Not too long ago, Canada was considered a champion for human rights and international law. The North American country was often seen, in contrast to its southern neighbour, the United States, as a stalwart defender of the rights of the oppressed, as well as a faithful supporter of international humanitarian and refugee organisations.
Canada’s liberal legislation required that the executive branch impose sanctions against countries known to be human rights violators. Canada also had a supportive, welcoming policy on political asylum.
These policies, however, were eroded under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. And, despite expectations to the contrary, this erosion has not been reversed in the last four years under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Canada is now actively seeking to secure one of the two available non-permanent seats at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). But the country’s gradual move away from liberalism is raising questions about whether it deserves one.
Nowhere is Canada’s retreat from liberal values clearer than in the case of Palestine.
For the last 20 years, Ottawa has been slavishly following the lead of Washington on issues related to Palestine at the UN. Since 2000, it voted “No” to 166 different General Assembly resolutions on Palestine.
By contrast, the two countries that are competing with Canada for a UNSC seat in this rotation – Ireland and Norway – both have a consistently different position on issues pertaining to Palestine.
Dublin and Oslo have been overwhelmingly supportive of Palestine at the UN. They voted “Yes” 251 and 249 times respectively on resolutions related to Palestinian rights since 2000. Canada voted “Yes” to 87 similar resolutions, but a whopping 85 of those were from 2000 to 2010.
During Trudeau’s time in power, Canada supported only one pro-Palestinian resolution at the General Assembly. It repeatedly chose to stand against nations’ attempts to condemn Israel for its human rights violations and illegal settlements, and support Palestinians’ struggle for rights and self-determination.
Trudeau’s government has not been making much effort to hide where it stands on the issue of Israel-Palestine, or what it plans to do if it acquires a seat at the UNSC, either. In November 2018, during an official visit to Israel, Canada’s then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland openly said that she hopes securing a seat at the UNSC would allow Canada to serve as an “asset for Israel”.
It is no wonder then that more than 100 organisations and dozens of prominent individuals from Canada and beyond have written an open letter to UN ambassadors, urging countries to vote against Canada’s bid for a seat at the UNSC due to its government’s anti-Palestinian positions.
This campaign worried Canada. Earlier this month, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Marc-Andre Blanchard, sent a letter (PDF) to other UN ambassadors to defend Canada’s positions on Israel-Palestine. lanchard underlined his country’s alleged commitment to “addressing the development and humanitarian needs of Palestinians”, but failed to offer a convincing explanation for its dismal record on voting against Palestinian interests and rights at the UN.
The Israeli government’s recent threat to annex additional portions of the West Bank in blatant violation of international law makes opposing Canada’s bid for a UNSC seat even more urgent.
The entire international legal system has been based on nations respecting national frontiers and rejecting any attempt by any country to change them unilaterally. Since the end of World War II, there have only been three attempts to violate this principle. The first was the attempt by Iraq to annex Kuwait as its 19th governate. The second was Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And the third was Israel’s annexation first of East Jerusalem, then the Golan, and now portions of the West Bank.
Until recently, these attempts were met with near-universal condemnation. But in the last few years, the Trump administration appeared to give the green light to such violations by Israel. This has opened a Pandora’s box, and invited chaos to the international arena, as many countries across the world are in a position to claim historic rights, security interests or other needs to annex lands from their neighbours.
The issue is not whether Canada is “pro-Israeli” or “pro -Palestinian”. The issue is whether it continues to believe in international law, or whether it is now as openly disdainful and contemptuous of it as its southern neighbour.
As the US abdicates its leadership role in the international arena, actively undermines international principles, and attacks international organisations, Canada risks being drawn into similar positions.
For this reason alone, it is important that Canada is not allowed to take the coveted seat at the UNSC. If allowed into the Council, by its own admission, Ottawa will seek to be “an asset to Israel”. This would mean it would unreservedly follow the destructive policies of the Trump administration, and contribute to the erosion of the international legal order.
As the world batles the COVID-19 pandemic, prepares to address other global challenges such as climate change, and gears up to confront new human rights challenges, it is hoped that Canada may once again become a champion of international law and international organisations. Until then, every effort should be exerted to stop Ottawa having a say inside the Security Council.
Jonathan Kuttab is a Palestinian-American attorney specialised in International law.