OTTAWA — Canada has lost its bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council after member nations cast secret ballots in New York Wednesday.
The result is a disappointing end to the country’s four-year campaign to return to the UN body since 2000. Election results show Canada received 108 of 192 valid votes, below the two-thirds threshold that’s required to win a seat.
Ireland and Norway, securing 128 and 130 votes respectively, will take their seats at the UN’s most important decision-making body for a two-year term beginning January 2021.
Turnout was high for the much-anticipated election with 192 out of 193 nations participating in the vote.
“We knew there was no guarantee of victory, but it was worth the effort,” said Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne in New York.
He said there would be plenty of time later to review what happened and where Canada was unable to garner support.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement after Canada’s Security Council defeat. He congratulated the countries that emerged victorious: Norway, Ireland, India, and Mexico.
Referencing the world to be in a “time of global uncertainty,” the prime minister said the campaign gave Canada an opportunity to promote the “Canadian values of peace, freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
“Canada is large enough to make a difference, but we know we can’t do it alone,” Trudeau said. He pledged that Canada would continue to “play a vital role in advancing global cooperation and building a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world.”
‘We joined this election extremely late’
The result is a major loss for Canada, but for the prime minister in particular because of the “ownership” he’s taken in the campaign, according to Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
Time wasn’t on Canada’s side.
“We joined this election extremely late,” the UN security council expert told HuffPost Canada in an interview. “In some ways, we’ve been campaigning with an arm tied behind our back.”
The country’s current campaign has been led by Marc-André Blanchard, a lawyer and former president of the Quebec Liberal Party. He was appointed Canada’s ambassador to the UN in 2016.
Recently, Blanchard has embarked on a campaign of physically distant events, arranging bike rides and picnic dinners with diplomats in Manhattan to shore up votes.
“The Irish have been campaigning for more than a decade. The Norwegian campaign has run twice as long as ours.”
Norway and Ireland, which have run longer campaigns, also competed for the two open seats in the same voting bloc reserved for “Western European and Others Group” countries.
“The Irish have been campaigning for more than a decade. The Norwegian campaign has run twice as long as ours,” Chapnick said.
Canada’s campaign hasn’t been a smooth four-year run, either.
The election of Donald Trump as president in the United States heightened concerns about the North American Free Trade Agreement and deflected Canada’s attention from its Security Council bid for about a year.
Another setback, Chapnick said, was the SNC-Lavalin affair, which shook countries’ confidence in making UN vote swaps with Canada. Ambassadors were uncertain if Trudeau’s government would survive the fall election.
Vote swapping is a common practice among member states to trade support in UN elections.
Despite Trudeau’s bumpy 2019, a political twist gave Canada a competitive advantage in vote swapping early this year.
In February, a cloud of political uncertainty fell over Ireland after an election that took down the incumbent prime minister resulted in a hung parliament.
On Monday, rival Irish parties announced an agreement to form a coalition government — 48 hours before the Security Council vote.
Chapnick said the timing of the outcome ameliorates Ireland’s decade-long bid, throwing a last-minute twist for Canada’s campaign.
Current Security Council described as ‘dysfunctional’
Canada has been on the outside looking in for more than two decades after losing a Security Council vote in October 2010.
Allan Rock, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN in New York between 2003-2006, said the 2010 loss to Portugal was a rebuke of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s efforts to move away from multilateralism.
Before that, the only time Canada lost an election to the Security Council was in January 1946.
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The former Chrétien-era cabinet minister told HuffPost he doesn’t believe the current campaign can be dismissed as a vanity project for Trudeau’s Liberal government.
“I think of it as an opportunity to serve, and being on the Security Council provides that opportunity uniquely, in a way that no other organization can,” Rock said. Canada could bring some much-needed “positive energy” to the Security Council, he said, describing the powerful body as currently “dysfunctional.”
“They find it difficult to get together and adopt resolutions. Russia and China are too frequently using their veto. There’s too little basis for consensus at the table,” Rock said. “For a while, they weren’t even able to agree on how they would meet during the pandemic.”
“The Security Council has been missing in action in the pandemic.”
The UN Security Council is made up of five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Every two years, elections are held to fill the rotating 10 non-permanent seats that round out the UN body.
Its dysfunction has been evident in the lack of UN intervention in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. It hasn’t been much help in the world’s response to COVID-19, either.
“The Security Council has been missing in action in the pandemic,” Rock said. “It has not fulfilled a constructive role in coordinating the UN’s response.”
With the apparent inertia that has seized the Security Council, Rock believes there’s an appetite among members to build alliances with Canada to “establish peace and security and to accelerate development.”
Pandemic casts Security Council diplomacy in new light
Wednesday’s election was different from other ones in recent decades.
Special rules were in place to ensure physical distancing in the UN General Assembly Hall for Wednesday’s vote. Time slots were given to 193 member countries to enter the venue to cast their ballots.
Canada’s ground game received help this week from Champagne, who arrived in New York by car on Sunday to help Blanchard in the final stretch of the campaign.
Before the vote, Champagne told The Canadian Press “the race is tight” and that he’s made more than 100 calls in the past three weeks to his counterparts around the world and in New York.
“I sense momentum. But obviously you have to be cautious,” he said.
Since the 2015 election, Trudeau has treated the campaign for the UN seat as a marquee item in the Liberal Party’s foreign policy agenda. The prime minister has put significant effort into lobbying Caribbean and African countries in particular.
Readouts from the prime minister’s office in recent days show Trudeau working the phones to reach out to leaders in Saint Kitts and Nevis, Angola, Pakistan, Mexico, and India, among others countries in the campaign’s final push.
Earlier this year, Trudeau embarked on a tour of Ethiopia and Senegal to boost Canada’s Security Council bid. Former prime minister Joe Clark was also recruited to help add some clout to the campaign. But some analysts said that trip may have come too late.
Chapnick said Canada’s campaign — focused on strengthening multilateralism, economic security, gender equality, peace, and action on climate change — isn’t much different from what Ireland or Norway are pitching.
But Canada is the best connected of the three countries in a time when multilateralism is struggling, Chapnick said.
He pointed to Canada being a member of the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, and the G7 and G20. “We are better placed to bring more countries together.”
But as long as COVID-19 remains a pandemic, the nature of having a seat in the UN’s most powerful body will look and likely feel different.
Like many workplaces around the world adjusting their workflows to the coronavirus pandemic, the Security Council has moved its meetings online. It’s a trend that will likely continue until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 comes to market.
Despite the fact that ambassadors are currently not physically sitting next to each other every day, Chapnick said there’s still diplomatic value in having a seat on the council.
“We’re really struggling to negotiate with the Chinese, the release of the two Michaels,” he said, referring to the two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who have been detained in China since December 2018. “It couldn’t hurt to have a seat beside a major Chinese diplomat every day for two years at the Security Council.”
Of course, rubbing physical shoulders with someone is currently verboten from a public health perspective. It’s too early to say if the loss of small talk and in-person access between diplomats will remedy or exacerbate the UN body’s current dysfunction.
Members can always take their interactions to private digital rooms, Chapnick said, emphasizing opportunity in a time of scarce interpersonal interactions. “You may have fewer interactions, but those interactions are likely to be more serious and deeper.”
With files from The Canadian Press