Canada’s Failure to Win A U.N. Security Council Seat Follows Years of Sparring With Islamic States

By Patrick Goodenough | October 14, 2010 | 5:01 AM EDT

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 23, 2010. (UN Photo by Rick Bajornas)

( – Canada’s unprecedented failure to win a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council triggered a wave of analysis and soul searching in the country, where many see it as payback by Islamic states and their allies for Ottawa’s strong pro-Israel stance in the world body.

Other reasons put forward by commentators for Canada’s defeat in a vote Tuesday include unhappiness in various parts of the world with the Conservative government’s foreign aid, human rights and climate change policies, while some blamed longstanding practices at the U.N. that that need reform.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is being slammed on the left for not being sufficiently “progressive” in his foreign policy, and praised in some conservative quarters for refusing to let other countries, especially those falling short of democratic norms, dictate Canada’s policies.

“We don’t have a seat because we didn’t dance to the U.N.’s hypocritical tunes,” the Winnipeg Free Press said in an editorial Wednesday.

(Sixty percent of U.N. member states in 2010 are “electoral democracies,” according to Freedom House, but the Washington-based organization rates only 46 percent as “free.”)

Some in Canada say that Harper tried to have things both ways and had only himself to blame.

“[T]he lesson from this loss is that you can be ‘principled’ or you can be popular,” opined National Post political columnist John Ivison. “The Prime Minister should have figured out much earlier that you can’t be both.”

“Stephen Harper should have steered clear of the U.N. in the first place,” argued another National Post columnist, Kelly McParland. “With all its hypocrisy and negotiable principles, it’s a place more suited to Liberals.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meet in Ottawa on May 12, 2010. (UN Photo by Mark Garten)

Canadian government sources meanwhile blamed the Liberal opposition for not throwing its weight behind the national bid, pointing to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s earlier remark that his party was “not convinced” the government had earned a place on the UNSC.

In his response to the outcome, Ignatieff commented that after four years of Conservative government “the sad reality is that too many countries have lost faith in the way Canada conducts its international relations.”

The left-wing New Democrats said “an overhaul of Conservative government’s foreign policy” was needed.

Whatever the reasons for Tuesday’s election defeat in New York, it was a first for Canada, which has stood successfully for a two-year stint on the Security Council once a decade ever since the U.N. was created in 1948.

Five of the UNSC’s 10 non-permanent seats were filled in a vote by the 192 members of the General Assembly. Three went to South Africa, India and Colombia after their respective regional groups put up only a single candidate each.

The other two were earmarked for the Western Europe and Others group (known as WEOG, with the “others” including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and were contested by three countries – Canada, Portugal and Germany.

Germany went through in a first round of voting, and run-off handed victory to Portugal, with Canada withdrawing after scoring just 78 votes to its rival’s 113.

Canadian-born conservative commentator David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, blamed E.U. bloc voting practices for Canada’s failure. Two of the UNSC’s 10 rotating seats are reserved for WEOG members, and the E.U. also effectively controls two of the five permanent seats – those held since the U.N.’s founding by Britain and France.

The “elegant solution” to the problem, Frum suggested, would be for the permanent seat now held by France to become a permanent E.U. seat. Then WEOG could agree that one of its two rotating seats should be reserved for non-European members of WEOG.

Human Rights Council battlefield

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) wields 56 votes in the General Assembly, and often votes as a bloc – especially on issues of particular importance to many Islamic governments, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and “religious defamation.”

Its growing influence has been especially evident at the U.N.’s Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, where the OIC has never held fewer than 14 of its 47 seats, and this year holds a record 18.

With backing from non-Islamic allies including China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua and South Africa, the OIC has often used its weight to drive the four year-old HRC’s agenda, outvoting the group of mostly Western democracies.

From 2006-2009 Canada held a seat on the HRC and during that period it clashed repeatedly with Islamic and other non-democratic members.

One year after the HRC began to operate, an evaluation by the Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch assessed 20 key actions. It handed Canada the highest score, while all 16 OIC members received negative scores, with 12 of them placed at the bottom of the list.

Canada led a small group of mostly European democracies in the council (sometimes joined by others like Japan and Chile) seeking to counter the influence of Islamic states and their allies – usually without success.

On several occasions it voted alone against a resolution. A January 2009 measure condemning Israel for “grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” passed with a 33-1 vote, for instance, with 13 European and other democracies choosing to abstain rather than join Canada in voting no.

Canada also took an early stand on not attending last year’s controversial “Durban II” conference – an event of particular importance to the OIC, which used the preparatory process to focus on Israel and the campaign against “defamation of religion.”

More than a year ahead of conference, Canada announced it would not take part. It was later joined in that stance by Israel, Australia and several other democracies, including – at the eleventh hour – the United States.

Early this year, Canada announced it would no longer fund the U.N.’s sometimes controversial agency for Palestinian refugees, UNWRA, saying it would instead direct the money directly to projects such as food aid, in line with “Canadian values.”

Last month the Canadian Arab Federation in a statement urged all Arab and Islamic states at the U.N. to vote against Canada’s UNSC bid, citing a range of reasons mostly relating to the government’s Middle East policy, but also the decision to boycott “Durban II” and its refusal to deal with the CAF and another Canadian Islamic group. McParland of the National Post said that, if anything, Canada’s rejection by OIC states was something of which to be proud.

“Given the anti-Israel bias that pervades the U.N., campaigning for a seat on the Security Council – if it requires the OIC’s approval – is the international equivalent of applying for membership at a club that bans Jews,” he wrote.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow