Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday he is seeking a seat for Canada on the powerful United Nations Security Council because it is where the world’s most pressing issues are debated.
Trudeau spent his second full day in Africa at a working lunch with some Ethiopian female business owners and in one-on-one meetings with leaders from Nigeria, Somalia, Mauritius and Madagascar.
He attended a formal dinner for the African Union summit Saturday night, after meeting with five others and delivering two speeches on the margins of the summit.
While Trudeau said this trip is aimed at moving Canada’s relationship with Africa to new heights, including more economic partnerships and business ties, he acknowledged Canada’s campaign for one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the Security Council is one of the reasons for the visit.
Canada is up against Norway and Ireland for two spots on the council in a vote that will take place in June. There are 54 African members of the United Nations, more than one-fourth of the potential votes for the Security Council’s seats. Canada lost its bid for a seat in 2010, partly due to lacklustre African support.
“The UN Security Council is a place where the biggest issues facing our world are debated, discussed and advanced,” Trudeau said. “Having a Canadian voice at that table is important for Canadians but also for countries around the world who share our values, who share our concerns, who share our perspective on the world.”
But not all African nations are on the same page as Canada on at least one issue: human rights. Trudeau has been noticeably quiet or vague about the matter on this trip so far, said Alice Musabende, a Canadian doctoral student in international relations specializing in Africa’s international relations.
She said she thinks it’s because he didn’t want to upset any leaders as he is campaigning for their votes.
“I think this whole trip really was prepared as a way to not put human rights and good governance front and centre of these discussions,” said Musabende.
Trudeau said Canadians are used to seeing him talk about human rights “wherever we go around the world” and Africa was no different.
“In all of my conversations with every leader we’ve talked about human rights,” Trudeau said.
But he did not do it publicly. Other than one mention of “LGBTQ issues”, Trudeau didn’t list human rights as something to discuss in any of the brief photo opportunities he held before all nine one-on-one meeting with African leaders over the last two days. He did meet with some whose governments have been criticized by international groups like Amnesty International for their human rights records, including the leaders of Rwanda and Egypt.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame changed the constitution to allow him to run for more terms in office, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has been criticized for arbitrarily detaining people, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Canadian engineer Yasser Albaz has been detained in Cairo for a year after he was arrested at the airport at the end of a business trip. He has not been charged with anything.
Trudeau said he raised the case with el-Sisi in their private meeting.
Musabende said African leaders will surely welcome the economic partnerships, climate change co-operation and women’s empowerment programs Trudeau talked about constantly but she said those can’t happen without human rights being on the table.
“If you’re going there and you’re going to be partnering with an entire continent where you still have some presidents who are changing, in a constitutional way, their terms to stay in power, or you talking with people who have abused human rights of their citizens and you are Canada, pretty much the flag bearer of human rights, how do you not say who you are and what you really stand for,” she said.
Trudeau and his cabinet ministers repeatedly said over the weekend that they believe their partnerships and relationships with Africa are stronger than ever and that their government has been working hard to make them even better over the last four years.
Trudeau pointed to investments in peacekeeping and peace building, and said almost half Canada’s spending on development goes to sub-Saharan Africa.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who is in Africa with Trudeau, said thus far the leaders he has spoken to believe Canada embodies the same values about climate change, multilateralism, and economic security they do.
“So far, I must say what I’ve heard from African leaders is that they certainly welcome Canada on the Security Council,” he said.
Antoine Chevrier, Canada’s ambassador in Ethiopia, said he thinks this trip has sent a positive message to African leaders about how serious Canada is about stronger ties. He pointed specifically to the large trade delegation with more than 20 Canadian business owners along, as well as having the prime minister at the helm.
“I think the trip has made a huge difference in firming up and building on the very strong and existing partnerships,” he said.