TORONTO, Canada — There was a time when some American journalists covering conflicts in the Middle East would introduce themselves as Canadians. Canada’s brand was so respected internationally that those associated with it could expect a degree of protection.
To many in the world, Canada represented fairness and justice — badges it earned with, among other efforts, a foreign policy at times at odds with the United States (the Iraq war, for example), numerous U.N. peacekeeping missions (Canada invented the idea), generous humanitarian aid and a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the diplomatic level, the respect was repeatedly confirmed. Canada presented itself as a candidate for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council six times, and was voted to the powerful post each time.
That suddenly changed on Oct. 12. Canada once again presented itself as a candidate for the Security Council — but this time got trounced. And to what global powerhouse did Canada lose? Portugal — an almost bankrupt country of 10.6 million people.
Two temporary spots on the council were available. The first round of voting by the U.N.’s General Assembly elected Germany. In the second round, Canada received even fewer votes than in the first — 78 to Portugal’s 113. Fearing further embarrassment, Canada withdrew from the third round. It was, in short, an international dressing down. Yves Fortier, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.N., called the loss “a slap in the face by the international community.”
A recent survey suggests Canadians are mindful of the rebuke. An EKOS Research survey released last week found that 45 percent of respondents said Tory foreign policy had a negative effect on Canada’s global reputation.
Most have blamed the change in Canada’s international stature on the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Harper won his first minority government in 2006. He had accused the previous liberal government of “moral relativism” in foreign affairs. If he had been in power in 2003, Harper would have sent Canadian soldiers to the Iraq War.
Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom calls it the “I’m-right-you’re-wrong approach to foreign affairs.” It became most evident in Harper’s shift of Middle East policy to sharply favor Israel.
Harper called Israel’s heavy bombing of Lebanon in 2006 a “measured” response to Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Victims of Israeli bombs included seven members of a Canadian family, including four children, who were visiting relatives in south Lebanon, and a Canadian soldier serving at a U.N. base in southern Lebanon.
More recently, the Harper government justified Israel’s 2009 invasion of the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and cut off funding to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, whose work with refugees in Gaza has often been criticized by Israel.
At home, Harper cut funding to nongovernmental groups he considered not friendly enough to Israel. And former British MP George Galloway was banned from entering Canada after he helped deliver aid to Gaza.
On the environment, Canada is now widely criticized as having a government that denies climate change and actively blocks international attempts at a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
The Harper government has also been criticized for cutting the number of African countries that get aid, and for reducing the number of Canadian soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping missions. Canada ranks 50th among countries who contribute to those missions. (The Canadian military is instead focused on fighting the Afghan War.)
On the human rights front, Canada voted against a U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand were the only other countries to vote with Canada.
Canada also has the dubious distinction of having the only Westerner still held at Guantanamo Bay: Omar Khadr. Harper’s government steadfastly refused to ask the U.S. that he be brought back to Canada for trial. Khadr was only 15 — a child soldier, according to a U.N. treaty ratified by the U.S. — when he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier during the Afghan war.
Khadr, now 24, pleaded guilty last week in what his lawyers described as a bid to end his eight-year ordeal in Guantanamo. Under the plea bargain, Khadr is expected to serve the remainder of his jail sentence in Canada. In short, a child soldier has been convicted of killing an enemy soldier on the battlefield.
Some have even questioned Harper’s respect for the U.N. In 2009, the prime minister skipped out of a U.N. meeting in New York and missed addressing the General Assembly. Instead, he attended a photo opportunity at a Tim Hortons plant near Toronto.
Canada’s foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, blamed the loss of the council seat on Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff, who criticized Canada’s foreign policy prior to the vote. But veteran diplomats see it differently.
“We no longer represent the qualities which we Canadians have long insisted that candidates for the (security) council should bring to such responsibilities,” said Robert Fowler, Canada’s former ambassador to the U.N. “The world does not need more of the kind of Canada they’ve been getting.”