The not inconsiderable cost of 're-engaging' with the UN: Chris Hall

Justin Trudeau and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said all the right things when they met in Ottawa yesterday. But while Canada is clearly interested in upping its aid and peacekeeping commitments, it's not clear how much money is really on the table.

Trudeau-Ban Ki-Moon meeting goes well, but how much money is really on the table

After you. Justin Trudeau shows UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a portrait of his late father, Pierre Trudeau, following their meeting Thursday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

He came. They met. They smiled for the cameras and said all the right things.

After years of uneasy relations between the UN and the previous Conservative government, the mere meeting of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passed for news here in Ottawa on Thursday.

Ban emerged from his meeting with the prime minister and a handful of cabinet ministers to pronounce his delight with the "very constructive talks."

He declared Canada as one of the UN's most important partners, and managed even to slip in a little joke about the Canadian winter.

"The weather here is quite cold,'' he told reporters, as if that might be a surprise to them. "But the relations between the United Nations and Canada are very, very warm."

Well, relations are warm now. But that hasn't really been the case in the past decade under Stephen Harper.

The former prime minister remained, at best, indifferent to the UN. He routinely skipped the opportunity to speak at the opening session of the General Assembly. And he sent a cabinet minister to UN-sponsored discussion on climate change and a bureaucrat to the first world conference on indigenous people in 2014.

Indeed, Canada's engagement with the UN was largely dictated by Harper's own direct interest, notably his maternal and child health initiative that has been praised for making a real difference in reducing mortality rates among mothers and newborns in many parts of the developing world.

But on virtually every other front — from peacekeeping to the Conservatives dogged support for Israel to climate change — Harper didn't engage with world leaders in New York.

'Re-upping our game'

Little wonder then that Trudeau chose to focus on some of those very issues in his own remarks after meeting with the secretary general.

"On climate change we discussed the importance of the Paris agreement and how the UN and Canada can collaborate more closely to ensure that we achieve our ambitious goals," Trudeau said.

"I reiterated the commitment of our government to strengthen the UN's ability to maintain peace and security, including by increasing support for peace operations and contributing more to mediation, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction efforts."

Trudeau is saying all the right things, at least for those many Canadians who worked at or with the UN over the years.

"We have been a very influential player,'' says Carolyn McAskie, a former assistant secretary general for peacekeeping from 2006-2008 and now an active member of the Ottawa-based McLeod Group, an organization focused on foreign policy, diplomacy and international development.

"It's about time we began re-upping our game."

McAskie was among those who harshly criticized the previous government for refusing to even try to fix any problems at the UN. Now she is looking to the Trudeau government to put all those nice words about re-engaging with the world into action.

More money please

That re-engagement would include making a substantial commitment of military and police to peacekeeping operations, signing the Arms Trade Treaty, committing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and, finally, meeting the long-standing UN target of dedicating 0.75 per cent of gross national income to foreign aid.

U.N. peacekeepers stand guard in a mainly Muslim neighborhood in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, during presidential elections in December. The 1,200 UN force has had difficulty keeping the peace in a country where religious conflict has raised its head. (Reuters)

"This isn't money for handouts,'' McAskie says. "This is an investment in global security. It's in the interest of Canada to invest in developing countries because groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been strengthened by the poverty, poor governance and desertification."

These are all good points. Still, it's a big ask, not just in terms of money but in trying to get development cash to a part of the world that is being overrun by guns and suicide bombers.

The Liberals under Trudeau have already committed $840 million over three years for humanitarian aid in the Middle East, and another $270 million over the same time frame to address development needs.

Expanding that kind of commitment to other areas won't come cheap — Canada's development aid is currently running at about a third of that UN target.

What's more, any new money would come at a time when declining oil revenues are forcing the government to concede that its promised $10-billion deficits in each of the next three years will be much larger.

Ban added his expectations for even more money from Canada, to meet those development goals, and to assist developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Trudeau signalled Canada is prepared to step up.

He spoke about the contributions Canada can make to peacekeeping, especially because the Canadian Forces has a large number of francophone and bilingual officers -- a plus in areas such as the French-speaking Central African Republic where some former UN peacekeepers have been accused of sexual violence against women and girls.

Trudeau is very aware of the role past Liberal government have played in the creation of the UN itself, as well as in establishing peacekeeping as a way to diffuse tensions in hot spots around the globe.

In that sense, he's continuing the tradition by ensuring that Canada is seen as returning to the world stage, and by reminding Canadians that the UN matters.

And there's one more thing. Trudeau acknowledged that re-engaging "robustly with the United Nations" includes seeking one of the non-permanent seats on the Security Council sometime in the future.

In case anyone's forgotten, that's something the Harper Conservatives failed to do in 2010, when Canada lost its bid to join the select group to Portugal.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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