Canada’s Diplomatic Tantrum in the Desert

Published in iPolitics, April 9, 2013

A little more than two weeks ago, Canada became the only nation on the planet to walk away from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

The decision to withdraw — making Canada the only nation outside the main global effort to combat devastating droughts in Africa and elsewhere — was taken quietly by cabinet on the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. There was no advance notice to the UN or the Secretariat of the Convention; reports suggest the UN and the Secretariat only learned about the withdrawal through the media. An anonymous government official later claimed that Canada posted its withdrawal online on March 26, 2013 and had informed UN officials of it a day earlier.

Even if that’s true, it still demonstrates an immature and contemptuous attitude not only to the United Nations but all the other members of the Convention — which surely could expect better behaviour of a member of the G8.

Much of the bloodshed and instability in Sudan, Eastern Africa and the Sahel region finds its roots in struggles over diminishing livelihoods caused by drought and desertification.

When pressed for the reason for the withdrawal, Baird referred the question to the soon-to-be-killed CIDA. In an answer later parroted by the prime minister in question period, a spokesperson for CIDA’s minister, Julian Fantino, argued that membership in the convention was costly for Canadians and delivered few results, if any, for the environment.

Harper later added in Parliament that the reason for pulling out was that only “eighteen per cent of funds we sent it were actually spent on programming … the rest goes to various bureaucratic measures … It is not an effective way to spend taxpayers monies.”

Actually, Canada’s contribution to the Convention was a miniscule $283,000 over a three-year period; Canada had committed to pay $315,000 until the end of 2013. These amounts are far less than the millions that the Harper government has wasted on disguised political messages masquerading as Economic Action Plan ads. Just one of those ads aired during key sporting events or the Oscars might have cost more than Canada’s piece of this critical global convention. The public money spent on gazebos and unnecessary sidewalk renovations in Tony Clement’s riding might have allowed Canada to participate in the convention well into the second half of this century.

There are two reasons to reject the explanation offered by the federal government.

First, the sum itself is a typical red herring. The convention is not a typical development project, where one might demand that funds flow into development projects rather than the bureaucrats administering them. The convention should be regarded as a key part of building a strong legal framework and of getting the global community to work together on research and action plans to stop the spread of deserts — something that is causing droughts and famine across a wide range of sub-Saharan Africa.

There are, in fact, good security reasons for Canada to invest far more into fighting the spread of deserts. Much of the bloodshed and instability in Sudan, Eastern Africa and the Sahel region finds its roots in struggles over diminishing livelihoods caused by drought and desertification. Dealing with refugee flows and preventing the expansion of terrorist networks in these regions could end up being far more costly than the approximately $300,000 we are saving by withdrawing.

Second, there’s reason to believe the Harper government had another, more pressing reason for abandoning the convention. A major scientific conference on desertfication began this week in Bonn, Germany. Some of Canada’s muzzled government scientists would have been there under the convention, along with their international colleagues, to carry out the first major comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of desertification, land degradation and drought according to the UN Environmental Program.

Had Canada not withdrawn from the convention, it would have had to provide concrete data on the status of drought and desertification here at home. The “drylands” of the Prairies have been susceptible to droughts; one also would expect any international discussion of desertification to touch on the warming of Canada’s tundra regions, which eventually will drastically affect the livelihoods of our northern populations.

Perhaps the Harper government’s desire to avoid any discussion of the effects of climate change in Canada at the Bonn conference was the real impetus for the stealth withdrawal. That would be in keeping with the environmental vandalism that led to the shutting down of the internationally-renowned Experimental Lakes Area and the Round Table on the Environment and the Economy — and the government’s refusal to transfer the latter’s accumulated research to an offering think tank.

Climate change and desertification reach into every part of the globe. Fighting them requires the global community to work together to research and develop common action plans. The Harper government’s decision to abandon the convention was an act of stunning immaturity.

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