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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair participate in the Munk Debate on Canada's foreign policy

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Canada's efforts to enhance democracy, governance and human rights around the world have diminished, allowing foreign actors to threaten our security and prosperity, senior Foreign Affairs officials have told government insiders.

The bureaucrats are urging the government to play a more expansive role on the international human-rights stage by creating a new Canadian democracy agenda and actively campaigning for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council that will become available in 2020.

In documents marked "secret" and "confidential" that were prepared for a deputy-minister-level meeting on Sept. 9, the Foreign Affairs officials say "Canada's overall engagement on democracy, governance and human rights has declined significantly in recent years" and "our influence has eroded as our direct engagement has waned, compromising our ability to effect positive change …"

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The bureaucrats point out that the money provided by Canada for international democracy, governance and human rights fell 28 per cent between 2008-09 and 2013-14.

"Downward global democratic trends," they say, "threaten Canadian and international security and prosperity" and the multilateral system, which Canada helped to establish with the founding of the UN, is straining to control egregious actions by groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram.

The document has been leaked, in portions, to news media this week in an effort to embarrass Conservative Leader Stephen Harper who has sometimes been dismissive of the United Nations. In 2010, Canada lost a coveted seat on the UN Security Council – a rebuke that reflected international disapproval of some of Mr. Harper's foreign policies.

In another section of the document that was obtained by The Globe and Mail, the Foreign Affairs officials say Canada's international clout is "under threat" as its honest-broker role is replaced with a more assertive stand that plays down traditional multilateralism. And the CBC obtained a section in which the bureaucrats advise the government to consider "adjusting Canada's overall tone and approach" to the UN and to try for another seat on the Security Council.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harper told reporters that Canada is heavily engaged with the United Nations. "Canada is a strong supporter of virtually all UN activities," he said. "The flagship program is our leadership on child, maternal, newborn health, which has been recognized by the United Nations Secretary-General, by the World Health Organization."

In addition, Mr. Harper said, Canada is the largest contributor to the UN food program and a major contributor to virtually every other UN effort and campaign.

But Chrystia Freeland, the international trade critic for the Liberals, said in a statement that it is "absolutely stunning" how far Canada's international reputation and influence in the world has fallen because of the Conservatives. "Canada should be a true leader – one that has earned its place at the front of the pack, based on our leadership on economic, humanitarian and security issues," Ms. Freeland said.

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And Paul Dewar, the foreign affairs critic for the New Democrats, said it is clear that high-level diplomats are clearly frustrated because they have not been able to engage with Canada's allies on issues that really matter, such as human rights and democratic development. "It is undermining our credibility," Mr. Dewar said.

The UN Human Rights Council is not without controversy. Its members include Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Russia and other states that are known to violate the human rights of their own people. But the bureaucrats say a seat on the council would significantly increase the level of influence that Canada has as an observer, and would increase our ability "to focus the collective efforts of our like-minded partners in counteracting those forces seeking to upend the international order."

A campaign for the seat would be bolstered, they say, by the launch of a Canadian democracy agenda that would make democracy a "thematic priority" for this country's international assistance. The bureaucrats also urge the government to provide $5-million to $10-million in core funding to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and advocate greater involvement with the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of 27 governments – including Canada's – working to advance internet freedom.

But they say Canada's own record may work against it, pointing out that this country has faced criticisms, particularly with regard to its treatment of aboriginal Canadians.

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