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Justin Trudeau Wants Canada’s Security Council Seat Back, But It May Take a Decade

Trudeau is vying for Canada's spot on the United Nations Security Council. But he's got some baggage to deal with, first.
February 11, 2016, 9:05pm
Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada will vie to get back onto the UN Security Council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday, six years after it suffered a stinging loss to Portugal.

"Part of Canada wishing to re-engage robustly with the United Nations and in multilateral engagement around the world includes looking towards a bid for the UN Security Council," Trudeau said in a press conference following his meeting with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

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But there's skepticism.

"I don't think Canada can realistically expect to be elected to the [security council] for another 10 years," Yves Fortier, Canada's former ambassador to the UN, told VICE News.

"We're looking at a number of windows in the coming years," Trudeau said on Thursday. "We're going to evaluate the opportunities for Canada to mount a successful bid and we will have more to say about that in due course."

Ki-moon said he "enthusiastically welcomes" Canada's recommitment to the UN and applauded Trudeau's leadership at the Paris climate talks in November, as well as Canada efforts to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country, calling it a "great demonstration of compassionate leadership."

He also commended Trudeau for his commitment to Canadian youth and to addressing UN human rights recommendations on indigenous people.

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"Although I'll be in Canada for only three days we are laying plans to strengthen our collaboration for years to come," he said.

But Canada's reentry still isn't a sure bet, according to experts.

"If [a seat on the council] were available today, maybe Canada would have a good chance because people were taken by Trudeau at these international conferences," said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science and director of Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto. "But all they'd have is a chance."

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Fortier, who served as the Canadian ambassador to the UN from 1988 to 1991, did add that Trudeau's attitude and Ki Moon's visit boded well.

"I think it is wise for Canada to try to regain some voice by working to be elected to the Security Council. But we will have to work hard," said Stephen Toope, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.

"The rhetorical commitments to be "back" will have to be matched by real financial commitments," he said.

Wiseman said that, within the General Assembly, there exists a 'small countries club,' which could also work against Canada.

"Many of them vote as a block. There are clubs within the block," he said. "You don't know who is voting for whom."

"We are still carrying a lot of garbage."

Canada withdrew from the race for a two-year term in the Security Council in 2010, after it became obvious in the second round of voting that a loss to Portugal was imminent. Prior to that, Canada had served six terms over 60 years, making 2010 the first time the country's bid was rejected.

Experts at the time blamed the defeat on a number of factors, including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unpopularity in the Middle East because of Canada's unflinching support of Israel in its conflict with Palestine, and in Africa for his government's positions on debt relief and funding cutbacks to United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Others, like Wiseman, believed a major factor was a diplomatic spat with the United Arab Emirates, after Canada rejected its request for more landing spots for Emirates Airlines at airports in Montreal and Toronto.

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"There was a lot of bad feeling there, and I believe that they communicated that to their fellow Arab countries in the region," said Wiseman.

Related: https://news.vice.com/article/un-report-alleges-forced-labor-at-canadian-owned-mine-in-eritrea

Much of that has not, and likely will not, change under Trudeau, although his administration has definitely signalled a cozier attitude with the New York-based international forum.

"We are still carrying a lot of garbage," Fortier said in an email, citing "the negative attitude of the previous government vis a vis the UN for 10 years."

Some also said Portugal beat out Canada to become one of 10 rotating members as a result of solidarity among other European countries, who often chose to back one of their own.

At the time, Harper's camp blamed the loss on public comments by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who didn't believe Canada had earned its place on the council.

"This is a government that for four years has basically ignored the United Nations and now is suddenly showing up saying, 'Hey, put us on the council,'" Ignatieff had said. "Don't mistake me. I know how important it is for Canada to get a seat on the Security Council, but Canadians have to ask a tough question: Has this government earned that place? We're not convinced it has."

Fortier believed Ignatieff's comments had no bearing on the election, but that the loss should've been seen as reflection of how the majority of nations felt about Canada's actions.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Harper's communications director Dimitri Soudas said "Mr. Ignatieff questioning and opposing Canada's bid" was a big, deciding factor.

"That was a factor that played ultimately against Canada because people outside of Canada were saying, 'Well, Germany and Portugal have a united front, their opposition and their governments seem to be fully, 100 per cent behind this bid,'" he said.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk