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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met on Wednesday afternoon,Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to engage the United Nations on his own terms, refusing to sign a landmark UN treaty regulating the arms trade while pushing his maternal health agenda.

Canada is holding off signing the treaty, citing concern over how it affects firearm owners – even though the United States has now joined the global accord over the objections of that country's powerful gun lobby.

Canada's reluctance to join the multilateral effort on the arms trade is a tacit example of how Mr. Harper, far from the biggest fan of the UN, prefers to engage with the international body – at arm's length. For the third year in a row, Mr. Harper declined to address the main body of the UN, the General Assembly. Instead, he stayed on the margins of the conclave, holding bilateral meetings and promoting Canada's maternal health efforts – but steering clear of its highest-profile venue.

On Wednesday, Mr. Harper made a short speech at an event devoted to bettering the health of mothers and children, long a priority of his government, which has pledged $3-billion to the cause. Speaking in a conference room at UN headquarters, he urged the international community to redouble its drive to reduce maternal mortality. The rate is falling, he noted, but not fast enough to meet the targets set by world leaders for 2015.

"These goals are literally vital," he said. "Degrees of failure are not measured in dollars, they are measured in thousands of lives."

Flanked by the Prime Minister of Tanzania and philanthropist Melinda Gates, Mr. Harper served as the co-host of the event. He spoke for 10 minutes and underlined the need to make a "final, vigorous and decisive effort" toward meeting the 2015 goals. Later in the afternoon, he held meetings with the president of Senegal and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Harper government has limited patience for the UN. It is skeptical of the utility of an unwieldy body with 193 member states that gives dictators a forum to speak, but at the same time recognizes the UN has a role to play on matters such as the bloody civil war in Syria.

Mr. Harper has not addressed the General Assembly since 2010, when Canada was mounting a bid for a temporary seat on the Security Council. In a surprise defeat, it lost to Portugal a month later.

It has never been the practice of prime ministers to make a speech to the General Assembly every year, Mr. Harper noted before leaving for New York. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in remarks on Wednesday, said none of his counterparts from other countries had remarked upon Mr. Harper's absence from the podium.

The same is not true for the government's opponents. "Instead of co-hosting a meeting, he should be addressing the General Assembly and laying out Canada's foreign policy," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "It's empty-chair diplomacy. We're just not showing up."

Some experts note that the Harper government has made a break from the past in its dealings with the UN. "Previous governments have recognized the shortcomings of the UN as well as the opportunities it offers for Canada to exercise influence and cultivate relationships," said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Canada is the seventh-largest financial contributor to the UN, noted Fen Hampson, head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. "I think the Prime Minister's view is, there is precious little thanks for that," Mr. Hampson said. "I think he feels quite strongly – and it's quite evident by his behaviour – that the UN as defined by its major organs, namely the General Assembly and the Security Council, is dysfunctional."

Canada will be represented by Mr. Baird at the UN General Assembly – he is scheduled to address the chamber on Monday. He has a full slate of meetings at the UN and on Wednesday took part in an event to highlight the issue of forced marriages for young girls, a topic on which he has become increasingly vocal.

Mr. Baird brushed off questions about whether Canada would sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty, saying that the government's consultations on the topic remain "in the early stages."

The Harper government considers Canadian firearms owners an important part of its political support base and in 2012 fulfilled a key political promise by dismantling a federal long-gun registry, calling it an unnecessary burden.

The Arms Trade Treaty, which only covers cross-border trade and aims to keep weapons out of the hands of human-rights abusers and criminals, still requires ratification by the U.S. Senate and has been attacked by the influential American gun-rights group, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird, said Ottawa is still studying whether joining the accord would have consequences for Canadians. "It is important that such a treaty not affect lawful and responsible firearms owners nor discourage the transfer of firearms for recreational uses such as sport shooting and hunting."

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