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Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, center, flanked by Peter Kent, Canadian Secretary of State for the Americas, left, and Canada's U.N. Ambassador John McNee, participate in a news conference at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010.

Richard Drew/The Associated Press

A lot of introspection has followed Canada's failure this week to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, with blame being variously directed at the shift in Canadian foreign policy, or at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. The manner of the vote itself - by secret ballot - shows that it may also be time for some introspection by the UN itself.

Secret ballots make a good deal of sense in domestic elections. They were instituted to protect individual electors from powerful people in the community: employers or clerics who could punish them for voting the "wrong" way. Individuals do not have to be accountable to anyone for their votes.

That logic breaks down at the United Nations. Each state is sovereign. Most motions at the General Assembly are public. Why should elections to bodies like the Security Council or the Human Rights Council be any different? States are accountable, moreover, to their populations, and it is much more difficult for a losing state to "punish" a state that may or may not have voted against it.

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That's not to say that Canada did everything right. The public confidence it exhibited in its campaign for the Security Council seat was clearly misplaced - we didn't have the votes we thought we had. The federal government would have been wise to remember the advice of Italy's former UN ambassador Paolo Fulci, as recounted in a 2000 article by David Malone, now president of the International Development Research Centre: "10 per cent of those commitments received in writing and 20 per cent of those conveyed orally must be discounted."

Canada is poorer for having lost an opportunity to get a seat on the Security Council, the most influential UN body. But this election highlights a weakness at the UN; by making its votes more transparent, it will erode some of the clubbishness of the institution, and ultimately make the General Assembly stronger.

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