Trudeau launches a charm campaign in Africa to win a Security Council seat. Will it work?

Canada has invested about two million dollars in its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. Now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is investing more than a week of his own time on a trip that aims to corral African votes for Canada's bid.

The long-odds campaign for a Security Council seat has cost the government $2 million to date

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York Sept. 21, 2017. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Canada has invested about two million dollars in its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. Now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is investing more than a week of his own time in a trip that aims to corral African votes for Canada's bid.

It's not just a week out of his schedule. He's linking himself personally to a charm campaign that may fail, said Fen Hampson, chancellor's professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

"He's obviously putting his reputation on the line by going there," Hampson said.

Trudeau is also leaving the country at a moment when the spread of the novel coronavirus in China is fuelling fears of a global pandemic.

So how likely is it that this campaign will pay off and win Canada that coveted seat? And is the goal actually worth all the effort?

The seat in question is one of two assigned to the Western Europe and Other States group, which includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand along with most of Western Europe (minus France and Britain, which are permanent members of the Security Council along with the U.S., Russia and China).

The inside track

Canada's rivals for the spot are Norway and Ireland. They have an inside track because they're European countries and a lot of other European countries are inclined to vote for them.

"We came into this really late," said Adam Chapnick, professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and author of the book Canada on the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage.

"Never in our history have we jumped into a campaign for two Western European and Other seats when there are two other countries already campaigning. It works against us to be in a contested campaign. It works against us even more to be the last one in. The Irish have been in for over a decade."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds up an Irish themed rugby shirt during a press conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Farmleigh House, Dublin, Ireland, July 4, 2017. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

And both Ireland and Norway are model global citizens who outdo Canada on the world stage in the generosity of their foreign aid budgets (and in peacekeeping, in Ireland's case).

Trudeau's trip to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa isn't even an original idea; Norway's Erne Solberg did the same thing last year. Even as Trudeau's plane was in the air, the Norwegian government announced Friday that Solberg would also attend the meetings in Addis Adaba this weekend. Norway also has spent about 50 per cent more than Canada on advancing its bid.

It all suggests an uphill battle. But there's another consideration that may favour the Europeans even more.

The Palestinian question

About 80 African and Islamic countries have tended to identify strongly with the Palestinian cause, using their UN votes to punish countries they see as taking Israel's side.

Canada has for years made a point of voting against resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — including those that accord with Canada's own positions and laws — to argue that there is an excessive and unhealthy focus on the Jewish state at the UN.

It's one of the main reasons why, under the government of Stephen Harper, Canada failed to secure a Security Council seat.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the UN Security Council in New York Sept. 24, 2014. Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird listens in at left. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

And although the Trudeau government recently modified its voting behaviour by supporting resolutions on Palestinians' right to self-determination, it's still firmly in the small pro-Israel camp at the UN.

Norway, meanwhile, is the country that famously hosted the Oslo Accords talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and has a long history of peacemaking. Norway's popular UN ambassador, Mona Juul, herself played a role in bringing the two sides together for the Oslo talks 27 years ago.

Because of its own history of colonialism and rebellion, Ireland may be the Western country that most strongly supports Palestinian self-determination.

The Tunisia test

Next week, that issue will come before the Security Council as Tunisia — one of three African countries on the Security Council — brings forward a motion condemning the peace plan produced by President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The U.S. badly wants to avoid having to use its veto in the chamber and is lobbying the temporary members to help it dodge that outcome. If that vote is confined to the Security Council, Canada won't have to take a position (there are benefits to not being a member of the Security Council).

U.S. President Donald Trump passes his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner during a Hanukkah Reception at the White House in Washington Dec. 7, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But the issue may come before the UN General Assembly before the Security Council election on June 17, so Canada may be forced to take sides publicly. It's unlikely that Canada would support a plan that flagrantly disregards existing Security Council resolutions, and so its choices are probably between rejecting the plan and abstaining from the vote.

Canada almost certainly would cast its abstention as something motivated by a desire to avoid a vote that would do nothing to advance peace. That might avoid raising tensions with Washington — but it also would harm its chances of winning the Security Council election.

What's it all for?

Given the steep odds, is the prize worth the investment and the political risks for the Trudeau government?

The Security Council "has become much more gridlocked, hostage to Great Power politics," said Hampson. "If we do win, we may find there is not a whole lot we can actually do in terms of promoting a Canadian agenda on the council."

There was a period following the Cold War when there was more room for middle powers with temporary seats to advance their agendas. But as the U.S., China and Russia have reverted to old rivalries, the situation has changed, said Hampson.

"The fundamental problem with the Security Council is that it's not prepared to take action because the great powers have rival interests," he said. "Nowhere is that more evident than in what has been an ongoing crisis and bloodbath in Syria."

Still, Hampson said, Canada sees a strong UN as something in its interest, and wants to defend the institution at a time when it is under attack from the Trump administration.

Chapnick said being on the council would give Canada important face time with more powerful nations and could help it resolve its own issues with permanent members like China.

Friends in Africa?

For Canada, Africa represents a rich vein of 54 unpredictable votes that could give Canada the boost it needs. Much of the continent is francophone, including Senegal, one of the stops on Trudeau's tour.

About 40 per cent of Canada's international aid budget goes to Africa. Ethiopia, the first stop on the tour, receives the most — about $200 million a year.

Ireland is more generous on a per capita basis, and has an aggressive plan to boost its aid spending even further. But it is also a much smaller country than Canada, with a total foreign aid budget about a fifth the size. (Norway's is closer.)

Canada's UN Ambassador Marc-Andre Blanchard won't say how many votes he's counting on from the continent. "That number is a secret that our competitors dream of knowing, but we're not going to say," he told CBC News.

Blanchard does say that Canada will "make no compromise on values, and especially not on human rights, in the context of our bid for a UN Security Council seat."

A health worker, left, injects a man with an Ebola vaccine in Conakry, Guinea, March 7, 2015. Canada donated 800 doses of its experimental vaccine, a supply that existed because Canadian scientists at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg arranged for the manufacture of the vaccine — something normally done by a private drug company. (Youssouf Bah/The Associated Press)

Canada has much to offer African countries where two-thirds of citizens are under 30 and half are unemployed or under-employed, he said. "We are a champion in infrastructure. We're a champion in innovation. We're a champion in entrepreneurship. We're known for that. Those are all things Africa needs."

Blanchard cited Sierra Leone as an African country where Canada has been a long-term partner: "We helped them to establish peace after eight years of civil war. We helped them through their Ebola outbreak. We helped when they had a major landslide. We helped them get through three presidential elections, which are always moments of fragility in a vulnerable country after a conflict."

Asked if that entitles Canada to expect Sierra Leone's vote, Blanchard just laughed.

Pressing the flesh

In the context of UN politics, Trudeau's in-person charm offensive in Africa makes sense, said Hampson.

"If you are serious about running for the council, you have to be seen, you have to be visible, you have to be visiting the different regional neighbourhoods and doing good old fashioned arm-twisting and lobbying other countries to vote for you," he said.

Chapnick said that although Canada is coming from behind, it still has a fighting chance.

"It seems to me that the government is reasonably confident that it is not out of this bid. Otherwise, you wouldn't see the prime minister himself using valuable political capital," he said.

"These things really do matter, especially with some of the small states, where a visit from a G7 prime minister, a prime minister who is still quite popular around the world, can do wonders for that government's popularity."

Chapnick said that there also will be behind-the-scenes horse-trading if Canada is serious about winning votes. And just as Canada can't count on promises of support — as it learned to its cost during its last bid in 2010 — neither can the Irish or the Norwegians.

"These things are unpredictable. It's amazing what an aggressive vote swap campaign can do. And countries lie."


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.

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