'We cannot afford to fail' in Afghanistan, Harper warns UN

The success of the mission in Afghanistan is vital to the health and future of the United Nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday.

The success of the mission in Afghanistan is vital to the health and future of the United Nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday in his first address to the world body.

"If we fail the Afghan people, we will be failing ourselves," Harper said in defending the UN-sanctioned, NATO-led mission, which includes more than 2,000 Canadian troops.

The increasingly violent mission has come under increasing criticism both in Canada and abroad, but Harper told the UN that the Afghan mission is "Canada's biggest and most important overseas engagement."

Canada, which has taken a leadership role in the violent southern region,will continue to support the UN mission, despite the challenges ahead, he said.

"Difficulties don't daunt us. But lack of common purpose and will in this body would," said Harper. "Our collective will and credibility are being judged. We cannot afford to fail. We will succeed."

Thirty-sevencountries have contributed about 20,000 troopsunder the NATO banner,who work alongside20,000 U.S. soldiers in the country.

Afghanistan a global effort

Harper spoke at the opening session of the UN General Assembly debate in New York, his first address to the world body since becoming prime minister in January.

The 15-minute speech — the time limit allotted to each of the UN's 192 members — was aimed at boosting Canadian support for the mission, which has claimed the lives of 36 soldiers and one diplomat since it started in early 2002.

The mission was started by the previous Liberal government and extended to 2009 by Harper's Conservatives in the spring.

But as the death toll mounts, Harper's government has faced opposition calls to bring the troops home early and accusations that Canada is taking part in a U.S.-led war.

The democratically elected government of Afghanistan requested UN help, Harper pointed out to theassembled leadersas he stressedthe international nature of the mission.

At least 19 UN agencies are working in Afghanistan, along with the NATO troops and U.S. forces, he said.

Lebanon, Darfur among looming'tests': Harper

Harper outlined a number of upcoming "tests" on which the UN would be judged, including:

  • Helping stabilize Haiti.
  • Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in western Sudan.
  • Ensuring peace along the Lebanon-Israel border.
  • Clamping down on the spread of nuclear proliferation.

He challenged the United Nations to make sure the new Human Rights Council places human rights above "political manoeuvring" and doesn't meet the fate of its "failed predecessor organization."

The old UN Human Rights Commission was criticized for allowing some of the world's worst human rights abusers to sit as members, including Libya, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Harper also criticized the pace of management reform at the UN, laid out by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan earlier this year. Canada's government has been given a mandate to become more accountable, he said, adding that the UN should follow suit.

"The taxpayers of member nations … make significant financial contributions to this organization," said Harper.

"They have the right to expect stronger, more independent oversight mechanisms, more robust accountability for how funds are spent, and human resources practices that are based on merit."

PM missed chance: opposition

Opposition politicians quickly denounced the speech as a missed opportunity.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe complained that Harper failed to addressmany issues, including trade, climate change and cultural diversity. "What he didn't say is more important than what he said."

"We wanted a clear overall policy and not a justification of war in Afghanistan," Duceppe said.

Liberal MP Keith Martin said Harper missed an opportunity to address serious issues, such as Darfur and AIDS.

Martin said Harper should have issued a cri de coeur (cry from the heart) to intervene in Darfur, where the conflicthas claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions.

The MP said Harpersimply repeated truisms in his speech on Afghanistan. Martin alsocomplained that opposition politicians have not been able to get any answers on how aid money to the country is being spent.