Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in New York on Thursday to accept a private award for global statesmanship, but he won’t be using the occasion to address the nearby United Nations general assembly.
Whether you applaud or decry Harper’s decision to spurn the UN, international watchers agree on one point: His silence speaks volumes.
“I think many UN aficionados do see it as a snub,” Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said in an interview.
“And quite frankly the prime minister is delivering — or re-delivering — his Tim Hortons message, which is that I have better things to do than show up and speak to a half-empty general assembly.”
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will be speaking for Canada during UN week in New York, a common occurrence and one that Harper has characterized as business as usual.
Harper told the House of Commons this week that it’s never been the practice for Canadian prime ministers to address the UN annually.
“That said, nobody in Canada doubts — whether they agree with us or not — that the government takes strong, clear and independent decisions on foreign affairs,” Harper added.
His point on prime ministerial attendance is well taken.
Brian Mulroney addressed the general assembly three times during his eight years in office and his Conservative successor Kim Campbell once. Jean Chretien spoke to the UN five times in 10 years and Paul Martin twice during his two-year term as Liberal prime minister.
Harper has spoken at the general assembly twice since 2006 — three times when you count his back-to-back addresses in September 2010 when Canada was lobbying for a seat on the Security Council.
But a confluence of events makes this year’s prime ministerial no-show stand out.
Harper was taken to task by some in September 2009 for attending the opening of a Tim Hortons franchise in Oakville, Ont., rather than speaking at the UN, given that he had to be in Pittsburgh that week anyway.
This year’s absence from the UN on the very day he is in New York to accept his “world statesman of the year” award from an American organization is much more glaring.
Canada’s failure to gain a seat on the UN Security Council likely had a big influence, said Hampson.
“Whatever lukewarm enthusiasm he had for the United Nations, I think he now views it as a cold tub of bath water and he’s not about to jump into it.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair argues the Conservative government just doesn’t like the UN, or multilateralism for that matter.
“It’s this fortress Canuck mentality that they seem to be developing — we don’t have to work with the rest of the world —and I think this is just another manifestation of it,” Mulcair said Wednesday.
“I disagree,” Baird later shot back, noting Canada is the UN’s seventh biggest cash contributor, and second largest contributor to the UN’s world food program.
“We may have issues from time to time with certain decisions taken by the (world) body,” but other UN work is “absolutely essential,” Baird added.
What’s clear is the Conservative government works with the UN on certain issues but has no use for the forum as a global talk shop.
Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN under Conservative prime minister Mulroney, said the world is noticing Canada’s “petulant reaction” and calls it “a significant mistake in terms of multilateralism.”
Harper’s global statesman award, Lewis added dryly, “if it were to be taken seriously,” is the perfect opportunity to pitch Canada’s foreign policy to the world.
“But you don’t need an international statesman award to recognize that we have just effectively broken diplomatic relations with Iran, so what a great opportunity to take the platform and tell the world why,” said the former Ontario provincial NDP leader.
Lewis said Harper could speak about the carnage in Syria, and warn the global community about missing its targets on maternal and child health — an issue Harper has championed.
“There are a number of issues to which the prime minister could speak with cogency and with legitimacy,” said Lewis. “I think it’s a real lost opportunity.”
One of Canada’s most respected former diplomats, Yves Fortier, similarly called the move “unfortunate” given that Harper is in New York at a time when there are so many important global issues pertinent to Canada.
“I don’t think it sends the right signal,” said Fortier, Canada’s ambassador to the UN from 1988 to 1992 and Canada’s representative on the UN Security Council from 1989 to 1990.
“If Barack Obama in the middle of his (presidential) campaign can find the time to speak to the UN, I would have thought our prime minister could also have found the time to do so.”
As for any repercussions, Lewis joked that Canada won’t be getting a seat on the Security Council any time soon — “not during Prime Minister Harper’s tenure, at any rate.”