OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried out his best spin on Thursday, responding to Canada’s failure to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council this week, saying the effort had not been a waste.
“We decided to throw our hat in the ring, because we saw a unique opportunity to engage in our partners across the UN, build sustainable peace, and make real progress on issues that matter. And that’s what we’ve gotten to do during this campaign,” Trudeau told reporters during his near-daily press conference outside his home.
“We forged new partnerships; we strengthened existing friendships; and we laid a solid foundation for an even greater collaboration in the future.”
Watch: Trudeau’s UN Security Council dreams dashed
Despite four years of campaigning and more than $2 million in additional money spent directly on the bid — and likely tens of millions more in foreign commitments pursued because of the candidacy — Canada came up empty-handed on Wednesday, when 192 members of the UN General Assembly elected Norway and Ireland for two Western bloc seats.
“Obviously, we would have hoped for a different result yesterday,” Trudeau said. “Getting the seat was never an end in itself but rather a means to an end; a means to ensure our voice was heard and that our values upheld on the world stage. The bid was certainly one way to achieve this, but it is far from the only way.”
Canada lost on the first ballot, falling 20 votes short of the 2/3rds or 128 votes needed to win. In 2010, when then prime minister Stephen Harper failed to secure the Security Council bid, Canada pulled out of the voting before the third round, having received fewer votes —114 votes, and then 78 votes — as the ballots went on. Back then, The Globe and Mail called the loss “a deep embarrassment for Harper.” Canada’s former ambassador to the UN under prime minister Brian Mulroney said the rejection could “only be interpreted as a slight to Canada by the international community.” And the Liberals gloated that the Conservatives’ foreign policy had come home to roost. Then leader Bob Rae called it a “major defeat for Canada and our reputation around the world.”
Six years later, basking in his new international popularity, Trudeau personally announced that Canada would pursue a Security Council seat for the 2021-2022 term — deliberately entering a contested election, vying with Ireland and UN heavyweight Norway.
Although he did not blame himself for that decision, Trudeau suggested that challenge had been insurmountable.
“The reality was, coming in five years later than them gave us a delay that we, unfortunately, weren’t unable to overcome,” he said. “I was hoping we would, and we certainly worked hard to do it.”
Although the campaign for the UN seat seemed to take a step back after U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, Trudeau had scaled up lobbying efforts in recent months, heading to Africa before the coronavirus pandemic and continuing to make calls to likely allies from Ottawa — even co-hosting a UN conference in May from his Parliament Hill office.
The facts remained that Canada would be hampered by European states’ voting for their neighbours, a cool and cold relationship with India and China, a voting record on Palestine that alienates many UN members, and financial and personnel contributions to the international aid and peacekeeping that pale in comparison to other nations.
On Thursday, it was Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s turn to gloat, calling Trudeau’s bid for a seat a “vanity project” and demanding to know if the effort had been worth the cost. “Was it worth it?,” he asked three times.
“[It’s] always worth it to fight for things,” Trudeau responded, noting that he will take no lessons from a party that promised to cut foreign aid during the last election.
Scheer accused Trudeau of “selling out Canada’s values” to pursue the seat, by putting aside human rights concerns to curry favour with “dictators and despots.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Leona Alleslev referenced how Trudeau had failed to condemn Senegal strongly for its continued ban on homosexual acts. The prime minister, on a charm offensive to the country in February, stood silent while Senegalese President Macky Sall said the law had “nothing to do with being homophobic.”
“Now, he comes back empty-handed, coming in last,” Scheer said, to chuckles on the Tory bench.
Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and the author of Canada on the United Nations Security Council, told HuffPost Canada that the contest for a seat had “unfortunately” become a “very partisan issue” in Canada.
“Among all of our major allies, there is consensus that being on the Council is within your national interest. It’s only here that we have this debate,” he said.
‘Sad day for Canada,’ Tories say
Trudeau, by declaring “Canada is back!” after the 2015 election, had contributed to politicizing Canada’s bid and made it difficult for the Tories, still stung from their own Security Council loss, to get on-board, he said.
Still, Chapnick noted, Canada’s loss — its second now in 20 years — is a deep embarrassment and an international rebuke.
“Apart from the G20 countries that are permanent members, every member aside from Canada has run for a Council seat and been successful,” he said. “Our Five Eyes partners who aren’t permanent members have both pursued seats on the Council and have been successful,” he added. And “80 per cent of NATO’s members have been on the Council since we were last on the Council.”
“The loss of the UN Security Council seat is a sad day for Canada,” Alleslev said. “Canadians must be clear-eyed about how the world actually views us.”
Trudeau, she alleged, has “eroded Canada’s reputation, jeopardized our future, security, and prosperity.”
“If Canada were playing a leadership role, the world would have wanted us in a leadership position on the United Nations Security Council,” she said.
With files from Zi-Ann Lum