Canada faces steep odds in battle to join UN Security Council

Canada is in the running for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, but is in tough against Ireland and Norway.

Rivals Ireland, Norway may have the inside track in the race to reach diplomatic prize

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured at the United Nations headquarters in New York City last year. Trudeau has said Canada and the world benefits when the country has a seat at the UN Security Council. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

With nearly two years to go until the vote for the 2021 UN Security Council, it may seem strange that Canada is lobbying other nations that are gathering on the east side of Manhattan for the 73rd UN General Assembly.

That is indeed the focus of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy at this week-long event, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several members of his cabinet.

Government sources say Canada refrained from campaigning too openly before June 8, when the 2020 Security Council vote was held, out of a sense of decorum. With that out of the way, Canadian diplomats have been encouraged to raise Canada's bid with any foreign counterpart who will listen.

All are aware that there will never be a better time to recruit support than this week.

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'The entire world is watching'

It's particularly important because next year's general assembly coincides with the height of another campaign even more important for the Trudeau government: the Canadian federal election.

The Security Council has 15 members: five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and 10 non-permanent members that are chosen in rotating elections.

Canada is competing against Ireland and Norway for two available seats around the UN Security Council table. (Chip East/Reuters)

"The entire world is watching very closely," Canada's permanent representative at the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, told CBC News. "All of these elections for the Western groups attract a lot of attention. They're always, always highly competitive, and this one will be no exception. There are two seats open and three candidates: Ireland, Norway and Canada."

The government of Canada likes to talk about "punching above its weight" diplomatically. But Ireland and Norway, with a combined population significantly smaller than that of Ontario, might fit that description better.

Norway gave the UN its first secretary general, Trygve Lie, and has been instrumental in achieving peace agreements in some of the world's most intractable conflicts, starting with the Oslo Accords, 1990s agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Norway's generosity a plus

The Oslo deal led two more countries experiencing brutal civil conflicts, Sri Lanka and Colombia, to appeal for Norwegian help. And at least one of the peace deals Norway helped broker — Colombia's — is still holding.

Norway is also the world's most generous foreign aid donor, giving over one per cent of its gross domestic product to help developing countries. (Canada gives about 0.26 per cent of GDP.)

Norwegian soldiers that were part of the International Security Assistance Force load humanitarian aid onto a German helicopter in Afghanistan in 2006. Norway is the world's most generous foreign-aid donor. (Musadeq Sadq/AFP/Getty Images)

Norway knows its generosity is a selling point.

For its part, Ireland excels in an area where Canada used to shine but more recently has been content to rest on its laurels: UN peacekeeping.

Ireland has double the blue helmets

Canada has now returned to the field, deploying 260 servicemen and women to Mali. But Ireland also has peacekeepers in Mali, as well as Syria, Western Sahara, Congo-Kinshasa and Kosovo. Over 600 Irish blue helmets are deployed around the world from a nation with the population of British Columbia.

Ireland can point to an unbroken record of peacekeeping on some of the UN's toughest missions going back to 1958.

Irish UN peacekeeping soldiers take part in a ceremony in Lebanon in 2007. Ireland can point to an unbroken record of peacekeeping on some of the UN's toughest missions going back to 1958. (Ali Dia/AFP/Getty Images)

Diplomats agree: Ireland and Norway are both model UN members — and that makes them tough opponents.

"At this point, Canada doesn't have the 128 votes it needs to win a seat outright," said Jocelyn Coulon, head of the Université​ de Montréal's Network on Peace Operations and the author of several books on peacekeeping.

"And right now, I think the conversation that's taking place within the Prime Minister's Office is about whether Canada would be ready to talk about sharing a seat with Ireland."

Precedent for seat-sharing

Coulon said that could be a way to avoid a long series of votes and ultimately a defeat. However, there's no guarantee Ireland would agree to such an arrangement, he said.

"It still depends on whether Ireland has the confidence to say, 'We believe we can win on the first round, and don't need to share the seat.'

"It could happen that both countries find themselves on the floor on the day of the vote in June 2020, facing an impasse, and decide then and there to share the Security Council seat. That's what happened between Italy and the Netherlands."

Those two countries reached a deal after both countries deadlocked through five rounds of voting. Italy took the seat for the first half of the two-year term (in 2017), and Netherlands took it over the second year.

  Leo Varadkar, Ireland's  taoiseach, or prime minister, was quick to pour cold water on the idea of a shared seat.

"Yeah, that's not something under consideration," he said.

"If I remember correctly there was a tied vote on that occasion and so that was a particular solution to a particular issue. No, you know there are five permanent seats. There are ten elected seats and Ireland wants to be elected to it. And we don't propose to do any deal of that nature."

Canada's most recent attempt failed

Some other council members didn't like the shared seating arrangement, and it's not clear it can be repeated.

In 2010, Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, centre, flanked by Peter Kent, Canadian secretary of state for the Americas, left, and Canada's UN Ambassador John McNee, participate in a news conference at United Nations headquarters after Germany and Portugal successfully bid for Security Council seats. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Apart from a failed bid in 1946 during the UN's infancy, Canada had a proven track record in securing a security seat. 

Until 2000, Canada had obtained a seat on the Security Council in each decade of the UN's existence.

That changed in 2010 under Stephen Harper's government. Then, as now, Canada and two European countries (Germany and Portugal) were competing for two spots.

Votes on Israel an issue

Germany won the necessary two-thirds majority in the first round. During the second round, Portugal was so far ahead of Canada that the Harper government instructed its diplomats to withdraw to avoid a humiliating loss.

Harper government ministers would later describe their defeat as the price Canada paid for a "principled foreign policy".

The votes Canada cast in support of Israel — sometimes in a minority made up of the U.S., Canada, the Jewish state itself, and a few tiny Polynesian and Melanesian islands that generally allow the U.S. to dictate their UN votes — alienated a larger bloc of nations.

The Trudeau government has continued that voting pattern.

Less spending on bid so far

In December 2017, Canada abstained on a vote condemning a unilateral decision by the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It's very hard to say if we're doing better or worse.- Gilles Rivard, former Canadian ambassador to the UN

Ireland and Norway both supported the motion, along with 126 other countries.

Although Canada's campaign is ramping up, it is still much less of an effort than the one that attended the last successful bid in 1998, which cost about $10 million.

So far, the government has spent only about half a million dollars.

'Refined our approach'

  "It's very hard to say if we're doing better or worse," said Gilles Rivard, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN. "We know better what are the files we have to focus on, we've refined our approach. It's a question of calculating and evaluating the level of support for the first round. The strategy for a second round of voting can also be very important.

"There's a team that's in place, a new ambassador in New York who's very competent. Relationships are being developed, there's a lot of networking."

In UN elections, it's often necessary to butter up the permanent representatives of unsavoury regimes Canada might prefer to shun.

Rivard said countries can't take any votes for granted in the secret ballot system.

A prize worth fighting for

"If Germany had had two fewer votes in the first round in 2010, that would have changed the whole game."

Diplomats maintain that a council seat is a prize worth fighting for.

"The Security Council table is the core," said Blanchard. "It's the epicentre of the multilateral infrastructure that Canada believes so much in. And this epicentre, this table, is the only place in the world that can authorize sanctions, and that can authorize the use of force.

"The countries that get elected are the countries that show to the world that they're the most relevant, that they can make the biggest difference, but also that they want it the most."

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  • A previous version of this story stated that Canada never lost a security council bid unil 2010. In fact, Canada failed to secure a bid in 1946.
    Sep 24, 2018 3:04 PM ET


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.