Stephen Harper will go to New York this month to accept an award for statesmanship – but will snub the United Nations while he's there.
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an international organization founded by New York rabbi Arthur Schneier, has picked Mr. Harper as its World Statesman of the Year for 2012. He joins a list of past recipients – also deemed promoters of human rights and freedom – that includes Jean Chrétien, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and, most recently, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
The presentation of the award to Mr. Harper is likely to spark debate at home, where his critics and admirers will face off over whether the Conservative Prime Minister ranks as a global statesman.
Mr. Harper's critics have argued he lost a bid for the UN Security Council, has overemphasized the military and shifted Canada to a one-sided support of Israel. His supporters will contend he has taken strong stands – and his position on Israel was cited by the ACF's founder as one reason he will be recognized with the award.
The timing of the award ceremony, during the week when world leaders descend on New York to address the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, underlines Mr. Harper's distaste for the multilateral diplomatic forum. Prime ministers were offered UN speaking slots on Sept. 27 – the very day Mr. Harper will accept the award in New York – but Mr. Harper chose to skip the UN. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will speak for Canada, but, as a mere minister, is relegated to the following week.
The soirée where Mr. Harper will be feted typically features luminaries drawn from the social and political elite of New York and the foreign-policy world. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger will present the award to Mr. Harper. The audience will likely include former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a member of the ACF's board, and possibly former U.S. president Bill Clinton, its honorary chair.
Mr. Schneier, long involved in interfaith initiatives with Christian leaders, co-founded the ACF in 1965 to promote religious and human rights – notably, at that time, in the Soviet Union.
He said Mr. Harper's promise to open an Office of Religious Freedom in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs drew the notice of the ACF. (The office is slated to open later this year.) He said Mr. Harper's staunch support of Israel and vocal criticism of Iran were also significant factors in the foundation's decision to honour him.
"We're not one issue. However, this [is] a significant issue – the Middle East and Iran today. His stand, I think, is basically one of conviction. That Israel is an outpost of democracy, and he supports democracies," Mr. Schneier said. At a meeting last week, Mr. Schneier was impressed by the Prime Minister's "unambiguous" views.
"I met the man for the first time face-to-face, and I must say that he impressed me as a man who has a vision and doesn't veer," he said.
That isn't always a characteristic Mr. Harper's critics appreciate. By coincidence, the award was announced just a few days after his government cut off diplomatic ties with Iran – and even when it comes to dealing with a pariah regime, his opponents have accused him of going too far.
Perhaps most pointedly, his disaffection for the UN is demonstrated by his willingness to fly to New York during the so-called UN week to meet other world leaders without agreeing to speak to the General Assembly.
Mr. Harper has only addressed the General Assembly twice in his nearly seven years in power. The last time was in 2010, when he was campaigning for Canada to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council for 2011 and 2012, a period when the Security Council has debated intervention in Libya, came to a stalemate over sanctions in Syria and grappled with Iran's nuclear program.