Canada shifts its UN Security Council campaign pitch in response to pandemic

With the United Nations poised to announce whether the vote on non-permanent Security Council seats will go ahead as scheduled in June, Canada is doubling down on its bid for a seat — and adjusting its pitch to take the COVID-19 crisis into account.

Trudeau government is convinced it needs to be at the table as nations make post-pandemic plans

Senegal's President Macky Sall, left, walks alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after arriving at the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Trudeau received Senegal's support for a seat on the UN Security Council. (Cheikh A.T/The Associated Press)

With the United Nations poised to announce whether the vote on non-permanent Security Council seats will go ahead as scheduled in June, Canada is doubling down on its bid for a seat — and adjusting its pitch to take the COVID-19 crisis into account.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's week-long trip in February to woo African countries for their votes is now a distant memory, as is his cancelled plan to attend the CARICOM summit in Barbados that same month. But the pandemic and the subsequent global economic shutdown have not slowed down Canada's efforts to secure a seat at the UN table.

The bid instead has been redirected toward organizing or chairing virtual global conferences the Trudeau government sees as demonstrating Canada's global leadership in a way that could win more votes.

"The best campaign is when we don't need to campaign, when we just show our leadership, that this is the type of voice that you would want at the Security Council," Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told CBC News.

A close contest

Canada is in a tight fight with Norway and Ireland for the two non-permanent seats out of 10 on the 15-member council that are reserved for Western countries.

Most experts think Norway has a lock on one of those seats, leaving Ireland and Canada to duke it out for the other one (even though Canada entered the race late).

But the Liberal government now sees an opportunity. Champagne said he believes Canada's international standing has grown in 2020, and not only because of its response to the pandemic. The minister also is banking on a boosted profile because of Canada's role in coordinating efforts to investigate the destruction of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down over Iran in January, killing all 176 passengers and crew.

Champagne points to the fact Canada is a member of both the G7 and G20, unlike its competitors, and argues that status allows the government to bring other leaders together and "amplify the voice of other nations" that are more vulnerable in the current health crisis.

And the pandemic itself also could cut the cost of Canada's campaign for a Security Council seat, which already has set the government back $2 million.

"We do a lot of things virtually these days, so it allows us to reach more people without having to go very far," Champagne said.

Critics were questioning the Trudeau government's Security Council campaign even before the global pandemic upended government agendas around the world. Now, the government is saying Canada needs to be at the big table to have a say in how the world recovers from the pandemic — even though the Security Council has been relatively silent on the crisis to date.

It's still a long shot

"It's also in our very selfish national interests that the recovery in other parts of the world is as strong as possible," said Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations Marc-André Blanchard, who has been working behind the scenes on the campaign.

"This is a table where the entire world wants to be, because when you're around that table you're more influential and you're more relevant."

Canada's ambassador to the United Nations Marc-André Blanchard looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (not pictured) takes part in a Q&A session at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal Feb. 13, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Still, the factors that made Canada's bid look like a long shot before the pandemic arrived are still in play: a faltering peacekeeping commitment and relatively low foreign aid commitments.

"Ireland has been peacekeeping since 1958. It's never stopped," said Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN who is closely following the race.

"Our failure on that front is our most serious Achilles heel in seeking the seat."

The pandemic has allowed Canada to boost its presence on the international stage. Trudeau participated Monday in an online pledging conference to raise funds for vaccine development, spearheaded by the European Union. While Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg pledged more than $1 billion US for vaccine development and eventual distribution, Trudeau pointed to $850 million Cdn Canada already had committed to accelerated vaccine development.

That $850 million includes $74 million that's part of the $159.5 million foreign aid package Canada's international development minister announced in April. Ottawa says it's only a beginning.

"This takes a global effort," Trudeau said Monday at his daily briefing. "There will be more to come as the world grapples with this pandemic."

Rhetoric vs. reality

Still, Lewis said Canada's international funding commitment maintains the same level of aid Canada has always offered, and the Liberal government needs to work harder to match its "rhetoric with performance," particularly when it comes to the pandemic.

Canada gives about 0.26 per cent of its GDP in foreign aid. Norway, the world's most generous donor, gives 1 per cent of its GDP.

The old way of winning a Security Council seat — having the prime minister or other high-profile ministers show up in foreign capitals to schmooze — is "a bit of a sham," said Lewis. The vote is a secret ballot and the ambassadors who cast the votes don't always follow orders from the top.

Lewis said the popularity of Canada's ambassador could tip the scales, however.

"Marc-André Blanchard is the real key to this [campaign]," he said. "He's really first-rate and that does not happen often."

Global Affairs Canada is campaigning as though the vote will go ahead on June 17, but there is pressure from some nations to postpone it until the fall, given the logistics involved in having 193 representatives of member states vote online.


Salimah Shivji


Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.

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