National Column: Trudeau should push for UN reform

by Tim Harper

OTTAWA-When Canada lost its bid for a United Nations Security Council seat to Portugal in 2010 it was widely seen as a humiliation, an embarrassment, the dagger through the heart of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy.

It was the diplomatic equivalent of a loss to Kazakhstan on the ice.

At least, that was the view of the chattering class. One could argue that it didn’t really bother Canadians, who turned around and awarded a majority government to Harper months later, despite the best efforts of opposition parties to keep the issue on the electoral radar.

Wednesday in New York, Justin Trudeau will officially announce the country’s bid for a Security Council seat, but one must ask if this is more a matter of returning national prestige – “Canada is Back (again)” – than a sign of the actual value of the seat at the UN inner circle.

It is one of the legacies of the Harper era that our historic engagement with the UN was severed. He did address the General Assembly three times, but there was the 2009 visit to Tim Horton’s instead of a speech to the General Assembly, and the 2012 speaking engagement blocks from the UN without dropping in. UN envoys who travelled to Canada to study our treatment of indigenous peoples were aggressively given the bum’s rush.

Harper famously vowed Canadian foreign policy would not include courting “every dictator with a vote at the United Nations.” He said that 1.5 km from the UN headquarters.

But Harper did effectively shine a light on some of the UN’s inconsistencies, its ineffectiveness and its penchant, for example, of placing human rights abusers on its human rights council. Forget, for a moment, that the five permanent members of the Security Council -China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – have vetoes that usually mean inaction, Syria being only the most recent example.

The semi-permanent members are elected to two-year terms and here are some members of the club we want to rejoin:

Angola: According to Amnesty International, it is a country where “freedoms of expression, association and assembly are severely restricted.” Press freedom is restricted, prisoners of conscience are in detention, security legislation has been passed to allow arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful protesters, activities of non-government organizations are restricted by law and the government was globally condemned for convicting human rights defender JosÈ Marcos Mavungo and sentencing him to six years in jail.

Egypt: The most recent Human Rights Watch campaign revolves around the sentencing of four Coptic Christian teenagers to five years in prison for “blasphemy” after they were filmed mocking a Daesh video. Under the presidency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi there has been a spike in executions and mass trials.

Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was jailed for more than a year on trumped-up charges before his release.

Senegal: According to Amnesty International, authorities continued to restrict freedom of peaceful assembly and use excessive force against protesters. Men and women faced arrest because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. Senegal came under international scrutiny for the unfair trial of a former cabinet minister charged with “illicit acquisition of wealth.” Karim Wade was sentenced to six years in a case criticized by the UN.

Venezuela: Under President Nicolas Maduro, opposition leaders have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges, others barred from running for office. Venezuela has banned UN rapporteurs and voted against UN resolutions condemning human rights abuses in North Korea and Syria, according to Human Rights Watch.

“The Security Council is not comprised of people you want to have a beer with, it is comprised of people you have to deal with,” says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN.

Canada has not been on the Security Council since 2000 – its longest absence ever – and cannot earn a spot until after 2020.

But instead of merely signalling he wants back into the club, Trudeau should leverage his celebrity and influence to push for changes during Canada’s campaign for the seat.

Heinbecker suggests a few changes in when a veto is deemed legitimate, or who gets seats on the Security Council.

Perhaps it is time for semi-permanent places for India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, even Canada. The UN High Commission for Refugees is underfunded and overwhelmed.

Our re-engagement with the UN represents a huge shift in foreign policy under Trudeau, but with this re-engagement should come a Canadian message: the status quo is not good enough and we want changes when we get our seat back in this club.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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