Tories defend withdrawal from UN drought 'talkfest'

The Conservative government says it is pulling out of a United Nations convention that fights droughts in Africa and elsewhere because it is not interested in supporting a bureaucratic 'talkfest.'

Not an 'effective way' to spend taxpayers' money, prime minister says

Canada pulls out of UN drought pact

10 years ago
Duration 4:04
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said a UN convention that combats drought is too bureaucratic and defended Canada's decision to pull out.

The Conservative government says it is pulling out of a United Nations convention that fights drought in Africa and elsewhere because it is not interested in supporting a bureaucratic "talkfest."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said less than one-fifth of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification goes to programming.

"This particular organization spends less than 20 per cent — 18 per cent — of the funds that we send it are actually spent on programming, the rest goes to various bureaucratic measures.That's not an effective way to spend taxpayers' money," Harper told MPs during question period Thursday.

Cabinet quietly ordered Canada's withdrawal from the convention last week, ahead of a major scientific meeting on the agreement next month in Germany. The government said Thursday it would not attend the meeting.

The Canadian Press reported Wednesday the UN secretariat that administers the program was unaware of Canada's decision until contacted by its reporter.

A spokesperson for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) told CBC News the head of the secretariat was informed of the decision on Monday, and written confirmation was delivered to the UN Secretary General's office in New York the same day.

However, a UN official in Bonn told CBC News that Canada notified the UN about its withdrawal "informally last week by telephone," and "this is not considered proper notification … or protocol."

The proper protocol is to formally write to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York and formally provide a notice that Canada is withdrawing from the treaty, which was only done Thursday afternoon, the UN official said.

A UN news release on the matter is expected Friday.

The CIDA spokesperson said the agency had already paid its contribution of $350,000 for 2012 and would honour its $315,000 commitment for 2013. The government was required to give a year's notice of its withdrawal.

The opposition NDP accused the government of turning its back on Africa, and of diminishing Canada's international standing.

'Bureaucracy and talkfests'

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the convention — whose full title is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, in those Countries Experiencing Severe Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa — a "talkfest."

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says taxpayers' money is better spent on other climate change initiatives than a UN convention to fight drought. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Maybe for a group here on Parliament Hill in Ottawa $350,000 is a little bit of money, but for Canadian taxpayers that's a lot of money," Baird told reporters Thursday.

"Very little of this money was going to programming. A small fraction. And we're just not interested in continuing to support bureaucracy and talkfests," he added.

Baird said the government has spent millions of dollars to support agricultural adaptation as well as $1.2 billion on Fast Start financing to help battle climate change in developing nations.

"We're interested in tackling the challenge and not simply in funding bureaucracies where very little of the money is actually going to tackling the challenge," Baird said.

At odds with UN

But Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, said the convention was not about delivering programs.

"This was about working collectively with other partners to better understand what happens with drought that leads to famine that leads to insecurity," Dewar said, pointing to Mali as an example of how drought can threaten regional security.

Dewar called the decision to pull out "shocking," noting it would make Canada the only country in the world outside the  agreement signed by all 194 nations of the UN.

"What it shows is that [the government] either did not understand this convention or they're willingly isolating Canada even more," Dewar told reporters.

"Some of the poorest countries in the world are part of this convention because they understand that we need to better understand the effects of climate change, of drought, on famine."

Robert Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, said Canada's abandonment of the convention amounted to a "departure from global citizenship," The Canadian Press reported.

"It has taken climate-change denial, the abandonment of collective efforts to manage global crises and disregard of the pain and suffering of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (among many others) to quite a different level," Fowler said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and the author of a forthcoming book on global droughts, said the government didn't want to be a part of anything "that can lead to more evidence that we're a planet in crisis environmentally."

"They simply do not want this information coming forward," Barlow told The Canadian Press 

The Conservatives have been frequent critics of the UN and some of its institutions, taking the UN Security Council to task for being slow to act on Syria and engaging in a public war of words with the UN's special rapporteur on food security for being critical of Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press