Trudeau faces another tough vote — Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat

The election is still eight months away but diplomats tell CBC News that Canada's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council is facing challenges already — due to Ottawa's voting pattern in the General Assembly and its late entry in the race.

Canada, a late entrant, can expect scrutiny of its voting record on Israel

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

The election is still eight months away but diplomats tell CBC News that Canada's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council is already facing challenges — due to Ottawa's voting pattern in the General Assembly and its late entry in the race.

Canada put forward its candidacy in 2016, about a decade after Ireland (2005) and Norway (2007) announced they were running.

"It's not seen as very nice to cut the line in that way," said one senior European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some states already have made reciprocal agreements with the other two candidates, such as vote-swapping, "and we cannot break those commitments," the diplomat added.

There are five permanent veto-wielding members on the council: the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China, also known as the P5. The remaining ten seats are distributed by region.

Why the rush?

Canada is vying for a two-year seat on the Security Council beginning in 2021 as part of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). Two seats in the WEOG group open up every two years.

According to the government's own estimates, as of September 30 Canada had spent $1,865,269 on its campaign for a security council seat. That sum does not include the salaries of the 13 government employees appointed to work full-time on Canada's bid.

Some observers — including people within the Liberal government itself — question why Canada didn't choose to run in the next WEOG election against Switzerland and Malta in 2022, when it would have a much greater chance of winning.

Canada has not provided a "justifiable" reason for wanting to "be a member of the council that badly, and now," said a senior diplomat from the Middle East. "Give me one reason. Explain it to me."

The same official added that Canada lost some support for its bid when it abstained on a key General Assembly resolution in December 2017, demanding the U.S. rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

"It will affect the decision of many Arab countries," said the delegate.

The Israel factor

An overwhelming 128 of the 172 nations present on the day of the vote approved the nonbinding resolution declaring Washington's move "null and void." Norway and Ireland, Canada's rivals for the WEOG seats, voted in favour of the resolution.

Canada also regularly votes against or abstains on, the 16 recurrent resolutions on Palestinian issues which go before the General Assembly every year, including resolutions on Palestinian self-determination, sovereignty over natural resources and the illegality of Israeli settlements.

The same Middle Eastern diplomat said, however, that the race will be not be won or lost based on the support of Arab nations, but on the 54 countries within the vote-rich African bloc, most of which decide how to vote in the weeks leading up to the June election.

''You don't want to piss off any of the three countries. You want to have good relations with all of them,'' said an African diplomat, explaining the reluctance to be forthright about which of the three candidates African nations will back on the first and second ballots.

''You're talking about countries that are very heavily reliant on development assistance sometimes, so they don't want to go and upset the apple cart,'' the diplomat added. ''If Canada can leverage its Francophonie and its Commonwealth ties [in Africa], it can make a significant difference.''

Canada is one of the founding members of the UN but its standing within the organization was diminished under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who often chose to skip the annual UN General Assembly as well as other high-level gatherings.

This loss of status was brought into focus in 2010 when, for the first time since 1946, Canada failed to get the required number of votes to secure a rotating seat on the Security Council.

A Canadian soldier stands watch as Canadian troops arrive at a UN base in Gao, Mali, on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The contribution of helicopters and troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali was seen as an important step in fulfilling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's 2015 claim that ''Canada is back'' on the world stage.

Ottawa also resumed contributions in 2015 to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which helps Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. UN officials say Canada's payments average $23 million annually. Canada had stopped contributing entirely in 2013 under the Harper government.

Canada has been praised for its work on innovative climate change projects such as the Closing the Investment Gap (CIG) initiative, which helps developing countries find new sources of funding for resilient sustainable infrastructure projects.

Without saying how his country might vote next June, Fiji's UN ambassador Satyendra Prasad said he believes Canada would bring a ''fresh perspective'' to the council on the security threats posed by climate change.

Prasad applauded Canada's UN ambassador, Marc-André Blanchard, for leading the charge on this issue at the world body — an important endorsement given that every country has one vote and it's estimated one-quarter to one-third of UN ambassadors cast ballots based on personal instincts rather than instructions from capitals.

One senior delegate summed up the voting process this way: ''Do you like this guy or not?'

Marc-André Blanchard, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. (Melissa Kent/CBC)

Stiff competition

Personalities notwithstanding, Canada is up against two popular allies with strong records of backing the UN.

Norway is the largest foreign aid donor per capita. According to the most recent figures, Oslo gives almost 1 per cent of its Gross National Income (GNI) to Official Development Assistance (ODA), while Ireland contributes 0.32 per cent. Canada is in third place, donating 0.27 per cent of its GNI.

'We are confident but not complacent,' says Norway’s Deputy Head of Campaign, Meena Syed about her country’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-2022. (Melissa Kent/CBC)

Norway has a reputation as an impartial and successful facilitator of negotiations resolving protracted conflicts, such as the 2016 Colombia peace deal. Norway's UN ambassador, Mona Juul, also played a key role in the top-secret meetings which culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO.

Norway also designed, built and gifted the Security Council chamber to the UN in 1952, including its iconic horseshoe-shaped table.

The UN Security Council meets Oct. 29, 2019. ( CBC News)

''The conventional wisdom in New York is that Ireland is the leading candidate,'' said Richard Gowan, UN director at the non-profit International Crisis Group.

Countries need the support of at least two-thirds of the General Assembly to get elected to the council. That's 129 votes if all member-states are present on the day of the election.

Ireland's decision not to join NATO may help its bid, said Gowan, but its real strength lies in the fact that it is the only EU candidate. ''You will see the other members of the European Union campaigning very hard on its behalf," he said.

He said Dublin has also been good at reaching out to the developing world, emphasizing its own experience as a former colony.

''We've not forgotten what it's like to face starvation … We've not forgotten what it's like to live in danger and desperation,'' U2 frontman Bono told delegates at the UN following a free concert for more than 150 diplomats at Madison Square Garden last year. ''Neither have we forgotten the help we had from this community.''

Gowan said he believes that while Canada may have started at a disadvantage, there's a sense now that it is ''running a tight and professional campaign.''

He said he doesn't think the late start, nor its pro-Israel line, are "fatal" to Canada's chances — but that could change quite suddenly if events conspire to draw attention to Canada's past votes on matters dealing with Israel and the region.

''The risk for Canada is that there will be a major crisis in the Middle East in the run-up to the vote,'' said Gowan. ''If that crisis puts Canada on the spot, and it has to decide to prioritize its support for Israel or its desire to win a council seat, that will be a very difficult dilemma.''

Blanchard, meanwhile, sounded a positive note on Ottawa's bid to return to the big table.

''Canada can make a huge difference on the Security Council and I hope that member states feel the same way and vote for us,'' he said.


Melissa Kent


Melissa Kent is a producer with CBC News covering the United Nations from its headquarters in New York City. @KentUNCBC