BY LEE BERTHIAUME, POSTMEDIA NEWS
OTTAWA — Conservative backbench MP Larry Miller was already upset when a high-ranking United Nations food official recently came to Canada and harangued Canadians over their "self-righteous" attitude.
But when, soon after, a UN committee blasted the federal government's policy of deporting alleged war criminals, Miller decided "it was the straw that broke the camel's back."
His subsequent call for the Conservative government to review this country's membership in the UN sparked an instant reaction, with some wondering aloud whether Canada would be better off leaving the world organization altogether.
So, would it?
Canadian irritation with the UN has been building for some time, thanks to a series of missteps and blunders by the world body: its inaction on crises such as Syria, absurdities such as North Korea chairing the UN Conference on Disarmament, Libya being elected to the UN Human Rights Council and dictators such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being given a global platform from which to spread hate.
In Conservative circles especially, Canada's failure to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010 — some argued it was in part because of the federal government's support for Israel — reaffirmed a belief that the world body was being used to undermine the values and principles this country holds dear.
In recent weeks, the UN has issued repeated criticisms of this country's rights record — starting with UN food security rapporteur Olivier De Schutter, who said in May that Canadians shouldn't be so self-righteous given the pervasiveness of hunger and poverty here, especially among aboriginal people.
That was followed by the report of the UN committee on torture, which also called for Omar Khadr, the young Canadian imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, to be compensated for the violation of his charter rights. Then UN human rights chief Navi Pillay targeted Quebec's anti-protest law while failing to mention far more grievous instances of governments suppressing protest in China, Belarus and Iran.
Suddenly, anger is boiling over.
Eminent Canadians who have worked with the UN first-hand understand Canadians' irritation and are quick to acknowledge that the United Nations, established in the aftermath of the Second World War to be a forum for discussion and global advancement, is flawed.
"The United Nations is dysfunctional. The United Nations is ineffective. The United Nations is often corrupt. The United Nations often falls short of what it should be," said Allan Rock, the former Liberal minister who served as Canada's UN ambassador from 2004 to 2006.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, considered one of this country's most pro-UN foreign ministers, said while reviews of Canada's human rights record are normal and healthy, they "have been coming a little too hot and heavy.
"I think there's far too many envoys running around," he said. "And I think there has been a little too much shooting from the hip from some of these UN envoys.
"Some of these UN guys have been responding to various particular interest groups and they haven't really put it in proper context by talking about Canada's overall role and what it does."
That was one of the Conservatives' beefs with De Schutter. They accused the food rapporteur of not putting enough emphasis on Canada's role as one of the world's most generous food-aid donors.
It doesn't help that obstacles to improving the UN are immense: then-secretary-general Kofi Annan and western nations such as Canada launched an ambitious UN reform agenda in 2005 that met with partial success, but stalled or failed in a number of critical areas.
Despite a significant overhaul, for example, the UN Human Rights Council continues to dedicate what Canada feels is a disproportionate amount of critical attention to Israel, while individual interests — including at the Security Council, which is dominated by five countries — still undermine efforts to advance the greater good.
Canadians aren't the only ones upset with the direction the UN appears to be taking.
"In recent years, there has been growing concern among some in the international community that the United Nations has become ineffective and unwieldy in the face of increasing global challenges and responsibilities," reads a report prepared for the U.S. Congress in December.
But for all its faults, many say the UN remains invaluable.
"There's the political UN which is the people in suits on First Avenue who are always squabbling, can't arrive at any agreement, embarrassing themselves and taking inconsistent positions and turning up late and not doing the job," said Rock.
"That's the political UN and it deserves every bit of criticism that it gets."
Yet there is another UN, he said — the one that is caring for millions of refugees, monitoring and intervening in more than a dozen conflicts and implementing development projects from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
"Take a look at Sierra Leone today and look at Sierra Leone five years ago," said former prime minister Paul Martin, who has travelled extensively through Africa since leaving politics.
"It's night and day. I'm not saying that Sierra Leone is Mississauga. But it's a heck of a lot better and the people are a lot better off. And that is (the result of) the United Nations."
Canada contributes about $700 million per year to various UN organizations and agencies. That includes $250 million for peacekeeping operations and $300 million in international assistance through the World Food Program, UNICEF, the UN Development Program and other agencies.
"For $20 to $22 per Canadian citizen, that is such a good deal for helping millions and billions of people around the world, whether it be with food programs, with aid, with peacekeeping," said Walter Dorn, chair of security and international affairs at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
"That's peanuts compared to the Department of National Defence's budget of $20 billion, or the U.S. Department of Defence's budget of $700 billion."
As for Syria, while many have expressed anger at Russia's continued use of its veto power to block the Security Council from approving military intervention, former UN deputy secretary-general Louise Frechette said the UN is not to blame.
"It has to do with the dynamics, the political dynamics around the world," she said. "You take the same countries and you make them meet in the G20, they don't agree more. With or without the UN, you would still be frustrated by the position of Russia."
Frechette said the UN reflects the reality of the world as it is now, one where the West is no longer all-powerful and can't dictate the way things should be.
Canada can rail against that, it can complain or walk away from the UN, but it will not change that reality, she said.
Despite its faults — and they agree there are many — many say the UN is a vitally important, stable forum where the issues of the day can be discussed, rash actions can be checked, and international norms and standards for behaviour can be established.
"We have laws in our own country that are not respected," said Frechette. "We wouldn't argue we don't need laws because some people don't respect them. And if only for that, I think the UN plays a very fundamental role."
Dorn recalled the words of Canada's ambassador to the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, who boasted in 1924 that this country was "a fireproof house far from the sources of conflagration."
"The problem with the League of Nations was that nations stopped using it and supporting it," Dorn said. "And those are the flammable materials that ended up coming right to Canada's shores in World War Two."
Rock said he "shares the reaction with those who bristle at the idea of an ineffective organization coming into Canada and telling us what we should or should not be doing."
"But I think we should try to take the larger view that when there are crises in the world, the place they go to is the UN," he said. "That's where people start to try to tackle global issues."
MP Miller said the UN has done a lot of good in the world, and he insisted his call for a review of Canada's engagement wasn't aimed at eventually leaving the agency.
"When it comes to government programs or whatever it is government does, we review those things and are we getting a good bang for a dollar, is it good social policy, is it good fiscal policy?" he said. "Why would membership or participation in an organization be any different?"
In the aftermath of Miller's request, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the government remains committed to the UN, but that "Canada will continue to voice its concerns on how the United Nations can better reflect its founding principles."
Several of those interviewed said they support a review such as that proposed by Miller.
Their concern, they say, is that the Conservative government, which has adopted a mantra of "no longer going along just to get along," would rather complain and has no real interest in trying to make the UN work better — or even an appreciation of why the problems exist.
While the government held up Canada's failure to secure a Security Council seat in 2010 as proof it was being punished for its "principled" stance on Israel, many others saw it as a rebuke for acting on narrow self-interests, such as moving away from a commitment to Africa.
"We have certainly cut ourselves off from affiliation or having compatible or complimentary interests with other countries," Axworthy said. "If you're showing no interest in what they're doing, they're not going to reciprocate."
This, he argued, leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of a weakened, ineffectual UN. Refusing to get engaged hands the floor to Iran and other countries that are eagerly seeking ways to bolster their own legitimacy, some say.
Given that many countries, such as the Arab Spring nations, are now undergoing major transitions, Axworthy said the need to be involved at the UN is even more pressing.
Rock said it's always been easy to complain about the UN — and often those complaints are justified.
"The great challenge for Canadians has always been how do we take this highly imperfect instrument, this flawed organization, how do we take this and make the very most of it."
Canada and the United Nations
Membership in the UN: Founding member in 1945.
Current Canadian ambassador to the UN: Guillermo Rishchynski
Approximate annual monetary contributions: $700 million
Rank among contributing members: 7th
Number of times on the Security Council: 6
Last term on the Security Council: 2000
Number of Canadian military personnel deployed on UN peacekeeping operations, as of May 2012: 19
Number of Canadian police officers deployed on UN peacekeeping operations, as of May 2012: 139
Rank among peacekeeping contributors: 55
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