On Nov. 19, 2019, Canada abandoned a longstanding, bi-partisan tradition of voting against UN resolutions that single out Israel. Instead, it supported one put forth by North Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, and the Palestinians that ignores crucial context of the conflict. The symbolic move is in direct opposition to the liberal democratic values that Canada has always championed both domestically and on the international stage.
The shift is disturbing for multiple reasons. Canada has consistently maintained a foreign policy focused on promoting democracy and human rights–regardless of which party has been in power. In recent years, Canada has been one of the loudest voices condemning the Maduro regime in Venezuela and abuses in Ukraine.
Canada has also been a consistent ally of Israel. In July 2018, at the request of Canada, the US, and European countries, Israel played an indispensable role in rescuing hundreds of “White Helmet” rescue workers in Syria. According to Canada’s Deputy Head of Mission in Israel at the time, “there was no way to save their lives” without Israel. In 2019, Canada revised its free trade agreement with Israel and adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism–a definition that recognizes as antisemitic efforts that uniquely single out the Jewish State.
So why the apparent contradiction?
The most obvious answer is that the Government of Canada has decided that the ends justify the means. Canada is hoping to gain one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council in 2021. In order to get the requisite votes, Canada needs dictatorships, autocracies, and the human rights abusers of the world to choose it over its competitors, Norway and Ireland. Sacrificing moral values and switching a symbolic vote here or there could prove beneficial in this regard.
Morally, though, this move comes at an obvious cost.
It is also surely costly to Canadian taxpayers. According to a Nov. 4 CBC article, as of Sept. 30, Canada had already spent close to $2 million on its campaign for a Security Council seat. The article further notes “that sum does not include the salaries of the 13 government employees appointed to work full-time on Canada’s bid,” adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the price tag.
But the UN is not the only arena where Canada has made costly choices recently. This summer, UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinians, was caught in a major scandal, including accusations of “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, and other abuses of authority” by senior UNRWA officials. Unlike other Western democracies, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, which froze funds when the story broke, Global Affairs Canada simply expressed its “concern” and cited the fact that its $50-million contribution had already been provided. But why, given the potential for significant misuse of taxpayer dollars, were funds not withdrawn? Why was a stronger promise of future funding being suspended not given?
Another example is that of Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government’s strong stance against BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions). Yet, Global Affairs Canada is providing at least $500,000 to a group promoting boycotts of Israel. When alerted to this apparent discrepancy between policy and practice, Global Affairs did not rescind funds, but instead added an unsatisfactory provision to the grant that states no funds will be used for BDS campaigns. However, money is fungible, rendering such promises empty. If Canada truly rejects BDS, it should have absolutely no financial relationship with groups that advance discriminatory campaigns against Israel.
There are also costs for regular Canadian citizens. Consider the virulent antisemitism wrapped in anti-Israel packaging seen on Toronto campuses the past couple weeks–whether it be kosher food being labelled “pro-Israel” or Israeli speakers needing police protection. What message is the government sending to young Canadians with this new foreign policy approach?
However, all is not yet lost. Canada can refuse to be a tool in the hands of human rights abusing regimes and side with democracy at the UN. It can freeze and revoke funds to groups that can no longer be entrusted with Canadian taxpayer funds. It can ensure that there are checks and balances in place to guarantee that foreign aid is in line with stated policy.
But, to do this it will have to decide whether maintaining its moral character is more important than the fleeting boost in diplomatic prestige a UN Security Council seat brings. If the price is abandoning Canadian values, then surely it is not worth it.
Becca Wertman is Canada Liaison and Managing Editor at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.