For the second year in a row, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be in New York during the opening ceremonies of the United Nations General Assembly, but will not be joining other heads of government in speaking to the representatives of the world.
It’s embarrassing that the Prime Minister apparently can’t be bothered to show up, stand up, and speak up on behalf of Canada. Sadly, this fits into a pattern of disengagement and withdrawal from the international community – a pattern that has weakened Canada’s reputation and influence abroad. By abandoning the hard work of diplomacy in favour of isolationist grandstanding, the government is harming the very foreign policy goals that it seeks to achieve.
Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, who will be filling in for the Prime Minister this week, likes to say that Canada will no longer “go along to get along”. Let’s take a look at what that actually means.
It means that Canada will no longer ‘go along’ with the international scientific and political consensus that climate change is both real and a threat – not just to the environment, but also to the livelihoods of billions of people, including Canadian farmers and coastal residents.
The Conservatives demonstrated their denial of the science of global warming by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. They confirmed it this year by becoming the only country in the world to quit the UN Convention on Desertification – without even telling the UN they were leaving.
It means that Canada, which once led the world to a nearly universal ban on landmines, will no longer ‘go along’ with international efforts to make the world a safer place. The Conservatives have refused to sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which would regulate the illegal trade in conventional weapons that kill millions of civilians each year. The Canadian delegation to the treaty negotiations, which included representatives from the domestic gun lobby, repeatedly sought to weaken and undermine the agreement during deliberations.
It means that Canada will no longer ‘go along’ with international engagement in Africa. While other countries recognize Africa’s growing economic and strategic importance, the Conservatives have closed Canadian offices in Niger, Malawi, Gabon, and South Africa. Canada is now a dismal 57th in its personnel contributions to peacekeeping operations, a fact that disproportionately diminishes our relevance and reputation in Africa. So did the closure of Rights and Democracy, a Canadian institution that was doing excellent and important work promoting human rights and democratic development in Africa and elsewhere.
It means that Canada will no longer ‘go along’ with international attempts to protect some of the world’s most precious resources from unsustainable and illegal exploitation. Despite their alleged interest in trade agreements, the Conservatives quit the International Tropical Timber Organization, which represents and regulates 90 per cent of the world’s tropical wood trade. And the most recent Conservative omni-budget cut funding to keep Congo’s mineral wealth in the hands of local people, rather than those of armed groups responsible for the bloodiest war the world has seen in over sixty years.
It means that Canada will no longer ‘go along’ with international efforts to protect the health of Canadians. We learned this spring that the Conservatives quit the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Well-Being, an international organization working to promote and improve the health of people in northern communities. When the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food advised the government to work to improve food security in Canada, the government responded with insults. And just last week, after countries around the world – Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand and others – recommended that Canada launch a national review of violence against Indigenous women, the Conservatives dismissed the idea.
This kind of arrogant isolationism has very concrete consequences.
The government’s policy of pulling out from important international agreements and institutions is leading to Canada getting pushed out from vital centres of diplomatic power.
Three years ago, Canada lost its bid for a seat at the UN Security Council for the first time in over 65 years. The self-enforced isolation of the Conservative government did little to help Canada’s efforts.
More recently, the government was forced to scramble to protect Montreal’s status as host of the International Civil Aviation Organization, after Qatar announced a bid to relocate the headquarters to Doha. The fact that we had to campaign so hard just to preserve the status quo is indicative of our diminished role on the global stage.
In response to every set-back, instead of reconsidering the country’s foreign policy direction, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has reverted to his talking points, invoking ‘principle’ to explain intransigence. But it’s difficult to identify the principle behind this government’s foreign policy.
On human rights, the government refuses to commit to boycotting the upcoming Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka despite ongoing and unprosecuted abuses there.
On trade promotion, the government measures its own success in negotiations based on the raw number of agreements concluded, rather than on the quality of those agreements. The government has concluded a number of small deals that provide few benefits for Canadian job creators and consumers, while major trade talks with the European Union, India, Brazil, and Japan have been slow or stalled.
This is a time when Canada should be increasing its engagement with a rapidly changing world, and using its competitive advantages in diplomacy, democratic development, multiculturalism, and human rights. It is also a time in which multilateral cooperation – getting along – is more essential than ever before. Other countries are recognizing this, and increasing their responsible participation in the international community.
At the end of the day, it’s a lot harder to get support from the international community for your own priorities if you don’t show an interest in the international community. Canada has a lot of work to do to start earning back the reputation and influence it once enjoyed. It would help if, when the world comes together, the Prime Minister bothered to show up.
NDP MP Paul Dewar is the Official Opposition’s Foreign Affairs critic.