Canada’s position on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform, reaffirmed in internal government documents recently obtained by Global News, could harm the country’s chances of winning a seat on that council, according to one of the country’s top analysts of UN politics.
Since 2005, Canada has been part of a 12-nation group called Uniting for Consensus (UfC), which has advocated for increasing the number of UNSC members from 15 to 25. But Canada and the other UfC caucus countries oppose adding any new veto-holding permanent members.
“By having this position and being a leader in Uniting for Consensus, we’re asking for trouble from India, Brazil and potentially also from Germany, Japan and Africa,” said Adam Chapnick, professor of defence studies at Royal Military College and author of two books about Canada and the United Nations, including 2019’s Canada on the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage.
Brazil and India have long wanted to join the so-called P-5 at the UNSC — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia — each of which has a veto and permanent membership status in the world’s most powerful and exclusive club. Many African countries have also argued that one veto-holding position on the UNSC should be reserved for a representative from their continent.
But Canada has long believed that veto power at the UNSC — which has been used 248 times since 1945 — has “undermined the ability of the UNSC to fulfill its mandate,” then-foreign affairs deputy minister Ian Shugart wrote in a 2018 memo prepared for then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland. Freeland was succeeded by François-Philippe Champagne after last year’s election.
Shugart, who is now the clerk of the Privy Council, wrote that Canada believes the ability of one of the P-5 to block UNSC action has been the reason “the UNSC is often seen as failing to effectively respond to pressing international crises. Recent examples include the inadequate response to the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and Ukraine.”
Shugart’s assessment was made in a nine-page memo titled “United Nations Security Council Reform.” A heavily redacted version of that memo, marked “Secret — Canadian Eyes Only,” was recently released to Global News as a result of an access-to-information request that took 10 months to process.
Chapnick says Canada’s opposition to new veto-holding members on the UNSC almost certainly was a contributing factor to Canada’s failure to win a UNSC seat in 2010, the last time the country contested a seat.
“Countries that directly oppose them have trouble negotiating with them on just about anything, including trade, where we’ve had a lot of trouble trying to make progress with India.”
In addition to Canada, the UfC caucus that opposes new veto-holding UNSC members includes Italy, Colombia, Pakistan, Argentina, Costa Rica, Malta, Mexico, the Republic of Korea, San Marino, Spain and Turkey.
After losing the 2010 bid for a UNSC seat, the Harper government came under heavy criticism by the opposition, including the Liberals who, in the 2015 election, vowed to win a seat in this year’s vote.
In addition to the five permanent seats on the UNSC, there are 10 non-permanent seats allocated on a regional basis. Canada is part of an allocation group that includes western European countries, and in the vote that will happen in about six months to fill a vacant seat, Canada is facing stiff competition from Ireland and Norway.
“Despite conventional wisdom in Ottawa, we are not out of the race,” said Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, on Thursday. “I’d rank Norway in the lead, but we are competitive with Ireland.”
But Champagne, whose ministerial mandate letter specifically directs him to secure a UNSC seat, could make his job easier by modifying Canada’s position on UNSC reform, most easily by quitting the UfC caucus.
“You can continue to say: ‘We don’t think there should be additional vetoes’ without yelling it from from the rooftops. That’s where I think we should be,” Chapnick said. “I don’t think we need to take a leadership role on a reform debate that I don’t think is going anywhere.”
Indeed, Shugart, in his 2018 memo to Freeland, as much as admitted that reform of the UNSC was unlikely. Simply negotiating the text of a resolution calling for reform “could be expected to last many years,” Shugart wrote.
Champagne was not available for an interview on Thursday, and his department was unable to respond to questions about Canada’s position.
“We don’t need to be front and centre on the stage telling the Brazilians and the Indians and the Africans something that they really don’t want to hear,” Chapnick said. “I don’t see any purpose to that when I don’t think the reform effort is really going anywhere anyway.”
Until losing its bid for a seat on the UNSC in 2010, Canada had held a UNSC seat about once every decade for most of the United Nations’ existence. Canada has held a Security Council seat for a total of 12 years, most recently from 1999 to 2000.
Certain kinds of decisions taken by the UNSC create binding obligations in international law on member countries. That, Shugart noted in 2008, makes the UNSC “unique among intergovernmental/multilateral security organizations” and among the reasons Canada considers it important for its own interests to occasionally hold a seat on that body.
“Canada’s interests in the UNSC and its reform lie in our desire to strengthen the rules-based international order and maintain international peace and security for the benefit of Canadians,” he wrote.