Why Canadians and the UN Need Each Other

The following keynote address was given by George Somerwill, Director-at-Large of UNAC Vancouver, to students attending the Canadian Future Model United Nations (CFMUN) conference held at the Coast Plaza Hotel in downtown Vancouver from March 8-10, 2013.

Thank you to all of you at Canadian Future Model United Nations for inviting CFMUN2me to speak to you.  Your presence here demonstrates that you have an interest in what is going on in the world – not just what’s happening in Vancouver, or the Lower Mainland or even in BC…but in the wider world.

That’s excellent, because your interest and knowledge in the UN demonstrates that you support the goals of that organization.

I wish to talk to you today about the relationship between Canada and the United Nations. Maybe some of you are wondering why you need to care about that relationship?   Or perhaps you are wondering how you can support that relationship?  We will try to get to all those questions. And I am going to leave some time open at the end for you to ask your own questions.

But first, it is my turn to ask you some questions. You don’t have to answer them now, but I would like you to start thinking about the answers:

  • Today is International Women’s Day. Here in Canada we are fairly good (but not perfect) at supporting the rights of women and girls. But many countries do not support their rights. Violence Against Women is endemic. Women and Girls bear the brunt of any conflict.  How can the international community put pressure on countries which abuse or simply do not respect the rights of women?  Who is advocating for those women in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, etc.?
  • There are currently two countries in the world – Iran and North Korea – which, as far as we know, are racing towards obtaining nuclear weapons.  How do we encourage and ensure those nations don’t develop weapons and use them on their neighbours? Do we leave it to the US or Israel to bomb them? Do we starve them to death? If we did bomb them what would their friends in the PRC or Russia say?
  • In recent years it has become very evident that many countries in the world are not able to feed themselves; or they will not be able to provide basic health care or education to their people.  How can we channel support to those countries to improve agriculture? To improve health care or education? How will we protect poorer nations threatened by cimate change?

 Don’t answer now, but please think about the answers  – as you are here this weekend. Because  CFMUN is not a game. You are here to learn how to deal with some very serious issues.

The UN was founded in 1946, with the goal to ensure peace in the world. At the time, the US and Soviets had nuclear weapons. Everyone realized that with nuclear weapons war was not an option.

In the more-than-six decades since the founding of the UN, Canada has had a long history of supporting the organization.  The UN needed Canada and was very happy for our support.  And I would certainly add that given the pace of change in the world and the issues the world faces (we mentioned some of them above) – Canada and individual Canadians need the UN.

 Over the years since the UN was founded in 1946 – Canada and Canadians  have played an important role in the organization. The UN Charter was partly drafted by a Canadian academic and Human Rights lawyer – John Peters Humphrey.  Dr. Humphrey headed the very first UN Human Rights body in 1947.

Former Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson in1956 , even before he became PM, suggested to the UN Security Council that Canadian soldiers could form the backbone of a peacekeeping (PK) force to stop a conflict which was then happening in the Middle East – the Suez Crisis. That was the first Canadian participation in peacekeeping (UNEF) – and it certainly wasn’t the last. Not long after that Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the concept of peacekeeping.  

Today of course, peacekeeping missions still exist. Within six months, PK missions will be in Mali  and Syria. They have become more sophisticated, but Lester Pearson’s original concept is still the basis of all PK.

Decades later, in 1994, Canadian Major-General, Romeo Dallaire led the UN PK force in Rwanda. As a PK Mission, Rwanda was a disaster. The UN was unable to stop the genocidal killing of 800,000 Rwandans. But that was not the fault of Major-General Dallaire who showed exemplary courage. You should read the book, “Shake Hands With the Devil” which now-Senator Dallaire has written, about those events.  He’s not very happy about the UN – which let him down – but maybe the organization has learned from its mistakes?

In 1997, the then-new Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan created the post of Deputy Secretary-General of the UN.  Both he and his senior managers felt it was important to see a woman doing that job as Deputy Secretary-General. And she had to be able to take responsibility for the day-to-day running of the organization. And it was to Canada that he looked for a candidate – Louise Frechette.

Another Canadian, Stephen Lewis, was the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF – the UN Children’s agency.

Even more importantly, from the founding of the UN in 1946 up to 2010, roughly once each decade, Canada was voted by the GA to be one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (SC). That  started in 1948-1949. It was only in 2010 for the first time in 60+ years that we failed to gain a place in the SC.

And the list goes on…. Over the years, countless Canadian diplomats – known as Permanent Representatives of Canada to the UN, have quietly gone about their business, ensuring that Canada has a positive and constructive image in the UN and therefore in the world.

And even those of us Canadians who were never at that exalted level – knew that we were setting an example of what Canada could do. I have lost count of the number of countries – Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Pakistan where ordinary people – when you said to them “I’m from Canada” – would respond warmly, saying, “we are so happy you Canadians are here.”

 Perhaps you are wondering – why does the UN invite Canada to be on the SC?  Or why does it call on Canadians to fill these important roles?

Simply – it is because we Canadians demonstrate characteristics which are critically important to the UN and what the UN stands for.

  • We are respected for being impartial and fair minded. Historically we have not taken sides.
  • Respect for the Rule of Law within Canada is very strong. Law provides the legal framework of how the nation is run and Canadians support that law.
  • We are not a super power. We do not possess our own nuclear weaponry. We are not a former colonial power. Less powerful nations do not feel intimidated by Canada.
  • Historically, Canadian Governments have distanced themselves politically from “Superpower Rhetoric” We have no inclination or reason to act as “the world’s policeman”.
  • Canadians understand that as a smaller political entity – a “middle weight” country – we must work co-operatively with other nations or other governments. Canada is simply not big enough to “go it alone”. To get things done in the world – co-operatively – through the UN, Canadians understand that we need to be a team player.

Let me give you an example of Canada working as a team player through the UN. In 1995/6 Canada led a fairly long diplomatic process to have the GA bring into force what has become known as the Ottawa Convention to Ban the Use of Landmines (as a weapon of war). To do that, the then government  had to do a lot of diplomatic work over about a year to build support within the GA to pass the treaty, and eventually ratify it.

The agreement on the treaty and its eventual ratification  led to a lot of respect for Canada in many parts of the world. – even though some pretty big players (Britain, US, Israel, mostly users and manufacturers of landmines) – refused to ratify it.

Why is the UN important to you? As young Canadians you are perhaps already aware that there is a groundswell of political opinion – especially in the US but also in many parts of Canada – against the UN.  Well, over the years the US has often criticized the UN (NB. non-payment of dues). Since Canada failed to win a place as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2010, some senior government  officials have been calling for Canada to leave the UN. Similar calls were made by the Republican Party in the US during the time of George Bush, junior.

My personal opinion is that this would be a huge mistake for both Canada and the UN. In the last 67 years of the existence of the UN, Canada and the organization have built a mutually supportive relationship.  The international community –  made up of all of the member states of the UN – sees Canada as a stable and calm influence in an argumentative world.

You may have noticed that many of the Canadians whose names I have mentioned  in connection with the UN are older men and women.  This is where you come in. If Canada is to continue to have more than just a marginal role in the UN and in international affairs – you must, as young people start to become involved.  It is very fashionable these days to turn your back on the world’s problems – to shrug your shoulders and say “Oh well there’s nothing I can do…”

Well that’s not true and nor is it an answer.  Do you think the founders of the UN after World War Two shrugged their shoulders?  Did Lester Pearson…?  What about Stephen Lewis or Louise Frechette?  No – they accepted they had to work for and serve their fellow humans. I hope that some of you will feel that you also want to serve your fellow human beings.

What can you, as young Canadians, do to support the work of the UN?   You have, all of you, already taken a giant step in the right direction by supporting and attending this Canadian Future MUN.

Most importantly, take the time to educate yourselves  on what is happening in the world: human rights, the empowerment of women, international development, and the root causes of conflict  such as poverty, hunger, racism, lack of education, lack of healthcare for example.  These are just some issues. Use your knowledge of world affairs to educate other people – starting with your peers and your families. As you learn more about what is happening in the world, learn what the UN is doing about certain issues.

When the UN is unable to act, such as in Syria – try to understand why it is not working or why it appears not to be doing anything….in that case the five Permanent Members of the Security Council cannot agree on a course of action.

If young Canadians like you – do not show an interest in international affairs and the role of the UN – then any Canadian government will think that it can do what it wants on your behalf. ..including perhaps walking away from the organization.

The media in North America is, for the most part, very poor at keeping us informed about what is happening in the world. So called pundits like our own Canadian Peter Mansbridge, or some of the talk show radio stations funded by American companies, and there are some right here in Vancouver. They only tell you what they think is important. If you want to get a broad view of what is happening around the world – watch the Al-Jazeera English (AJE) network. Or watch the BBC. And you can watch the CBC of course – just be sure to question what they are telling you. If you don’t have AJE or BBC on your TV, watch them on the web.

Take the time to talk or write to your elected representatives  – even if you did not vote for them. Make them aware that, as young people, you want to see Canada playing an active role in the international community, including the UN.

Start to become involved in your own education:  Tell your teachers you want more coverage of the United Nations in your classrooms –more discussion and analysis about international events.

Write to the BC Ministry of Education and let them know that global education does not begin soon enough in your school careers. Why do your social studies teachers have so few hours to cover the UN?

Stand up to those who criticize the UN and call for Canada to walk away. Tell them “Canada Needs the UN and the UN needs Canada. Canada cannot go it alone.”  Develop an awareness campaign that works with your peers.

Fundraise for any of the UN agencies. (UNICEF at Halloween, WFP, etc)  Many agencies have to fund their own work. You can help them.

The work of the UN is a bargain compared to the cost of the alternative. You think it’s expensive  to run development programmes or a peacekeeping mission in a failed state?  Just look at the alternative. (e.g. Afghanistan, Somalia) . It is way more expensive to wage war.

Let me leave you with some shocking figures: the total sum of money for ALL UN Humanitarian, Peacekeeping and operational work worldwide is $5.15 billion for 2012-13.

The American military budget for 2012-2013 is over $500 billion, and that is over $300 billion less than in past years.

Please keep thinking about these issues as you participate here.

Thank you for listening. You have been a great audience.

George Somerwill can also be found at UNA-Canada and at UN For All.

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