Canada erred on its UN vote

Canada suffered a devastating blow to its reputation last week when its government joined a small minority of countries in opposing the status of Palestinians.

takeaway illustration for review december 8 2012

Sarah Lazarovic for The National
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Canada suffered a devastating blow to its longstanding reputation as a positive force in the international community last week when its government joined a small minority of countries in opposing the effort to elevate the status of Palestinians.

The US, the Czech Republic, Panama, four tiny Pacific states (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau) and, predictably, Israel voted with Canada against a UN General Assembly resolution granting the Palestinians non-member observer state status in the international body.

Canada, a traditionally progressive country that has seen its foreign policy shift in Washington's direction in recent years under its Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and the other eight nations suffered a humiliating defeat, with 138 countries voting in favour and 41, including Britain, abstaining. The Palestinians' historic victory in New York paves the way towards access to and membership in a range of UN entities, including the International Criminal Court, where they can seek justice for alleged war crimes, and may significantly increase their diplomatic leverage.

Canadian foreign minister John Baird, whose government also voted against six other resolutions on the rights of Palestinians that were adopted the next day, said he was looking at the "next steps" he would take to express his government's disapproval of the Palestinian Authority's audacious decision to unilaterally seek de facto state status. He assured that his government, which lobbied hard against the resolution, would not sever its ties with the PA but would be reviewing a five-year, US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) aid package for Palestine that comes up for renewal next year.

Canada's justification for opposing the resolution, in line with that of the US, was that it would serve as an obstacle to the peaceful negotiation of a two-state solution, which it said can only be achieved if neither party acts unilaterally.

Baird, who gushingly described Israel as "breathtaking" and "simply a miracle to behold" at a speech to the Jewish National Fund on the sixth day of last month's Israel-Gaza conflict, claimed, like Washington, that the PA's UN move would undermine attempts at getting the peace process, which has been stalled for the past four years, back on track.

However, Baird has been conspicuously reticent on Israel's decidedly unilateral reaction to the resolution, namely announcing that it would be building thousands more settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a plan that will make the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state geographically impossible. The US, the European Union and the UN, meanwhile, have vociferously condemned the decision, saying it could make it impossible to negotiate a lasting peace deal. This view is shared by Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, who told The Globe and Mail newspaper: "I know a lot of critics on the Israeli side, as well, are very worried about building there. Because it essentially will cut the northern part of the West Bank away from the southern part, geographically."

Those who doubt that Canada's current government has, like its counterpart in Washington, a strong pro-Israel bias should consider the words of Yuval Steinitz, finance minister and Knesset member for the right-wing Likud party, at a reception for Baird. Al Jazeera quoted him as jokingly saying: "I think Canada's an even better friend of Israel than we are."

Concurred the newspaper Israel Hayom: "When he discusses the Palestinian issue, Baird sounds like he could have voted in this week's Likud primaries."

Earlier this year, The Hill Times, a Canadian political affairs weekly, asked Baird what he would be doing with his life if he was not a politician. He replied: "Working on a kibbutz in Israel."

No doubt there are many people in his own country and around the world who hope the staunchly right-wing capitalist's rather unlikely desire will be fulfilled by Canadian voters at the next election.

* Paul Muir