Relief Not Regret Over Harper’s UN Absence

John Baird’s address to the UN today, his third, is likely to cover familiar ground: long on rhetoric, short on constructive policy. Regarding the important developments last week on Syria and Iran, Baird will insist that both countries will be judged by what they do, not what they promise to do. As this in any case lies at the heart of the US approach, his banal observations, though emphatically made, will do little more than tee-up for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday (which will likely be just the beginning of a concerted effort to build Congressional opposition to constructive engagement with Iran).

All of this casts a somewhat different light on the reactions to Prime Minister Harper’s decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week. There were two sorts of responses: supporters of the government applauded his decision to avoid a “gabfest” dominated by dictators, while opponents decried Harper’s disdain for the UN and the resulting further marginalization of Canada. Though snubbing the UN accomplishes little, the truth is we should be more relieved than alarmed that the Prime Minister chose, yet again, not to address the General Assembly.

If I were a Canadian diplomat with a UN posting, I would dread more the Prime Minister’s presence than his absence at the podium in the General Assembly.   

Why? For the simple reason that his absence does less damage to Canada’s reputation than any speech he might deliver. Outside of Canada, few will notice that the Prime Minister didn’t show up. Consider, however, the Prime Minister’s likely comments on the big issues of the day: arms proliferation, global poverty, climate change, a global power shift, Syria and general insecurity in the Middle East. On these and other matters, what would Stephen Harper say to the UN?

That Iran cannot and should not be trusted (or not until Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says so).

That we are pleased the UN adopted an Arms Trade Treaty, but that Canada is in no hurry to sign it (though others should).

That there should be accountability for war crimes in Syria, but that Canada is not (unlike virtually all of our allies) urging the Security Council to use its power to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, which is the best available option for justice.

That even though the overwhelming majority of UN Member States voted to admit Palestine to the UN as a permanent observer state, this “unilateral” act was a grave mistake that undermined the peace process (oops, non-existent then, resumed now) and that Canada will not recognize.

That all UN Member States should respect freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but that Canada has no intention of ratifying five new UN human rights agreements adopted in the past ten years, and that his ministers are free to berate and belittle any UN experts who might suggest reforms to Canadian law and policy.

That fighting global poverty is crucial, but that Canada has frozen or reduced its development aid, and will increasingly disburse it in fewer countries and increasingly too in co-operation with extractive industries.

That although climate change is real, there is no real rush to do anything about it, certainly not before the US does. That we need international agreements on targets to reduce carbon emissions, but Canada was perfectly entitled to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol when it was clear we would fail to meet our targets.

That the UN is outdated, wasteful, and too tolerant of tyrants, but that Canada has no new initiatives for reform; in any case, Canada prefers the Commonwealth, the G20, and la francophonie (all three, apparently, being so much more effective and democratic).

This is not to say that Canada has no role to play at the UN or that on every UN issue we are marginalized. On the contrary, Canadian diplomats work hard on many fronts at the UN, and often in pursuit of sensible policies. But they will continue to do so much more effectively if those UN Member States and UN staff they co-operate with are not reminded of just how deeply the Harper government loathes the UN. For the loathing is real, and is the reason underlying Harper’s decision not to attend the General Assembly.

Those applauding Harper disagree: they argue it is a principled decision grounded in a foreign policy that refuses to “go along to get along” with the tyrants and dictators who supposedly dominate UN discussions. They also say it just makes sense not to waste the Prime Minister’s precious time on the ineffective UN. But if this is the test, Prime Minister Harper would be avoiding summits and heads of government meetings held by a range of multilateral organizations, some of which are far more dysfunctional than the UN and even less committed to scrutinizing the human rights record of their Member States.

The fact is that the Prime Minister and his team, Foreign Minister Baird prominent amongst them, simply don’t like the UN. They engage with its humanitarian and social programs, but their disdain for the UN’s human rights, political and security agenda is palpable. And it is these issues that dominate the high-level segment that opens the General Assembly.

If I were a Canadian diplomat with a UN posting, I would dread more the Prime Minister’s presence than his absence at the podium in the General Assembly.


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