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John Ivison: Trudeau's ill-timed, and costly, quest for a UN Security Council seat

There will be a further price to be paid for votes of support – and it will likely dwarf the $2 million the government has already spent directly on the bid.

Justin Trudeau takes off for Ethiopia, the land of origins, this week. He is not going in search of the birthplace of humanity, the provenance of the first wild coffee plant or the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river.

But his quest is as timeworn as that ancient land – the bartering of political support for favours. Trudeau will visit Ethiopia, Senegal and Germany over the course of the next week, with the primary goal of securing support for Canada’s bid to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

It is a pursuit that academic Adam Chapnick has called “the right decision made at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons”.

Chapnick, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College and author of the book: Canada and the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage, points out there are good practical reasons for Canada to seek a seat at the table that, nominally at least, is an important voice in global peace and security.

The 15-member council has five permanent members and 10 elected by the assembly to two-year terms.
 Canada’s participation would provide regular access to representatives from China, Russia and on the incoming council, India.

“We would be sitting, literally, beside the Chinese every day for two years, which opens up opportunities for conversations you would not normally have,” said Chapnick, referring to the current problems Canada is facing freeing detainees, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

In the past, Canada’s presence on the council has offered the chance to change the rules of the international game, as Lloyd Axworthy did in 1999 as foreign minister when he pushed for a crack down on blood diamonds and institutional protection for civilians in armed conflict.

The goal of sitting on the security council is laudable.

But, as Chapnick said, Canada’s timing is ill-advised. Previously, this country has only ever pushed itself forward when there were two names for the two positions in the Western Europe and Others group.

Ireland and Norway had already indicated their intentions, as had San Marino, when the new Liberal government decided to try to crash the party in early 2016. San Marino opted out almost immediately but it remains a contested election – three countries bidding for two seats.

The implications are obvious – with most of the European votes destined to land with the Irish and Norwegians, Canada is placing its hopes in Trudeau securing votes from the African states he will encounter in Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopians are hosting the 33rd summit of the African Union. In Senegal, he will appeal for support from fellow members of the Francophonie.

Trudeau will attempt to make deals with leaders from countries like Tanzania, which Amnesty International recently accused of “ruthlessly disembowelling” its human rights framework; the Democratic Republic of Congo, which stands accused of despoiling tropical forests and endemic violence; South Sudan, where the UN says war crimes have taken place; and Kenya, where Human Rights Watch says police have been responsible for disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

Canada already sends nearly $2 billion in overseas aid to a host of countries in Africa, including the four listed above.

But there will be a further price to be paid for votes of support – and it will likely dwarf the $2 million the government has spent directly on the bid.

As for the motivation, and Chapnick’s contention that the bid is being made for the “wrong reasons,” it is apparent that from day one, Trudeau sought to politicize the bid.

 The Trudeau government has spent nearly $2 million on trying to secure a spot on the UN Security Council for Canada. Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Making a security council bid a partisan affair is a relatively recent phenomenon. The opposition Reform Party supported the Liberals efforts in 1998. But the Harper government’s campaign for a seat in 2011-12 was the subject of domestic political rancour. Then Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, questioned whether Canada deserved a seat, given Harper’s rejection of multilateralism. When the seat was lost to Portugal, the Conservatives blamed Ignatieff.

This bid for the security council seat was not in the Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform or in the mandate letter of Trudeau’s first foreign affairs minster, Stéphane Dion. But it was decided for domestic political reasons that nothing would shout out that Canada was “back” on the world stage like a seat at the UN’s top table.

Trudeau himself announced the bid in February 2016, as he shared a podium in Ottawa with then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, at the same time as he committed Canada to taking part in UN peacekeeping missions. In the end, the government took a long time to commit to year-long engagement in Mali, before swiftly removing eight helicopters and 250 personnel last summer, months before their Romanian replacements arrived in theatre.

Canada’s underwhelming contribution to UN peacekeeping, in comparison to Norway and Ireland, is reflected in its relatively paltry overseas assistance budget, as a percentage of gross national product (Canada spends 0.26 per cent of GNP, Norway’s expenditure is one per cent, well beyond the UN target of 0.7 per cent, while Ireland has committed to achieving 0.7 per cent).
While Trudeau senior was genuinely influential on the world stage, his son’s impact has been inconsequential

Canada’s inability to live up to the rhetoric of its prime minister led to resignation in Ottawa that it was unlikely to reel in the 129 votes needed to win, and saw the government start to lower expectations.

However, Chapnick said recent events have provided some grounds for optimism. The re-election of the Trudeau government has given a degree of confidence to delegates that commitments made in exchange for votes will be honoured.

Further, the conclusion of the NAFTA negotiations and the appointment of a new foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, who is not focused on Canada-U.S. relations, is said to have been well received.

Finally, Trudeau’s direct involvement in horse-trading will give delegates more confidence when they exchange their votes for future considerations.

“That offers more hope than we might have had,” said Chapnick.

Yet the result remains in the balance and failure will bring uncomfortable comparisons between the prime minister and his father, who was in power when Canada held a non-permanent council seat in 1977.

To some veteran foreign policy watchers, while Trudeau senior was genuinely influential on the world stage, his son’s impact has been inconsequential to this point, long on oration and short on activity.

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