Why Canada should move the UN into the limelight

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
July 7, 2015

The anniversary of the United Nations Charter, signed in San Francisco 70 years ago, passed unremarked by the Harper government. Too bad, given Canada’s helpful role in drafting the Charter.

Usually the Harper government does not miss an opportunity to mark significant anniversaries. To its credit, the Harper government has incorporated a strong historical component into the civic liturgy that aspirant citizens must learn.

In a country as young and diverse as Canada, celebrating our heritage moments are important in the development of shared national identity. Two world wars, involving valour and sacrifice, propelled Canada from colony to nation and thence to middle power. As the Second World War drew to a close, our diplomats – notably Lester Pearson, Escott Reid, Norman Robertson, Hume Wrong– laboured with fellow diplomats “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” as the preamble to the UN Charter would later state.

Canada had two objectives in San Francisco: first, acknowledgment that middle powers deserved differentiation in treatment. Second, recognition that competence or “functionalism,” rather than mere size, should weigh in representation to the specialized agencies dealing with food, health, refugees, education and culture, economics and social policy.

The Charter acknowledged both Canadian objectives.

While the big powers achieved permanent place on the Security Council, there would be no concert of great powers. The Security Council would include additional, temporary members selected regionally, thus giving positional opportunity to the middle powers. Membership in the General Assembly was based on one nation, one vote.

The Canadians’ work in San Francisco during the late spring and early summer of 1945 was not without diversion. In perhaps the funniest diary entry in his The Siren Years, Charles Ritchie records a visit to a ranch-cum-brothel in the company of unappreciative colleagues.

Canadian diplomacy developed a reputation in following years as the helpful fixer and a bridge between big and small, east and west, north and south. Canadian John Humphreys was instrumental in designing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Canadians helped to broker the compromise admitting both Soviet bloc and post-colonial nations (1955). For his pivotal role in devising the peacekeeping formula resolving the Suez crisis, Mr. Pearson earned the Nobel Peace Prize (1957).

Peacekeeping has evolved but the blue berets still have a popular hold on the Canadian psyche because they reflect how we see ourselves, and want to be seen, internationally.

When the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UN peacekeepers, more than 80,000 past and present members of the Canadian Armed Forces could share in the honour. On Ottawa’s Sussex Drive, the statueReconciliation – commemorates peacekeeping.

Sadly, we no longer share our expertise on peace operations. The doors to the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre were closed in 2013. Through 20 years of operation, it provided training for more than 18,000 peacekeepers from more than 150 countries.

Global peacekeeping operations are more active than ever before. More than 130,000 blue berets are engaged in 16 operations, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. The UN budget for peacekeeping is just over $7-billion, less than half of 1 per cent of world military expenditures. Canada ranks ninth in financial contributors but there are currently only 115 Canadians engaged in UN peacekeeping.

To mark Canada’s contribution to the UN Charter and the United Nations, the Harper government could do the following:

First, restore the bronze statue of Mr. Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize to pride of place in our Foreign Ministry headquarters. At the same time, restore the Alfred Pellan paintingsCanada West, Canada East – to the front lobby. The gargantuan photograph of the Queen would not be out of place in Kim Jong-un’s Hermit Kingdom but it fails Walter Bagehot’s “dignified capacity” test of constitutional monarchy.

Second, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should break from electioneering and speak at September’s General Assembly about the role of middle powers and the enduring relevance of functionalism. He should announce that Canada will seek election to the Security Council in 2017 as the champion of middle powers.

Third, given Canadian experience, we should respond affirmatively to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s appeal for peacekeepers by reactivating the training programs of our peace and security operations.

The UN has never achieved the aspirations of its founders. It remains a work in progress and that progress depends on the collective will of its individual members. But its achievements far outweigh its shortcomings, especially in the work of its functional agencies. A part of Canadian heritage, the UN deserves our continued support and recognition.


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