Bob Rae – UN Ambassador

On Monday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Bob Rae would become Canada’s new ambassador to the United Nations. One might have expected that the appointment would have been met with universal cheers given Bob Rae’s stellar career, especially against the backdrop of Canada’s failure to gain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. But it was not to be. Paul Wells, an award winning (three gold National Magazine Awards and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing) political pundit and Maclean’s Magazine commentator, wrote, “It’s possible to admire Bob Rae’s contribution to Canadian public life and, at the same time, to notice that other countries normally send people with far more diplomatic experience, and far more United Nations experience, than he has.”

Paul Wells is indubitably one of the foremost experts on Ottawa politics. He wrote several books on the Harper regime – (2006) Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism and (2014) The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006. He has been a columnist for The National PostMaclean’s and The Toronto Star, largely covering the federal political scene. He even covered Alan Rock’s career when Rock was a short-term ambassador to the United Nations. He does know the names and ages of current ambassadors from many of the European countries because they are mentioned in his article. This knowledge of Europe was facilitated by his spending a year reporting from Paris as Maclean’s Europe correspondent covering Germany, Poland, the UK, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But that does not make him an expert on either the UN or what Canada requires in an ambassador to that organization. It may be that his well-known hostility to Justin Trudeau may have pushed him to extend his criticisms beyond the boundaries of his knowledge and expertise.

In Wells’ view, Rae, at 71, is too old. Secondly, he is not a career diplomat with the credits and credibility that such experience brings to the position. Third, Bob Rae is not a woman; the ambassadors to the UN from both western countries that won temporary seats on the UN Security Council, Ireland and Norway, were both women. Fourth, for Wells, a key factor in success at the UN is not what you know but whether you have mastered the UN rule book. Finally, the major key is who you know. “[The UN is] an infernally complex place. The rule book is as thick as the Manhattan phone directory, and much depends on whom you know.”

Wells admires other countries, such as Germany, which normally send people with far more diplomatic and UN experience than Bob Rae has. Christoph Heusgen (67) is German’s UN ambassador and is also Angela Merkel’s longest-serving and perhaps most influential foreign-policy advisor. Who you know includes not only the personnel at the UN, but the head of your own state. An intimate and close relationship with the PM is evidently a must. For Wells, there are “other people who have worked far more closely with their country’s leaders than Rae has actually worked with Trudeau.”

To evaluate Trudeau’s appointment of Bob as UN ambassador it is important to input the context within which the decision was made, Bob’s qualifications, the demands of the job, and the alternatives available. Further, it helps if the evaluator has some intimate knowledge of the working of the UN. I do have some going back to my scholarship on the 1947 founding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), my involvement with refugees, especially the Indochinese, my internationally sponsored co-authored report on the UN and western countries initial decision not to intervene in the Rwanda genocide, my research and recommendations on humanitarian intervention and my organizational work in Africa on early warning systems – all of which involved coordination with the UN to different degrees.

Clearly, the context of this appointment has to be set against the background of Canada’s very recent failure to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. According to Stephen Lewis, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1984 and 1988 and reputedly Canada’s best ambassador to the UN ever, “The Trudeau government’s superficial foreign policy hamstrung its diplomats and caused Canada’s defeat in the first round of voting for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.” Canada used to be a leader in peacekeeping; it is no longer. Canada used to be a leader in refugee policy and, more particularly, in the resettlement of refugees; it is no longer. Canada was a leader in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and Stephen Lewis, in partnership with Prime Minister Mulroney, were Canada’s standard bearers. There is no issue on the international stage on which either the current Prime Minister or the current UN ambassador from Canada, Marc-Andre Blanchard, have led the charge.

Blanchard was for six years Chairman and CEO of McCarthy Tétrault, one of Canada’s largest national law firms before he was named UN ambassador. He had far less experience as an international diplomat than Bob Rae, though a claim could be made that he knew Justin Trudeau better as the former head of the Quebec Liberal Party and for his service on Justin Trudeau’s transition team following the 2015 election. A week before the UN vote for membership on the Security Council, Blanchard emerged into the limelight with his letter to all UN member and observer states concerning Israel’s announced plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank on land where Israelis live. He took the typical moderate and widely internationally supported position that such a move would be “contrary to international law” and would undermine the two-state solution. He criticized the letter signed under the auspices of Just Peace by 1,000 Canadians opposing Canada’s election to the UN Security Council seat. “(W)e respectfully ask you to reject Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. As you choose seats on the Security Council between the bids of Canada, Ireland and Norway for the two Western Europe and Other States, the UN’s historic contribution to Palestinian dispossession and responsibility to protect their rights must be front of mind.” Blanchard claimed the letter was full of “significant inaccuracies” and mischaracterised Canada’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He did not document what they were.

For his milquetoast response to one of the most contentious issues on the current international stage, Bouchard was criticized by both the supporters of the Palestinian cause and the supporters of Israel. Canada was accused by the pro-Palestinian supporters of:
* Ignoring the majority of Canadian public opinion
* Being hypocritical in not strongly condemning Israeli plans for annexation given Canada’s harsh criticism of Russia for annexing Crimea
* Isolating itself against world opinion on Palestinian rights at the UN
* Voting against more than fifty UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights that were backed by the overwhelming majority of member states
* Siding with Israel by voting “No” on most UN votes on the Question of Palestine in December
* Voting the wrong way on UNRWA and on illegal settlements
* Refusing to abide by 2016 UN Security Council Resolution 2334 calling on member states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied in 1967”
* Extending economic and trade assistance to Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise
* Justifying Israel’s killing of “Great March of Return” protesters in Gaza
* Seeking to deter the International Criminal Court from investigating Israeli war crimes
* Threatening to cut off ICC financial support
* Not standing in the way of Canadians who fight in the Israeli military
* Protecting Israeli settlement wine producers
* Saddling Palestinian organizations to Canada’s terrorism list
* Adopting a definition of antisemitism that includes targeting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians
* Minimizing any criticism of Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories
* Conducting bilateral ministerial delegations with Israel
* Entering into a free trade agreement with Israel
* Ignoring Israeli new settlement construction
* Ignoring human rights violations against Palestinian citizens of Israel
* Remaining silent on the issue of child prisoners held by Israel
* Refusing to condemn Israel’s repeated allegedly savage attacks against Gaza.

Quite a list! In sum, Canada, they claimed, has consistently isolated itself against world opinion when it comes to Palestinians while Ireland and Norway mostly voted in support of the Palestinians. Canada’s stated opposition to annexation and unilateral initiatives were not viewed as significant, especially since Trudeau had generally ignored the issue until early June. The critics claimed that, “Canada’s staunch support for Israel has been one reason why they haven’t gotten a UNSC seat in the past” and why it should not be given a seat in the present.

B’nai Brith criticized Blanchard’s letter from the opposite angle for putting “in jeopardy this commitment both to Israel and to the search for a just and durable peace that allows Israel to live in full security with its neighbours.” Blanchard’s statement failed to point out the frustrations of the Israelis in dealing with the recalcitrant Palestinians, their rejectionism and their inability to accept the concept of a Jewish state. Blanchard’s letter was unhelpful in that it lacked balance in order to appeal “to a narrower audience critical of Israel and Canada’s Security Council candidacy.” Further, it contained an error, for the Nakba or catastrophe for the Palestinians refers to the 1948 and not the 1967 Six Days War.

However, much of the Third World not only openly failed to support Canada, but supported Ireland and Norway because the two countries are strong contributors to foreign aid and have continued a commitment to peacekeeping. Most of all, Canada was timid, not wanting to offend and, thus, not taking clear and unequivocal stands of a number of international issues.

There is another issue – Canada’s diplomatic personality. I personally recall being lectured by a senior Canadian diplomat when we were working on international issues together. I was told that I would never make a diplomat. (I believe that he was correct.) I had been trained to be a philosopher, to think in clear and distinct ideas. In contrast, diplomacy was based on equivocation, on finding words that allowed each competing side, using the same language, to give paragraphs very different meanings. Timidity and caution were considered diplomatic virtues, whether the issue is Taiwan or 5G technology from China. In contrast, such alleged “cravenness” was considered a weakness both by the Third World and by some Western developed states. Sanctimony and self-righteousness were ill-fitting complements to Canada’s actual actions, critics claimed.

Trudeau’s personal history of dubbing blackface as a teacher and of wearing Bollywood costumes on an official visit to India allowed other countries to mock him as a flake and a lightweight. At the same time, Canada is now on the wrong side of each of the permanent members of the Security Council, except perhaps France, so it lacked a champion. For example, America saw Justin Trudeau as admiring Fidel Castro.

Given this context, what are the specifications of Canada’s appointee as ambassador to the UN. Canada is and has been a leader on women’s rights, gender balance and female empowerment. Canada is the epitome of diversity and a strong defender of human rights. It is certainly a strong verbal supporter of fighting climate change. On the other hand, on the ground, the government has been a strong supporter of fossil fuel pipelines and in the air lets out twice the amount of Co2 as either Norway or Ireland. The problem is that Canadian performance does not match its statements. When Canada claims success and leadership in fighting COVID-19, as I will demonstrate in other blogs (see Taiwan), Canada has only been exemplary in comparison to the terrible American record, but generally was a failure or, at best, a middling success, in fighting the pandemic.

One can go back to Stephen Lewis as an example of what is required in a UN ambassador and Brian Mulroney’s bold move in appointing a New Democrat to that position. More important, Lewis had the trust of much of the Third World. Stephen Lewis, like Bob Rae, was not a seasoned diplomat. But he was a seasoned politician with extraordinary oratorical skills – like Bob Rae. When Stephen was ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1988, he chaired the Committee that drafted the Five-Year UN Programme on African. As chair of the first International Conference on Climate Change in 1988, he drew up the first comprehensive policy on global warming. As mentioned above, he was a significant leader in the fight against South African apartheid.

Lewis himself noted that in the June UN vote on UN Security Council membership, Canada “received fewer votes — 108 — than the 114 Canada won in 2010 on the first ballot, under Harper. Canada needed 128 votes, or two-thirds of the voting members of the assembly. Norway won 130 and Ireland garnered 128.” Clearly, there was something wrong that Canada’s so-called late entry – four year ago – into the Security Council sweepstakes could not explain.

Canada needs to demonstrate strong leadership on humanitarian issues of concern at the UN. It does not have to be a leader on the Israel-Palestine question on which Canada is in a poor position to provide leadership. However, Bob Rae served as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, interviewing the key actors between October 2017 and March 2018 to assess the violent events of August 2017 and afterward that led to more than 671,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar, to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that his security, political and humanitarian recommendations have had any uptake by the Canadian government, but his service, dedication and the content of his report certainly had a positive impact on Canada’s reputation in the rest of the world.

Good public relations was one positive outcome. However, Rae has been unable to be effective in pushing the international legal case against the perpetrators of the killing and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya or enhancing the security for Rohingya within Myanmar. He may have more impact on the efforts to improve the conditions for the Rohingya in Bangladesh and facilitate their resettlement since he was appointed Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues. On that ground alone, if Bob Rae can act internationally to improve the lot of the Rohingya, his appointment as UN ambassador for Canada is most welcome. Appointing a mid-level career diplomat to the post, as Paul Wells recommended, would not immediately engage the international community in diplomatic efforts to help the Rohingya and address the refugee crisis more generally.

Further, I believe that, unlike Paul Wells, Bob Rae knows that an ambassador does not have to be a master of the UN or the Security Council rule book. When I was involved with the UN, and I believe it is still true, the British ambassador to the UN was charged with mastering the rules of the UN and of the Security Council. Britain was respected by all the permanent members of the Security Council for ensuring that all the rules were upheld. Further, any experience with the UN suggests that its operations are not run by who you know. Brigadier-General Romeo Dallaire, when he headed the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, was intimately acquainted with his immediate boss in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The head of the Office of Military Affairs in the DPKO was also a Canadian general. It did not help Dallaire obtaining the knowledge about human rights abuses or the support for peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. That was not because the personnel did not know each other or Kofi Annan, the UN Deputy-Under-Secretary. They were all under severe economic and political constraints limiting their flexibility to initiate action. Those and other larger factors than who you know were the key determinants of policy as was the weakness of certain individuals, such as Cameroonian Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, the political leader of the peacekeeping operation. International civil service expertise in such departments as The Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions charged with protecting civilians and ensuring the rule of law re genocide was lacking. It is simplistic and misguided to suggest that who you knew was a key to understanding the failure of the UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide.

There are a myriad of reasons why Bob Rae is an excellent choice as UN ambassador for Canada. These include an understanding of international law and knowledge by acquaintance of key players, but neither of these are keys to success in the international diplomatic arena. Paul Wells is simply incorrect in his assessment. Commitment, knowledge, expertise, and diplomatic skills are much more crucial. And Bob Rae exemplifies these traits in spades.


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