On Thursday 29 November, just two months after his last finger-pointing critique of the United Nations and its members during the opening of the General Assembly meetings in New York (while Prime Minister Stephen Harper notably abstained from addressing the Assembly even while visiting New York City to accept an award) in September, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was met with complete silence as he walked to the microphone to deliver another of his stern lectures against the delegates sitting in the General Assembly hall. This time, his ire was directed at the large majority of nations who voted in support of a bid by the Palestinian Authority to upgrade its status at the United Nations, from Observer to Non-Member State. Afterwards, he walked away again to similar silence.
The vote, with 138 nations supporting and only 9 opposing, recognizes Palestine as a non-member observer state (from its previous status as non-member observer entity) in the Assembly, allowed to attend and to speak at UN General Assembly meetings but not to vote on any resolutions or other substantive matters. Palestine now shares this status with the Vatican.
In the run up to the vote, Minister Baird and the Harper government had issued dark warnings of considering “all available next steps” should Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas present the bid for recognition, and should the majority of nations represented at the UN have the temerity to vote in favor. At the close of the voting, Canada was left isolated with Israel, the United States, the weak conservative government of the Czech Republic and a handful of small states – Panama, Palau, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia –several of which are heavily dependent on US (and Israeli) economic and other assistance. None of Canada’s EU allies voted against the resolution, with the conservative UK government and 40 others choosing to abstain.
The Harper government’s position was based in part on what it likes to call “principle, not politics’ – which in this case means a clearly predetermined position of unquestioning support for Israel and for Israeli policies: essentially, “Israel, right or wrong”. It also was based on an open disdain for the international organization headquartered in New York, at which global politics is played out in the Assembly and Security Council and at which many different interests and views are pursued by the UN’s 193 member states. This is not a Canadian government that has shown any interest in, or even tolerance of, views that differ in any way from its own, whether coming from within its own party ranks, from amongst its diplomatic corps, from civil society organizations, let alone from the unruly mob that makes up “the international community of states”.
At least Canada’s professional diplomats appear for the time being to have been able to convey some perspective and to inject some practical common sense – or “politics” – into whoever inside Ottawa drives these international demonstrations of pique. The Canadian ambassadors to the UN in New York and Geneva, and to Israel, and its diplomatic representative to the West Bank, all were recalled to Ottawa for frank and private discussions after which Minister Baird’s press secretary (but not Minister Baird) said that no Canadian economic or political reprisals against the Palestinian Authority were imminent. When neither Washington DC, nor even Israeli lobby groups in Ottawa, had called for reprisals against the Palestinian Authority, perhaps the isolation of making good on its earlier implied threats would have been too obvious even for the advocates of “principle” in Ottawa. However, one can expect further down the road that Canada’s current $300 million-over-five-years humanitarian aid package to the Palestinians will be “reviewed” with the UN vote in mind when its five-year cycle is closing – and look for the punishment to come then, pursued quietly and explained as an administrative and budget measure.
On firmer and more reasonable ground, Ottawa joined Washington in arguing that the Palestinians should avoid using their newly won status at the Assembly to seek to join other UN-related treaty bodies, especially the International Criminal Court. Such an action by the Palestinian Authority would be far more provocative, and far more destructive of any possible bilateral peace negotiations, than its pursuit of limited recognition within the UN General Assembly.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government immediately announced approval of a plan to begin building 3,000 more settler homes in the E1 corridor east of Jerusalem, and European governments called in Israeli ambassadors to express their opposition to this new expansion and its negative effects on any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Ottawa’s first response was simply to blame the Palestinians. Minister Baird’s press spokesperson (again, not the Minister) described the new Israeli action an obvious response to the Palestinian leaders’ “actions and provocative rhetoric at the UN General Assembly”. It was only several days later, trailing well behind US and European governments, when Prime Minister Harper spoke personally and privately – not publicly, and not by a message conveyed through a lower-level representative – with Netanyahu by telephone to inform his counterpart that Ottawa did not support Israel’s unilateral action. The contrast to its very public posturing, thinly veiled warnings, and open condemnations of Palestinian leader Abbas and the majority of states in the General Assembly, will have been noted by all concerned.
Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Executive Director of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), and Co-Director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.