The Harper government's decision to withdraw from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is both short-sighted and surprisingly incongruous with Canada's national and international interests. In international relations, exercised through trade, development and diplomacy, there's a basic understanding that "you get what you give" – either through one or by trading across these foreign policy pillars. In this case, the government did not follow this principle.
I was Canada's lead negotiator when the UNCCD was adopted in 1994, working for the Canadian International Development Agency. Canada supported the convention on the grounds that it was a useful tool for international co-operation, as evidence mounted that drought and desertification were becoming increasingly severe threats to livelihoods and economic prosperity.
The convention also advanced Canada's broader foreign policy interests by demonstrating our support for issues important to our international partners. Canada, in fact, was one of the eight countries – evenly balanced between North and South – that shaped the convention. This was a breakthrough on its own – departing from the accepted "developing versus developed" divide in international negotiations.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's statement that the convention's process is a "talkfest" that does a disservice to Canadian taxpayers fails to recognize the importance that the rest of the world gives to participating in the convention. Co-operation with a fair number of these countries on issues of shared concern is of critical importance to Canada's trade, diplomatic and international development objectives.
To give the minister his due, there's a problem of much talk, many new decisions and insufficient action to implement many international agreements. I have long argued for these international bodies to focus on implementing past decisions to meet their objectives on the ground rather than making new policy. But many observers consider the UNCCD to be one of the most practical of the international environmental agreements. It commits countries to real action – in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, not to mention Canada, the U.S., Australia and Spain – all of whose agriculture largely depends on semi-arid regions prone to drought.
Canada's decision to withdraw is surprising because it's contrary to the government's foreign policy objectives. First, CIDA has just been brought into the fold of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to make the third pillar of foreign policy – international development – work more closely with trade and diplomacy. Withdrawal from the convention takes away a key development instrument that earned Canada the respect of African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, including China.
Second, Canada's foreign policy objectives are largely focused on building trade and investment relations, including creating opportunities for our mining companies. A good number of these companies have mines and exploration properties or are seeking investments in African and Asian countries that benefit directly from the desertification convention, including Mauritania, Mali, Botswana, China and Mongolia.
Third, Canada will not gain leverage on religious and other human rights when it steps out of an international commitment essential to the countries we want to influence and engage on this front.
One might consider that we're cutting off our nose to spite our face – and for what? A savings of $300,000 a year and the opportunity to badmouth the UN. And perhaps also to further demonstrate that the federal government does not intend to take action to combat climate change – no matter the impact on drought and agriculture.
George Greene is the Kinross Chair in Environmental Governance at the University of Guelph. He was director of environment and director-general of policy development at CIDA from 1990 to 1995.