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Experts React to PM Harper’s Speech at United Nations

Canadians who listened to their Prime Minister’s speech at this year’s United Nations opening General Debate will not have been surprised. While some might have hoped that his decision to address the General Assembly would mark a turning of the page, a renewal of Canada’s strong commitment to the world organization, Mr. Harper gave no indication of any change in Canada’s withdrawn and at times derisive approach to the UN.

Reactions to the Prime Minister’s speech came from some of the authors and organizers of a publication released this week on “The United Nations and Canada: What Canada has done and should be doing at the United Nations.” (See www.unitednationsandcanada.org). Twenty Canadian foreign policy experts provide analysis and suggestions on how Canada can renew support for the UN and restore its standing in the world community.

The period ahead for the UN is one that involves major and decisive processes on critical global issues, for example: climate change; a post-2015 framework for global sustainable development programming; a review of global peace operations and UN peacekeeping capacities; the review of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty; important sessions of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

The Prime Minister’s speech said little about how Canada is prepared to contribute to resolving these shared global problems. Rather, Mr. Harper was in broadcast mode, lecturing delegates on our dangerous world with tough talk, bluster and bellicosity (“Canada strives for a world … where all will join in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.”)

Emphasizing conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq/Syria, Mr. Harper chose to reinforce the threats posed by terrorists and “foreign fighters.” These are undoubtedly among the world’s most pressing problems, yet there was little on what Canada will contribute to UN peace operations around the world, now at a record-high level of deployment – nearly 120,000 peacekeepers, with many missions still understaffed. For a country like Canada, having withdrawn personnel from Afghanistan and with a proud peacekeeping history, contributing to UN peace operations would be a logical move and could make an important contribution to international security. Evidently, given the 118 Canadian police and military personnel currently serving on UN missions, this Canadian government doesn’t see it that way.

While in New York a record 120 heads of state attended a world summit on climate change and heard important commitments (including from the U.S. and China) that improve prospects for a renewed Climate treaty at the 2015 conference in Paris. However, Mr. Harper was a no-show, and the international community is still waiting to see to what extent Canada, a major polar country, will join the fight.

High level talks are also being held on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, where a Secretary-General’s draft Outcome Document lists 17 priority objectives that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Canada aimed to ensure that its emphasis on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) remains among the world’s priorities. But there was no commitment to restore Canadian development spending which has been seriously cut back and also distorted by the switch of developing country priorities from poor African countries to high income countries in Asia and Latin America where Canada has trade interests.

Canada’s program spending on the MNCH initiative contains useful and welcome initiatives, but unlike other donors and partners who understand that the provision of family planning services is a fundamental element which can save millions of lives, Canada has chosen not to provide this even though Canadian women benefit daily from these services. In addition, claims of “Canada’s global leadership in championing the health of women and children in developing countries” are considerably overblown. The health of women, newborns and children has been a development priority for years and was well entrenched in the MDGs. Other countries spend more on MNCH, including funds for the reproductive health services for women that Canada refuses to provide.

The United Nations, as a universal institution that depends on its member states, is an essential element in the task of ensuring a sustainable global future. In a world of globalized economic risk, political and security crises, interlinked environmental and health effects, along with ongoing humanitarian crises and pressing development needs, it has become virtually impossible for any one government to stand alone if it wishes to influence global events. If one of a government’s primary responsibilities is to protect its own interests in the world, the current approach to the United Nations by Canada is difficult to understand. Marred by a combination of disdain and neglect, this dismal Canadian approach was simply reinforced by Mr. Harper’s remarks this week.

See also, Media Commentary (September 26 2014): Experts React to PM Harper’s Speech at United Nations