Gulf between Canada and UN is widening

It was about a decade before he began a short stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations that John Bolton offered his famous appraisal of the institution.

It was about a decade before he began a short stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations that John Bolton offered his famous appraisal of the institution.

“If the UN secretariat building in New York lost 10 storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

There are Conservatives in Ottawa with much darker appraisals of the New York-based institution these days. In fact, there is a war of words between the UN and the Harper government that may be unprecedented.

Time and again in recent weeks, this country’s human rights record has been the subject of UN criticism.

Initially, the thin-skinned Conservatives acted like cliquish kids overreacting to some schoolyard slight at recess, yelping loudly at any UN admonishment.

This week, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cited Quebec’s Bill 78 as a cause for alarm, a charge buried in a speech in which she touched on North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe. The heads shaking in astonishment did not all belong to Conservatives this time.

Following her intervention, there are those who are beginning to see conspiracies, believing Canada is being targeted by United Nations agencies.

That, of course, ignores the fact there is nothing to indicate the UN agencies are sufficiently organized to launch a co-ordinated attack on anything.

In the past 20 months, since the country stunningly lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, the Conservatives have, in the main, tossed disdain at the body. The obvious result is a widening gulf between Ottawa and the UN.

The loss was widely blamed on a foreign policy that skewed toward Israel and away from Africa, Ottawa’s repudiation of UN climate change policy and (ridiculously) on then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has made it clear the government had no intention of making another bid, heaping scorn on the membership, saying, “maybe if we had shut up, and not talked about gay rights in Africa; maybe if we had shut up and been more quiet about our concerns about Sri Lanka; maybe if we hadn’t been so vocal against the deplorable human rights record in Iran, maybe Iran might have voted for us.’’

In recent weeks, the United Nations Children’s Fund has told Ottawa it trails most of its peers in fighting child poverty. The UN special rapporteur on food was given the bum’s rush when he said Ottawa is not living up to its human rights obligations by ignoring hunger in this country.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told him to take his lectures and go away and study countries where people are starving.

Then the UN Committee Against Torture told the government it was “complicit” in human rights violations against three Arab-Canadian men held in Syria after Sept. 11, 2001, and contributed to the mistreatment of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay. The same agency criticized the Harper Conservatives for publicizing the most-wanted persons inadmissible to Canada, then deporting them without prosecuting them. It also took the Conservatives to task for the “excessive ministerial discretion” in its human smuggling bill.

To all these allegations — many of them quite legitimate — the Conservatives offered the back of their hand.

One MP, Larry Miller (Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound), suggested a “review’’ of our participation in the United Nations, though he later denied he was advocating Canada become the first country to ever pull out of the 193-member body.

The response to criticism from the Conservatives is noted by UN agencies, but a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, said that is not the issue.

“They have taken note of our policies and we no longer get the benefit of the doubt,’’ he said. “We are no longer just assumed to be the good guys.’’

In the wake of the overreaching Pillay criticism, Baird repeated the Conservative refrain that the UN would be better off spending its time on the volatile situations in Iran, Syria or Belarus.

Nobody likes anyone coming into their home and checking for dust, and Conservatives are not alone in their disdain for UN impotence and interference.

But sometimes graciously accepting a little criticism, instead of showing your critics the door, displays a little maturity.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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