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John Ivison: Trudeau's trail of broken promises haunt his UN Security Council campaign

There was a wonderful incongruity to Justin Trudeau’s latest pitch for Canada’s bid to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. It came on the International Day of the Peacekeeper, at a time when Canada’s contribution to a force it helped create in 1956 is at its lowest ever level.

Canada has just 35 personnel involved in UN peacekeeping, a number that compares unfavourably with Ireland and Norway, the two countries with which we are competing for the two spots to represent the Western Europe and Others group. Ireland has around 474 personnel involved in UN missions, while Norway has 65.

The irony is that when Trudeau announced the Security Council bid in February 2016, alongside then UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, he committed Canada to a peacekeeping mission. Two years later, Ban was still waiting  for Canada, as the Trudeau government fretted about the prospect of casualties in hot spots like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It wasn’t until summer 2018 that Canada deployed 250 personnel and eight helicopters to northern Mali. Within 12 months, the Canadians were gone — departing even before their Romanian replacements had arrived in theatre.

When UN ambassadors vote for the two Western Europe and Others spots on June 17, they will be reminded of Canada’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver.

Trudeau was elected on a pledge to “help the world’s poor.” Yet, overseas development assistance has actually slipped as a percentage of gross national income since the Harper government years  to just 0.27 per cent. That compares to 0.31 per cent for the Irish and 1.02 per cent for the Norwegians.

Ireland is campaigning hard on the trust issue — promising small states that the Irish will be their voice at the world’s top table. A terrific promotional video presents Ireland as a “shining light in a very dark world,” in the words of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Against the backdrop of the U2 song One, lead singer Bono says Ireland has known what it is like to live without peace and has valuable lessons to share.

Since close observers believe Norway is favoured to win one of the spots, it may be that Canada is in a head-to-head tussle with the Irish for the second seat. Whether either side did themselves any favours by inviting ambassadors to concerts by U2 and Celine Dion respectively is a matter of opinion.

Adam Chapnick, professor of defence studies at Royal Military College, puts Canada’s prospects at “not much better than 50/50.” He said the recent record on peacekeeping does not stack up well compared to Ireland. But he made a point that would seem compelling — that this is 197 individual elections, with each voter absorbed by what the candidates have done for them lately.

In the big picture, Canada’s credentials on peacekeeping and the percentage of income devoted to aid are not impressive. But Canada’s expenditure on overseas assistance is still four times what the Irish spend in absolute terms ($6.4 billion, against $1.3 billion, according to the OECD. Norway spends a similar amount as Canada). Canada is also a much larger contributor to the UN’s regular budget — $104 million, against $29 million for Norway and $14.3 million for Ireland).

When the U.S. said it would withhold funding for the World Health Organization, Ireland announced it would quadruple its donation to $13.7 million. It donated another $15 million to fight COVID. But the Irish concede they cannot compete with Canada on funding. The Trudeau government has already promised $160 million in COVID-relief for foreign partners, with the prospect of more to come.

The sheer number of daily calls to leaders of emerging nations carries with it the whiff of desperation

As the eighth-largest contributor to the regular budget, Canada should have a louder voice at the UN. As relations with Beijing go from fraught to downright unfriendly, having a seat next to the Chinese ambassador on the council might prove useful.

Trudeau is fully invested in the bid, knowing that he will wear the humiliation if Canada is rebuffed once again. The sheer number of daily calls to leaders of emerging nations carries with it the whiff of desperation.

On Thursday, the prime minister co-hosted a virtual event on international development financing in the time of COVID-19, alongside Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Trudeau was asked how Canada would help break deadlock between the five permanent members of the Security Council, as one of the 10 elected members. He said that Canada had displayed its ability to pull countries together to forge compromise on development financing and has a long history of creating consensus.

Canada’s bid depends on winning support in Africa, where Trudeau spent time wooing members of the African Union and the Francophonie earlier this year, and in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Brazilians remain upset that Canada has opposed its bid for permanent membership of the Security Council. But Canada’s vigorous participation in the Lima Group, the multilateral group formed in response to the crisis in Venezuela, has won it good notices in Latin America.

Canada should have a louder voice at the UN

Based on spending power and global clout, Canada should be a shoo-in. The nagging worry is that the Achilles Heel is not its lack of peacekeepers but the sense the prime minister might not be relied upon to deliver for smaller countries.

Trudeau has left a trail of broken promises in his wake, to the UN and domestic voters. One only has to look at his 2015 election platform — which promised that MPs “must be free represent their communities and hold the government to account” — and then contrast it to the vote this week that closed down Parliament until the fall. It sends the message that he is not entirely dependable.

If enough countries reach that conclusion, Ireland’s theme of empathy with small nations who have experienced colonization, emigration and famine could prove decisive.

• Email: jivison@postmedia.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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