OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government is sounding nervous ahead of a key vote to decide who gets a seat on the United Nations Security Council — a prize Canada would once have taken for granted but is now in some doubt.
The United Nations decides next Tuesday which two from Canada, Germany and Portugal will get a two-year temporary seat on the powerful 15-seat council. Germany looks set to succeed, leaving Canada and Portugal in a race for one position.
Canada competes for a seat once every decade and has always succeeded. Failure would be a blow for a country that has long prided itself as being one of the U.N.’s biggest backers.
Yet, since Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took power in 2006, Ottawa has adopted policies that have irritated some of the countries — notably in the Middle East and Africa — that could normally be relied on to vote for Canada.
Harper has in the past shown ambivalence toward the United Nations and diplomats say Canada’s effort to win a seat this time started later than usual and expended fewer resources.
Many predict Canada will win by a narrow margin but stress that this is not guaranteed.
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon took time out from an address to foreign ambassadors on Wednesday to criticize Michael Ignatieff, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, who questions whether Canada deserves a Security Council seat.
“One of the few persons who believe that Canada should not sit on the Security Council, unfortunately, is the leader of the opposition, Mr Ignatieff, who has shown himself to be unable to put the interests of his country above the interests of his party,” Cannon told the envoys.
Participants described Cannon’s comments as “weird” and “very unusual”, noting that foreign ministers are supposed to leave domestic politics out of speeches to ambassadors.
“We’re getting close to the vote and they are clearly feeling the heat. The speech was designed to cover their backs so, if they don’t win, they can blame Ignatieff,” one person who had been in the room told Reuters on Thursday.
Asked about the comments, a spokeswoman for Cannon said: “The fact that Mr Ignatieff has opposed Canada’s bid for the Security Council is not exactly an A+ for the bid.”
Last year, Harper skipped the chance to address the U.N. General Assembly, preferring instead to attend a domestic political event at a doughnut shop. This year he spoke to the assembly and urged members to vote for Canada.
Ignatieff said Harper had ignored the United Nations for years, adding: “I know how important it is for Canada to get a seat ... but Canadians have to ask a tough question: Has this government earned that place? We’re not convinced it has.”
Since coming to power, Harper’s right-leaning government has tilted Canadian policy strongly toward Israel and cut bilateral aid to several poor African nations. The number of Canadian troops serving on U.N. peacekeeping missions has plummeted.
Former Canadian U.N. Ambassador Paul Heinbecker accuses Harper of exploiting foreign affairs for partisan purposes.
He wrote in a new book that Harper’s commitment for a seat “has seemed to be more motivated by a fear of being the first government to fail to do so” than by the benefits.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson