Canada's diplomatic dance for a Security Council seat

Three nations have declared their desire for two of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council, and Canada is one of the candidates aggressively pursuing the seat ahead of the vote in October 2010.
Members of the UN Security Council vote on a resolution in New York City in June. Canada is hoping to win one of 10 rotating seats on the council when the next vote is held in October 2010. (Osamu Honda/Associated Press)

Every decade since its inception, Canada has had a seat on the UN Security Council. Canada's last stint in one of the 10 rotating positions ended in 2000, so it seems like Canada's turn again. But this time might not be so easy.

There are 15 seats around the circular table in the vast, 1960s-style Security Council chamber. Five are reserved for the council's permanent members: the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia. They hold a veto, so they hold the power.

The 10 remaining spots are filled by non-permanent members, each elected for a two-year term. Every year, a vote is held to fill half, or five, of those spots. These are divided up by region.

In even-numbered years, like 2010, two seats are available for Western nations.

Three countries have declared their desire for those two seats: Germany, Canada and Portugal. Germany is considered a lock, so, Canada is really competing against Portugal — and is aggressively pursuing the seat ahead of the vote in October 2010.

The United Nations is in many ways an institution of horse-trading. Vote for me on this, and I'll support you on that. The Security Council vote is no exception, and reports have surfaced that Canada has secured pledges of support from several African nations. The Canadians have asked (and received) those in writing, an added measure of security since the vote is held by secret ballot.

Ruffled feathers

But Canada might have trouble with the rest of Africa.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has cut from 14 to seven the number of African nations to which it directs a large share of development aid. That bothers those left out.

(Despite targeting fewer nations, Ottawa has doubled the money it sends to Africa.)

The problem is that Africa sometimes votes as a bloc at the UN, and if there was enough of a movement to deny Canada the plum Security Council post, the 53 nations of the African Union might just be able to sink the Canadian effort.  

The next issue is Israel; specifically, Canada's stronger support for the Jewish state within the UN.

Canada's shift in policy began under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and has been extended under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. That's rattled some of the 56 nations in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But they don't always vote together. Take Morocco, which often breaks with the OIC over Israel-related issues.

And remember: it's a secret ballot.

So, there's room for some of that horse-trading the UN is famed for.

Possible support

There are some clear supporters for Canada's candidacy, too. Though Portugal continues to have strong links (air, trade, language) with South America, a number of Central and South American states have become beneficiaries of Canadian aid and trade, particularly under the current Conservative government.

After a slow start, Canada's ambassadors around the world have been told to make the Security Council issue a priority.

John McNee, Canada's permanent representative to the UN, is leading the charge of lobbying, coddling and trading. A top official from the Department of Foreign Affairs with a long background of expertise in African affairs has been spending much time on the continent.

Of course, this is not solely a competition of Canada against its own record. Portugal is marketing itself as a small country willing to stand up for others like it. It is not guaranteed votes by all European Union nations either — they tend to vote on their own.

Diplomats involved in the lobbying for both Canada and Portugal will try to highlight the differences between each other. But the fact is, in most ways, the two countries have similar profiles — both are members of NATO, for instance — and for that reason, voting nations won't be able to shun one over the other if they are looking to vote anti-West.

If Canada succeeds

It certainly would be a badge of honour if Canada gets its wish and wins a two-year seat on the council.

But it would come at a time when the Security Council appears to have lost much of its moral legitimacy. When something controversial comes up, the council's answer often seems to be watered down — or often, a global response is muted by the veto (or threat of a veto) of one of the permanent members.

Think about the impasse over the response to the North Korean missile tests in April, to name just one example.

Still, a seat at the table will give Canada a voice in debates over some of the world's biggest issues. In recent months, the council has tackled questions surrounding: Iran and nuclear weapons, the U.S. presence in Iraq, the controversial regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

The first opportunity Canada would have to join the debate won't come until January 2011, when the successful nations take their seats.