by the Harper government for shifting Canadian foreign policy away from the strong traditions maintained by both Liberal and Conservative leaders in the past.

Critics of the administration indicate that the loss is a clear message that the world has noticed a change in Canada’s stance in international relations. Reduced commitments to aid and peacekeeping have often been cited as influential reasons behind the nature of the votes. Additionally, Portugal has been preparing for the vote since 2001, while Canada started campaigning for the seat a scant few months back.

During voting, members of the Americas tended to vote with Canada. The African nations however, rejected Canada based on the government’s policies reducing the levels of aid. Arab League nations were angered by Ottawa’s strong stand for Israel instead of its former balanced outlooks. India, whom the Prime Minister lobbied hard for, ended up voting for Portugal, citing willingness to support India in the quest for a permanent seat at the Security Council.

Germany and Portugal, together with India, South Africa and Colombia will commence their two year terms on Jan 1, 2011. They will be joined by Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gabon, Lebanon and Nigeria, who are halfway through their terms.

The UN and You: Why should you care?

One of the reactions that comes to fore is a reasonable, “so why should we care?” Polls show that most Canadians attach little importance to the seat, and so it might be of little consequence in the grand scheme of electoral politics.

On the side of not caring, the most cited topic is the lack of relevance of the UN. What’s the last time anyone heard anything actually being done at the UN? And if one’s country is not one of the “Veto Holding Five”, then it hardly matters which way you vote. The UN has failed at its charter mandate of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war…; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and so on. And often, its economic aid to the poor has often been from trouble than cure.

More importantly, it is a reminder that, when push comes to shove, the current government recognizes that Canada’s policies have been set by Canadian officials, and if the world doesn’t like them, too bad. Canada stands by what it believes and will not sell out for a seat. That the world rejected Canada says more about the world than it does about Canada.

On the other hand, Canada has been one of the guiding hands in the formation of the UN. McGill University professor John Peters Humphrey established the Division for Human Rights at the Secretariat, and remained in charge for twenty years, where he drafted and championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Former Prime Minister Lester Pearson, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, was the first proponent of UN Peacekeeping forces and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Up until recently, Canada has played key leadership roles in every peacekeeping mission ever since.

Closer to the present and with important implications for the future is the composition of the coming council. The presence of Brazil and India (who join China and Russia) brings in the so-called “BRIC” nations- a group of four powerful, rapidly developing nations that account for over 25% of the world’s land area and 40% of its population. Germany and South Africa also bring in the weight of their economies as power houses in their respective continents.

With financial crises that still hold the world in deep recession and ever more assertive nations that threaten international stability, the coming Council could find itself facing multiple important decisions.  Canada will find itself on the outside looking in, rather than playing the key role it has done so well in the past.

Paul Li is a student of Economics and Political Science. A a member of the Kwantlen Political Science Society, he is a faithful adherent to the words of one wise man, who said “Everybody has a hidden agenda. Except me.”

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