What will it take for Canada to get a UN Security Council seat?

Canada is likely already drafting its roadmap to earning a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-2022. Marta Canneri explains what still needs to be done before the election for the spot in 2020.

By: /
3 July, 2018
The United Nations Security Council hears a briefing at UN headquarters in New York, US, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Marta Canneri
By: Marta Canneri

Associate editor, Council on Foreign Relations 

In March 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would be seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term beginning in 2021. With the election for that term set for 2020, the Canadian government is likely starting to think about its campaign strategy to win a spot at one of the world’s most powerful tables.

It has been 18 years since Canada was last on the UN Security Council, and, with competition between Canada, Norway and Ireland for one of two possible seats expected to be fierce, a particularly effective campaign is needed to explain why the country deserves a spot now.

In the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, Trudeau campaigned on a platform of renewed engagement with multilateral institutions, and the UN Security Council seat bid has since been viewed as a core plank of his foreign policy plan. Trudeau’s energetic pursuit of greater participation and engagement with the United Nations was a marked change from the outlook of Stephen Harper, who for nearly a decade was seen to be publicly disdainful of the institution.

Back in 2010, Canada was forced to withdraw its candidacy for a council seat when it became apparent that the country would not secure enough votes; in the end, it finished a distant third behind Portugal and Germany (despite the withdrawal, countries were allowed to keep voting for Canada). It was the first time Canada had lost a UN Security Council election — aside from a loss in the first vote in 1946 — and was considered a stinging rebuke of Harper’s anti-UN foreign policy. Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Yves Fortier called it a “lamentable result” that could “only be interpreted as a slight to Canada by the international community.”

It’s a no-brainer that securing the seat in 2020 would be a significant win for Trudeau, who may have by then won a second term, and who has been declaring that “Canada is back” since becoming prime minister.

But much has changed since Canada’s election to the UN Security Council in 1988, when it received one of the largest majorities ever tallied for a candidate. Back then, Canada had a strong reputation of participation and leadership in multilateral institutions: it was the leading contributor of peacekeeping forces, a pioneer in the campaign to ban landmines, and had helped establish the International Criminal Court. Now, almost 20 years later, Trudeau faces an uphill battle in his pursuit of a Security Council seat.

To run a strong campaign, Canada will need to do two things. First, it needs to learn from its previous successes and put forward a platform based on thoughtful, concrete proposals on how to improve global governance. Second, Canada needs to demonstrate its commitment to multilateral institutions in actions, not words, and actually follow up on the promises it has made since pledging a renewed commitment to the United Nations.

The Security Council is composed of 15 members: five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), known as the “P5,” and 10 rotating members that serve two-year terms and are elected by the UN General Assembly. To ensure a fair geographic distribution, countries are divided into regional groupings, each with an allocated number of seats. To win, Canada must compete against other nations in its group to garner the support of two-thirds of the UN’s 193 member states.

The election for the 2021-2022 term are expected to be held in June 2020. Five seats will be available: one for Africa, one for Asia-Pacific, one for Latin America and the Caribbean, and two for the Western European and Others Group. Canada is part of this latter group, which includes European countries, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and is considered one of the most competitive regional groups. Candidates for seats start campaigning years in advance, seeking vote pledges from other member states. Though there is much scholarly debate over what precise factors determine a Security Council election, most analysts agree that UN contributions (including peacekeeping), foreign aid and political affiliations (for example, support from a permanent member) all play a role.

In 2020, both Norway and Ireland are expected to give Canada a run for its money. Both countries spend more than Canada on development aid as a percentage of gross national income (Norway has the distinction of being one of only a handful of countries that has actually met the UN’s 0.7 percent target). And while Canada was distancing itself from the United Nations under Harper, its opponents were making names for themselves in the international sphere. Norway helped negotiate a ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government in the early 2000s; Ireland has almost eight times more peacekeepers on the ground than Canada.

While Canada was distancing itself from the United Nations under Harper, its opponents were making names for themselves in the international sphere.

That’s why a two-pronged strategy, based on specific policy proposals and a proven commitment to multilateralism, is needed to set Canada apart in the campaign. Canada’s successful effort in 1998 stood out because of its focus on concrete ideas: its stated goal was to shift the Security Council toward “human security,” humanitarian issues, and greater transparency after a decade of humanitarian disasters in Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans. Similarly, to win in 2020 Trudeau must put forward a substantive platform focused on realistic, achievable goals for the United Nations. To be even more effective, Canada should hone in on a few critical areas. A report by David Malone, rector of the United Nations University and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, argues that “candidates need to develop one or two themes on which they can hammer away consistently over the months (and increasingly, years) of a campaign.”

One area Trudeau should focus on, especially if he wants to highlight Canada’s role as an international arbiter, is United Nations reform. His government can build on Canada’s aggressive push in the 1990s for openness and accountability in the council by arguing for greater gender diversity in United Nations personnel, from the secretary-general — for which there have always been many qualified women candidates — to peacekeeping forces. Here, Canada would be building on its recent efforts to advance gender equality in foreign affairs, including its Elsie Initiative — launched in November 2017 to promote the deployment of women in peace operations — and its upcoming September meeting of women foreign ministers, co-hosted with the EU.

Canada also has a history of promoting UN Security Council reform, especially as a non-permanent member. When on the council in 1977, the government under Pierre Elliott Trudeau launched an initiative to institutionalize regular meetings of UN Security Council foreign ministers; in the 1980s and 1990s, Canada fought to broaden the council’s scope by redefining the meaning of international peace and security. Canada should reprise this role by calling for greater transparency and accountability in Security Council working methods, for example by mobilizing support for France’s “responsibility not to veto” proposal, which proposes limiting the use of permanent member vetoes in cases involving mass atrocities. Trudeau could also bolster his role as a leader on the environment — and tip his hat to Canada’s previous efforts on broadening the council agenda — by calling on the body to take further action on climate change, which has been increasingly linked to global insecurity.

Trudeau was lauded for taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees in the first months of his tenure. In addition to pushing for institutional reform, Canada should build on that momentum to take the diplomatic lead on the global refugee crisis. The Liberal government has already made some important inroads here, sending Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to Bangladesh in early May to observe the Rohingya crisis and inviting the Bangladeshi prime minister to the G7 meeting in Canada in early June. As the world witnesses the highest levels of global displacement on record, with migration flows spurred by civil war, interstate conflict and climate change, international frameworks for refugees and migrants are growing increasingly inadequate. Canada has the opportunity — and, to some extent, the political capital — to demonstrate leadership in this area by calling for global resettlement beyond Europe and a new international legal framework for migrant rights.

To win in 2020, Trudeau will not be able to rely on the mere claim that “Canada is back.” In addition to designing a campaign based on specific proposals, he must demonstrate his commitment to multilateralism by following through on other promises he has made to the United Nations, including his pledge to recommit Canada to peacekeeping operations, which the country largely abandoned under Harper. Much was made of the Liberal government’s recent announcement that it would be sending support troops and helicopters to support the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali — an advance team arrived late last month — but the commitment is temporary and falls short of Canada’s August 2016 promise of 600 troops and 150 police officers.

Canada will also need to renew its commitment to foreign aid, which has been steadily declining. Its international development assistance is still well below the average spent by other OECD nations, and a reduction in the number of African nations receiving aid was specifically cited as one of the contributing factors to Canada’s loss in 2010. This is particularly important given that Security Council votes are often decided by pledged votes from one country to another, often in exchange for development assistance or other quid pro quo arrangements.

If Canada succeeds in securing a seat on the UN Security Council, it will end the country’s longest absence from the council since its inception. It will also send an important message to the world about what kind of role Canada wants to take on in global affairs. But the road won’t be easy — Canada will have to prove that after almost a decade of absence from multilateral institutions, the country really deserves to be “back.”

This article was updated July 9, 2018.

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