Six steps Canada must take to win a UN Security Council seat

With just over a year left before the vote, Canada needs to kick its campaign for a UNSC seat into high gear. Here are six must-dos over the next 12 months.

By: /
13 May, 2019
Members of the United Nations Security Council vote to approve a US draft resolution calling for free and fair presidential elections in Venezuela, in New York, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Ola Mohajer
By: Ola Mohajer

Former UN coordination support officer

Next June, Canada will compete with Norway and Ireland for two non-permanent seats on the 2021-2022 United Nations Security Council. The two winners will require a two-thirds majority vote from the General Assembly’s 193 member states, which Canada failed to attain in 2010 for the first time in 60 years.

Canada’s aspiration for this seat stems from its efforts to reclaim its soft power in the international system, and once again become a trusted voice on issues of foreign policy, economics, peace and security. A council seat comes with prestige, political positioning power, and a platform to achieve an international agenda. A win would replace Canada’s regional microphone with a global megaphone.

To be successful, Canada must learn from the mistakes that contributed to its 2010 failure, notably the shift and regression in Canada’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government between 2006-2015. This shift resulted in the elimination of Canadian development and peacekeeping organizations and programs, decreased UN work, embassy closures, and alienating policies and sanctions. Given the number of UN member states impacted by this major shift in Canada’s foreign policy, it is not surprising that Canada lost the 2010 election.

The climb back from such a targeted and aggressive downsize is proving to be tremendously difficult, especially in the face of such tough competition. However, Canada is making modest strides.

Since announcing its bid for the council seat in March 2016, Canada has broadcasted its policy agenda, which prioritizes gender equality and empowerment as well as diversity and inclusion. Part of this agenda includes a national plan to implement Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security. Both Norway and Ireland have gender equality and empowerment in their agendas, with Norway having launched a similar national action plan shortly after Canada did. Still, Canada is the only country in the competition to have a completely feminist foreign policy agenda.

Unfortunately, Canada’s agenda alone won’t secure it a seat — a win will not come without a more focused and aggressive strategy.

Last year, for OpenCanada, Marta Canneri outlined a few ways that Canada could make its case, but from researching and observing Canada’s last two campaigns, and from my own experiences and conversations with UN and Canadian federal government officials, it’s clear to me that Canada needs to make more forceful and concerted efforts to win. Although Canada is implementing some important campaign activities, many are not being done to the extent required for such a difficult competition.

With that in mind, here are six steps that Canada must take, with one year left to go, to secure its seat on the UN Security Council.

1. Follow through on its peacekeeping pledge.

With regards to peacekeeping, Canada will face a tough opponent in Ireland, which has nearly three times as many deployed peacekeepers as Canada and Norway combined. In 2016, Canada pledged to commit up to 600 troops to UN peacekeeping missions. As of March 2019, according to the UN peacekeeping troop and police contributions website, 192 Canadian personnel were deployed — only a third of the commitment.

While Canada says it has sent eight helicopters and 250 personnel to Mali, as of March 2019, there were 144 Canadian personnel listed in the peacekeeping mission there. (Medics and other support personnel are not included as part of the official peacekeeping personnel types.) Whatever the figure touted, it remains a far cry from 600.

This failure has not gone unnoticed by member states, particularly those reliant on peacekeeping missions. Canada must deliver on its pledge or find a suitable substitute for the promise-gap before the 2020 vote, not only to secure it, but to preserve credibility.

2. Increase development assistance.

Norway is likely to promote its role as the largest per capita donor in Official Development Assistance (ODA), and also that it is among a handful of countries in the world to meet the donation target of 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI). For reference, Canada’s ODA in 2017 was a mere 0.26 percent of its GNI.

As a senior Canadian diplomat told me, “principles are not enough. Many member states need to see aid.” This holds true for any country looking to win a UN Security Council seat. Germany and Japan are among the top five donors in the world to African nations in need, and it is not a coincidence that they have been elected to the council three times since 2000.

Given the strength of Canada’s economic and employment figures, Canada should pledge to increase its contribution from 0.26 percent to 0.35 percent of its GNI towards net ODA, totaling approximately US$5.46 billion. An appropriate portion of this ODA should be allocated to African and other opinion leading developing countries to secure influential voting blocs and future political positioning power.

Why 0.35 percent?

Firstly, donations of Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members, which include Canada, have hovered between 0.21 percent and 0.36 percent for the last 40 years. As an aspiring leader, Canada should be at the top of this range. Secondly, Norway and Ireland have donated considerably larger portions of their GNI to ODA in the last two decades, most recently 0.99 percent and 0.32 percent respectively.

3. Aggressively court member state electors.

Canada must also engage in a longstanding democratic tradition — courtship.

It is not enough for the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs to host or speak at major global and UN events. And it is not enough for diplomatic staff to host events at UN headquarters in New York. Our high-ranking political officials should increase visits to member state capitals around the world and host more events in Ottawa focused on courting member states. Canada should use its geographic and cost-saving advantage over Norway and Ireland and invite New York representatives to Canada to court them.

“It is not enough for diplomatic staff to host events at UN headquarters in New York.”

According to the CBC, Canadian officials have made dozens of trips for courting purposes, but it is important to put things into perspective. According to information CBC obtained from an Access to Information request, Canada has spent a total of $1.5 million on the campaign since 2016. By comparison, during the last successful campaign for the 1998 bid, Canada spent around $10 million. This is a serious discrepancy, especially when it is not uncommon for member states to put millions of dollars towards a win. What kind of signal does this send to an international community that understands all too well that true priorities are backed by significant financial commitments?

In respecting Canadian cultural disapproval of this necessary lavish courtship, Canada should leverage Canadian-owned venues, goods and services to achieve its goal, effectively funneling money back into the Canadian economy. This was done successfully for the 1998 election where New York representatives were invited to Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian owned high-end theatrical production. The Canadian private sector, civil society groups and universities should be invited to support hosting and financing such efforts, focusing on mutual benefits where they can be found.

If it has not already done so, Canada should prioritize courting members that need minimal persuasion and may agree to campaign on its behalf, such as those in the same UN groups as Canada, or representatives that typically receive little instruction from their countries and make their own voting decisions. Australia and New Zealand campaigned for Canada in the 1998 bid because of their close ties in one of these groups, a successful example of this strategy.

4. Vigorously vote swap.

Vote swapping is when two member states secretly agree to vote for one another in their respective elections. This has been a driving currency of Security Council campaigns for the last 20 years. It would be remiss for Canada to not go full-force with this.

To do so, Canada must ascertain various member states’ committee aspirations, understanding that 15 percent of them change or mislead their positions. Regardless, the 1999-2000 Canadian campaign lead David Malone made clear that “experience tends to demonstrate that all Security Council candidates play the vote trading game aggressively.”

5. Employ campaign experts and state of the art tools.

At its core, Canada’s campaign is just that — a campaign. And any campaign in a stiff competition needs a stellar blend of staff and tools.

Canada should expand its current campaign team to better strategize and coordinate ahead of the election and continue to message Canada’s activities. While there may be some kind of strategic plan in place, Canada should develop a more robust strategy specifically for the one-year final stretch, imbedded with a vote tracking and projection system. The plan needs to be results-based to make certain that activities are coordinated, that targets are set, tracked and met, and that everything is budgeted for in time and resources. It must include a stakeholder analysis that maps when it is strategically advantageous to engage each member state among others.

When it comes to the vote tracking system, it should continue to assign support as firm, soft, undecided and nil, and automatically apply a subtraction of 10 percent towards written commitments and 20 percent towards verbal ones. Outside of the basics, it should include strategies on when and how to follow-up and also track information about what would be required to get a vote from each member state.

6. Develop a strong second ballot strategy.

Canada absolutely must develop an intelligent second ballot strategy given that it’s not expected to win in the first round of voting. This is likely already being considered, but as it is a key part of the overall strategy, it should not be underestimated. History shows that votes swing between the first and second round, shifting from the third-place candidate to the second-place candidate. Although second round voting often looks like it is a ‘free-for-all,’ with careful analysis, trends could be uncovered, appropriate discounts made, and corresponding mitigation strategies designed. According to those who worked on the last campaign, Canada could have prevented its loss in 2010 if it had developed a stronger second ballot strategy.

So, let’s go big, Canada. Going ‘home’ or withdrawing is not an option anymore. Up against tough competition, we must do everything in our power to win. We owe it to Canadians and the values we embrace. We owe it to Canadian leaders before us to reinstate our once proud legacy. And finally, we owe it to the international community — the same community that we once poured decades into building a prosperous and peaceful world for.

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