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Droughts Know No Borders

| March 28, 2013
Drought in Kenya

Reuters

Today Canada pulled out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, turning its back on a crucial global concern that we acknowledged nearly two decades ago. Drought and desertification may sound esoteric, but it costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars, most recently in East Africa and the Sahel.

Prime Minister Harper would like to whistle and look the other way, but no amount of security can keep drought at bay. It will cross national borders without a visa or even so much as an “if you please.”

Only global cooperation can hope to solve such a problem, and that is why the world’s governments agreed to tackle it together through a United Nations treaty.

UN conventions are a crucial part of the machinery of governance. The best-known is on climate change. The latest is being hammered out this week in New York: an Arms Trade Treaty to set global standards for regulating the flow of weapons and ammunition in order to stem the rising tide of armed violence around the world.

The real beauty of UN conventions – and I suspect what riles Mr. Harper – is that they include a legal obligation for national governments to act. National politicians tend to focus on issues that likely have a visible payoff with voters within a two or four-year election cycle. Without a legal obligation, most politicians simply won’t take on challenges that may take decades to solve.

The binding legal nature of UN conventions, which all nations assume together, provides that extra edge that in the best of cases allows politicians to rally people to a cause that needs championing, and in the worst of cases won’t let them pretend they need do nothing.

In the case of drought and desertification, we need to act to stem climate change. Greenhouse gases are a fundamental cause of the higher incidence of drought and the spread of deserts, and Canada’s outsized contribution has not gone unnoticed.

UN treaties are not perfect instruments. They leave far too many opportunities for selfish recalcitrants to evade their responsibilities. But they are the best we have to grapple with the truly difficult global challenges we all face.