The Canadian federation has always been a prime supporter of the United Nations (UN).
In fact, John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian legal theorist from McGill University, authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the founding document for the premier international organization.
In 1957, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs (and later Prime Minister) Lester B. Pearson offered the idea of installing blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers in the war-stricken Suez Canal — an effort which later won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
But more than 50 years later, Canada has changed its tune on multilateral approaches to policy making. Instead of taking up its traditional role as a cheerleader for peacemaking and international cooperation, the British Commonwealth nation now shuns the UN, a significant shift initiated by the accession of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006.
Rather than continue Canada’s unconditional relationship with the UN, Harper took a pragmatic approach to the international body. His cabinet began examining ways that Canada could contribute more to resolving global problems and less to propagating international bureaucracy, especially when programs and initiatives conflicted with Canada’s own domestic laws or favored poorly in terms of economic efficiency.
The most prominent example was Canada’s March 2013 withdrawal from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, a treaty signed by 194 nations to ”forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation,” according to the website.
According to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the move was justified because less than 18 percent of the convention’s $8.2 million budget actually goes to combating desertification in affected areas. The rest is spent on administration and bureaucrats.
“We’re just not interested in continuing to support bureaucracies and talkfests,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill.
On the political front, Canada has opposed the UN’s attempts to probe into the history of state abuse against aboriginal women and children — a task already taken up by national commissions and inquiries — as well as food security across the northern provinces. A 2012 report targeted Canada for its supposed large numbers of “food insecure” households, a conclusion which drew much ire from then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who labeled the report a “discredit” to the entire UN body.
The latest battle places Canada as one of the only developed nations to reject the Arms Trade Treaty, intended to stop gun smuggling but judged as a danger to the nation’s domestic gun laws, according to Baird. He refuses to bring the bill to the Canadian parliament until parts can be revised.
According to the CBC’s Chris Hall, Canada’s new-found hostility toward the UN lies in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s personal distrust of the organization, since it is so keen to give credence to undemocratic leaders in the General Assembly or in various committees on human rights and peace.
Similarly, Hall believes, Harper resents the UN forpassing up Canada for a seat on the Security Council in 2010, outvoted by the less powerful and debt-laded nation of Portugal.
Either way, in the grand building of the United Nations in New York City, these types of protestations on the UN foundations are rare. They are, however, increasingly necessary.
Despite its modest population of 35 million, Canada is the seventh largest contributor to the United Nations, having contributed US$84 million in 2013, US$16 million more than Russia, a permanent member of the security council with four times the population and an economy worth almost US$2 billion more annually.
Canada’s reluctance to accept the dictates of the UN reveals a national skepticism toward international bureaucracy not seen since the failed idea of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War.
It’s not merely an ideological opposition but also a financial one, inviting a larger debate about what kind of international organization individual citizens want to support and legitimize with annual contributions.
The UN may fund many helpful programs which aim to alleviate poverty and inadequate education around the world, but the fact remains that most of the money goes to personnel instead of people in need.
A 2011 analysis by Joseph Torsella, the US representative for management and reform to the UN, revealed that close to 60 percent of the UN’s US$5.4 billion budget is spent on salaries alone. In fact, the average compensation for each staff member is US$476,000, more than five times Canada’s median household income.
Why are largely-unaccountable bureaucracies, which squander a large percentage of their budgets, considered the best way to face the world’s growing range of problems? What about more effective mutual cooperation between nations or smaller communities?
Just because Canada may oppose funding the convention on desertification doesn’t mean it doesn’t view it as a problem. It just doesn’t believe international organizations, or perhaps just this one, are the best way to address the problem.
If more nations thought this way, perhaps there’d be a little more accountability in the halls of our extravagant international organizations.
Yaël Ossowski is a journalist, Young Voices advocate, and host of Liberty In Exile on LRN.fm. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria. Follow him @YaelOss and on his website Yael.ca.
Read his featured PanAmerican Post column, “Question the Narrative.”