Canada and the United Nations: A Half Century Partnership

By: Yves Fortier

Last year, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The birthday was an uneasy affair. The celebration was bittersweet as world leaders were more often prone to damn the organiza-tion with faint praise rather than honour its undisputed achievements or underline the vital nature of its work. It was appropriate in this inhospitable climate that the Secretary-General’s original plans for the commemoration, a special conference to consider the various proposals for reform of the United Nations, be postponed until after the anniversary celebrations.

As we contemplate the long list of suggestions to restructure and reenergize the United Nations, we may be tempted to think that the UN at 50 is experiencing an exceptional mid-life crisis or an unprecedented existential challenge. In fact, as we glance at relatively recent history, we cannot fail to see that the UN was challenged even before the Charter was signed and that it has been demonized almost constantly during its half-century of existence.

To say that the UN is imperfect is simply to remind oneself that it is a human institution. No one ever expected the work of the UN to be a sinecure. An association of 185 sovereign states is not an ideal basis either for managing the present or devising the best possible future. Even though the UN has been and will continue to be demonized, it remains an institution of vital importance to the international community – not just to the nations which are its formal members but to “the Peoples of the United Nations” in whose name the Charter was proclaimed in 1945 and who, for five decades, have so often turned to the UN and its agencies for solutions to the varied problems of their individual and collective lives. The UN is truly a necessary institution. We all have an interest in the success of the United Nations; we also have an awesome responsibility to see that it will endure.

What I propose to offer this evening is a personal perspective on the past, present and future of the United Nations as well as an assessment of its importance to Canada. Although not an historian, I believe that some knowledge of the origins and development of the United Nations is vital to an analysis of the condition of the organization today and to a prognosis for its future.

The United Nations was not the first attempt in this century to craft an organization whose primary objective was to maintain peace in the wake of a global war. An earlier effort, which had given birth to the League of Nations, was a dismal failure whose spectre would haunt those who, during the Second World War, set about to draft what would become the Charter of the United Nations. Without dwelling on all the many and varied reasons why the League of Nations failed, or on the disillusionments and disappointments of the two decades which we now describe – aptly, if sadly – as the “interwar years”, I would like to make a few brief observations about the relevance of that experience to the establishment of the United Nations.

The most vital lesson to be learned, in my view, is that the League of Nations failed because members and non-members alike – the international community at large – allowed it to fail. Undoubtedly, there were flaws in the Covenant of the League of Nations, but those alone cannot account for the demise of the institution. From the beginning, the League was undermined by a dangerous combination of unrealistic expectations and insufficient commitments. Those difficulties were compounded by a perception that the lofty rhetoric of the Covenant did not correspond sufficiently with the actual values, interests and experience of those members and non-members upon whom its success depended.

Some great powers – including the United States, which had played an important role in promoting the creation of the organization – chose to stay on the outside for all or part of its history. Those empty chairs certainly eroded the credibility of the League. But even those states which participated in the debates cannot escape blame.

If Canadians, since 1945, can take justifiable pride in the positive role which their country has played on the international scene, a cursory glance at our participation within the councils of the League of Nations will reveal that we were not always such constructive internationalists. From the outset of the League, our delegates’ mission consisted in seeking to remove or nullify Article Ten of the Covenant, which was unanimously recognized as the key to collective global security. Canada’s representatives pursued those negative efforts, with some lamentable success, throughout the 1920s. Then, together with the rest of the international community, we shied away altogether from our responsibilities and obligations in the critical decade which followed.

Many of those who witnessed firsthand in Geneva the demise of the League and the tragic and immensely bloody consequences of the failure of that attempt at world diplomacy – such as Canadian diplomats Lester Pearson and Hume Wrong – helped to shape the successor organization. It is hardly surprising that their experiences in Geneva influenced, for good and for ill, their approach to the new attempt to craft a world organization which would protect future generations from the scourge of war. The Charter approach to international peace and security was a formula for dealing, in retrospect, with the disasters of the 1920s and 1930s and the aggressive dictatorships which had plunged the world into the Second World War.

The commitments which were made to create a post-war international organization emerged from meetings of the principal powers which had combated the Axis countries. The institution which they established drew heavily on wartime as well as pre-war experience. The initial plan for the United Nations was developed privately by the four great powers – Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and China – in meetings at Dumbarton Oaks, near Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1944, while the war in Europe and in the Far East still raged on. Not surprisingly, the United Nations which they conceived and designed tended to reflect their particular interests and perspectives. The composition of the Security Council, for example, even today reflects the world of 1945. The principal members of the triumphant Grand Alliance of the Second World War sought to perpetuate their pre-eminence by permanent membership associated with a right of veto.

Even though smaller states, such as Canada, voiced their objection to this system of permanent membership and accompanying veto in the Security Council, they eventually accepted an imbalance in powers comparable to the realities of the composition of the wartime alliance and of the then envisaged post-war world. At the end of the day, the veto accorded the permanent five members was the price to be paid for the signing of the Charter. In exchange, the world saw the establishment of the United Nations as a mediatory or coercive organization mandated to maintain international peace and collective security. In effect, the two-tier system of membership guaranteed the continued participation of the great powers. One of the central weaknesses of the League of Nations was thus avoided by its successor.

When the founding Conference of the UN opened in San Francisco in the spring of 1945, Canada’s reputation as a key partner in the wartime alliance, as well as the constructive role played by its delegates in the drafting of the Charter, erased any lingering memory of its unhelpful attitude towards the League of Nations. In the fullness of time, in June 1945, just after the Arm-istice, the Charter was signed by Louis St-Laurent and representatives of 50 other nations which had declared war against one or more of the Axis powers.

Within weeks of the birth of the UN, the Second World War ended and, within months, the Cold War began. A bitterly divided Security Council soon had to face very different problems from those which its architects had envisaged. The Cold War induced the virtual paralysis of the institution. The infant United Nations was sent reeling by the shock of massive geo-political shifts even before it reached adolescence.

During the turbulent first decade of the United Nations, Canada’s approach to international affairs was redefined. Under the influence of Louis St-Laurent and Lester Pearson, the Canadian government turned its back decisively on the negative, sometimes virtually isolationist, posture it had adopted during the twenties and thirties. “Pearsonian internationalism”, as it came to be known, dominated Canadian foreign policy during those years. Indeed the expression well described the self-confident, outward-looking attitude which characterised Canadian foreign policy. This approach was sustained by broad public support and robust economic growth in the country.

This positive “Pearsonian” outlook found expression, more generally, in Canada’s attitude toward international economic cooperation, continental and North Atlantic defence, as well as in its unfailing support for the United Criticism of the UN in Canada arose a few years later, from a most unlikely source, and coincided roughly with the 25th anniversary of the Organisation. Serious questioning concerning the fundamental values of the United Nations, and of Canada’s commitment to the Organisation, was one product of a foreign policy review initiated by Pearson’s successor as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. That review, published as a series of booklets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians, was anything but congratulatory.

Even though, during that first decade, there were many challenges to the United Nations, the organisation nevertheless acted as a catalyst of important initiatives on the world stage. To cite but one example: the paralysis of the Security Council fostered the development of the North Atlantic Treaty as an alternative approach to the concept of “collective security” which was only vaguely defined in the Charter of the UN.

Beyond the critical role of the UN in the sensitive area of collective global security during those first years – I think in particular of the military action of the United Nations in the Korean peninsula– the United Nations soon became a catalyst of major historical development in other essential areas as well.

The adoption by the General Assembly, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a major milestone both in international relations and in the history of human and civil rights.

In 1945, it was thought that decolonisation would be likely to take at least seventy years. With the UN as catalyst the process was virtually completed in twenty-five years.

Many distinguished Canadians played vital and constructive roles in these spectacular developments. For example, John Humphrey was a leading architect of the Universal Declaration. Paul Martin’s creative initiative broke a debilitating and frustrating logjam over membership of newly independent nations in the UN. These and other significant contributions by Canadians, early in the history of the Organisation, helped to ensure the relevance of the United Nations to the international community and brought it closer to the ideal of a truly universal body.

Canadians were also justifiably proud when their new spirit of interna-tional involvement and cooperation culminated in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lester Pearson for his efforts to resolve the Suez Crisis of 1956 under the umbrella of the United Nations. “Peacekeeping” which was not even mentioned in the Charter thus became and remains a household word associated with the UN mainly as a result of the efforts of a great Canadian.

It is worth noting that, although the issue of Suez divided the principal political parties in Canada at the time, our country’s overall commitment to the United Nations as an institution, and to peacekeeping as a crucial activity of that institution, was endorsed wholeheartedly by the government of John Diefenbaker. When the Prime Minister addressed the UN General Assembly in 1957, he described “support of the United Nations” as “…the cornerstone of [Canada’s] foreign policy”.

Criticism of the UN in Canada arose a few years later, from a most unlikely source, and coincided roughly with the 25th anniversary of the Organisation. Serious questioning concerning the fundamental values of the United Nations, and of Canada’s commitment to the Organisation, was one product of a foreign policy review initiated by Pearson’s successor as Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. That review, published as a series of booklets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians, was anything but congratulatory.

What is most striking about that assessment of Canada’s international relations in the 1970’s is the harshness of the tone of the sections devoted to the United Nations, and the implicit – and sometimes quite explicit – repudiation of “Pearsonian internationalism”. The harshest indictment came in a long paragraph which focused on what the review disparaged as “unwelcome developments”.

The litany of complaints set forth in the government’s review of foreign policy included the escalating costs borne by the 26 “developed” members, – the “tyranny of the majority” in resolutions which had to be implemented principally by the minority – and the politicisation the UN administration. The list culminated with a scathing reference to the frequency and length of gatherings concerned mainly with repetitive and largely unproductive debates. Although a few sympathetic words could be gleaned from the review, principally with respect to developing countries, it displayed surprising igno-rance of the historical record of the first twenty-five years of the Organisation and was dismissive of its importance for the future. With the demise of colonialism and the consequential influx of so-called non-aligned countries, control of the agenda of the UN had changed hands, and that fact alone seems to have mesmerised the authors of the review.

I emphasize this harsh criticism of the United Nations in 1970 to remind you, as I am reminded, how the Organisation continued to be subject to negative scrutiny in what I term the “late adolescence” of its existence, – and for ECOSOC, and some of the UN specialised agencies, such as UNCTAD and UNIDO, that was not even the nadir of their reputation!

Yet even Canada’s diatribe against the Organisation twenty-six years ago did not prevent it from participating actively in the work of the United Nations. Within a few years of the publication of Foreign Policy for Canadians, Canada was once again devoting considerable diplomatic energy and resources to UN conferences on the environment and the law of the sea to great effect. Maurice Strong served as Secretary General of the 1972 Stockholm Confer-ence; Marcel Cadieux, Allan Beasley, and other distinguished Canadian diplomats contributed their extraordinary skills to the successful negotiation of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. And not long after that verdict of guilty had been pronounced, Canada served its fourth term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

Even in the 70’s and the early 80’s when the dominance of the non-aligned but Moscow-friendly nations reached its crest, and the reputation of the United Nations in western capitals was at a low ebb, Canada’s support for the Organisation never wavered. Canada continued to recognize the value of a vital multilateral system and the need for a constructive relationship between all member states.

The next major review of Canada’s international relations coincided with another important anniversary for the United Nations. In 1985, the year of the fortieth birthday of the UN, the newly elected Conservative govern-ment published Competitiveness and Security: Directions for Canada's International Relations as a “green paper” to stimulate discussion.

The green paper offered a revealing glimpse of the goals and priorities of the new government. Remarks about the UN were less negative than they had been 15 years earlier. However, doubts persisted about the effectiveness of the UN and lingering questions remained concerning the “politicisation” of its economic and social institutions. “Renewal and reform,” the paper com-mented, “are very much required if the UN is to make the contribution to international security that its membership needs”. That sentence has a familiar ring!

Later that year, in his address to the General Assembly, Prime Minister Mulroney remarked, so very appropriately, that “where the United Nations is weak it is almost always due to a failure of political will” on the part of its members. A veteran Canadian UN participant and observer, John Holmes, returned from that 1985 session of the General Assembly with what he admitted was an “upbeat assessment” of the UN. Holmes wrote that “the dark side of the UN is what we hear of most often [but] the UN is a long, continuing experiment in international self-discipline. We need to heed the lessons of failure, but it is more important to seek out what works and build on it.”

Three years later, I was offered a privileged opportunity to test the validity of that judgement rendered by one of Canada’s wisest and foremost diplomats and scholars.

In August 1988, I was practising law in Montreal, not too far from here, in that happy state best described as comfortable and industrious obscurity. Although my law practice had included international mandates including representation of Canada in 1984 before the International Court of Justice in The Gulf of Maine case, I possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of the UN, and an image of it not so very different from that of most Canadians at the time. From my perspective, it was a “talk shop” inimical to Western interests and dominated by dictators and petty tyrants from the Third World.

It was at that time, and in that state that I received a telephone call from my friend and former law partner, Brian Mulroney. Within six weeks, I was in New York as Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Within four months, in January 1989, I was sitting at the Security Council table representing Canada, which had just been elected to its fifth two-year term as a non-permanent member with the largest majority any nation had ever garnered since the birth of the Organisation. During those two years, the Council, in succession, dealt with crises in the Middle East, Southern Africa, Central America and Central Asia. Afghanistan, Panama, Nicaragua, Namibia, Iran, Cambodia, Lebanon, Romania became my daily briefs. In August 1990, issues relating to the war in the Persian Gulf monopolised the agenda of the Security Council.

And all the while, to the east of the building on the East River, the world was being transformed. The Cold War ended. The Berlin wall came down. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Nelson Mandela was freed. As I said when I returned to private life in Montreal, in January 1992, I did not miss the practice of law for one moment during my term in New York.

I mention this personal involvement with the UN so as to explain my perspective regarding how these dramatic changes impacted the United Nations. As well, from a front row seat during those momentous years, I was able to witness Canada’s evolving commitment to the Organisation.

When I arrived in New York in September 1988, my colleagues and I could already discern the first signs of constructive cooperation between member states. The Cold War was beginning to thaw noticeably. I recall my amazement when I listened in December 1988 to the intervention in the General Assembly by Mikhail Gorbatchev who called for the primacy of international law in the political conduct of States. Conflicts which, in a previous era, would have provided an occasion for ritual confrontation and recrimination were now amenable to discussion, negotiation and resolution. The Security Council became able, for the first time since 1945, to play its proper and legitimate role in confronting the world’s international security challenges.

What the world was witnessing was nothing less than an earth-shattering revolution. Command economics based on Marxist ideology were collapsing in the Soviet Union and beyond. The nuclear arms race was ending. Democratic institutions triumphed over totalitarian alternatives. Respect for human rights was growing. If the United Nations itself was not the cause of these dramatic changes, it certainly lent considerable momentum to the new world order which appeared on the horizon.

The Canadian role in the revitalisation and modernisation of the UN during those exciting years was crucial. But this was mainly a quiet, non public role. Canada also played a very prominent, visible role at the UN when the Gulf War began in August 1990.

When the world began to react to Iraq’s brutal invasion of Kuwait, it was not foreordained that the UN would be the focal point of international action. In those first few days of August, it appeared to many of us in New York that the Security Council might be by-passed, and that the traditional American preference for unilateralism might triumph. Canada insisted, at every level, and in every forum, that a successful international coalition could only be con-structed by using the United Nations, by channelling our efforts at negotiation through the Secretary-General, by submitting all resolutions to the Security Council for debate, and by ensuring that sanctions and eventual military action – if it came to that – were buttressed by the full force of international law and by the weight of the entire international community.

Canada’s insistence on the primacy of the United Nations during that crisis was not due to some eccentric or wistful yearning for a bygone age. Rather, it very much had to do with compelling traditions of Canadian foreign policy. It derived from the value which Canadians place on a world based on rules, on law and on forging international consensus. Geography and history have made Canada a “glacis state”, nestled beside the world’s most powerful nation and, for more than forty-five years, poised between the two nuclear super-powers. We have, in consequence, become adept at mediation, compro-mise, peacekeeping and the search for international order and stability. Geopolitical realities have assigned us a particular role, and our proximity to the elephant down south has cemented this vocation.

More than fifty years ago, Lester Pearson made the classic case for Canadian dedication to multilateralism. He wrote:

“Canada cannot occupy her rightful place in international society so long as its security is dependent on American benevolence. If we are to escape from permanent inferiority, our security must be found in an organisation to which we ourselves contribute.”

This organisation was to be the United Nations and the Gulf crisis gave us yet another opportunity to demonstrate that Lester Pearson was prescient.

When, in July 1992, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali issued his manifesto for reform of the UN, Agenda for Peace, I had returned to “private life” – though that phrase has an ironic ring to it now which I had not appreciated before. After I relinquished my diplomatic post, as I surveyed the UN’s involvement in Yugoslavia and Somalia and, as I considered the UN financial plight, I sometimes felt that my role had been changed from that of envoy or emissary to one of missionary! For I have not lost my faith in the United Nations. Far from it. On the contrary, my belief and commitment, developed from personal experience, have been sustained and vindicated by observation as well as by participation from a very different vantage point in the past few years.

I was pleased to note that the most recent review of Canada’s international relations, which culminated in a statement whose publication coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the UN, reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to the United Nations. To quote briefly from Canada in the World: “The UN continues to be the key vehicle for pursuing Canada’s global security objec-tives.” The last sentence of this 1995 foreign policy statement is very relevant to my theme today: “The Government is confident that Canada will continue to do its fair share for the world, and that the community of nations will continue to look to Canada for our unique contribution to global governance.”

For fifty years, in word and in deed, Canada has demonstrated its commitment to the United Nations. That commitment has entailed enlight-ened internationalism. It is a vital expression of Canadian national interest during a period of ever increasing globalisation and heightened inter-dependence of nations.

Not only Canada but the United Nations as well has gained from our contribution–and that fact deserves to be trumpeted. Our representatives have practised “quiet diplomacy” almost too well. Our own image of Canada, its influence and its power, still have to catch up to reality or indeed to the image which other nations have of Canada at the UN as in other world fora. We are so accustomed to “playing our part” and “doing our share”, modestly, that we sometimes forget or refuse to believe how vital that participation is to the international community.

By any measure, Canada is an important participant in the UN and other international institutions. Our economy is among the seven most powerful in the world. Canada is one of the foremost trading nations in a highly a competitive world, and more than a third of our wealth comes from exports. Canada makes the fourth largest monetary contribution to the UN system as a whole. Canada is a leading member of both the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, as well as of regional groupings such as the Organization of American States and its counterpart in Asia and the Pacific. We have a foreign policy which is anchored in three distinct and vital relationships within the western hemisphere, Europe and the Pacific rim. In an international system now composed of some 185 countries, Canada is no longer a middle power. In all of these groups and spheres, our influence is keenly felt and our contribution is avidly sought.

So when important questions are raised, such as reform of the United Nations, those around the table listen to what we have to say. We have earned their respect. Our responsibility now, as Canadians and as citizens of the world, is to consider all facets of this much-needed reform carefully, and to make deliberate and thoughtful recommendations.

Following my own advice, I have the temerity to offer a few suggestions today, as Canada ponders its submissions for UN reforms. I will address the blue-beret role of the UN as well as its other humanitarian and economic activities.

With the end of the Cold War, the UN has come to be perceived as the police force, fire brigade and rescue team of a world community which does not yet exist except in the speeches of politicians. The organisation is neither equipped nor authorised to act in such roles but, too often, that simple fact is conveniently ignored when yet another terrible human disaster appears on our television screen.

Those who complain that the UN has failed in Bosnia and Somalia should remember that every international crisis cannot always mobilise the world organisation. If I may paraphrase a popular expression of recent years, the United Nations should just say No, particularly when member nations propose projects which they are unwilling to pay for. Canada would do well to heed the advice of the Secretary General who wrote recently that member states cannot use the United Nations to avoid a problem and then blame the United Nations for failing to solve it. Mandates given to the United Nations must be clear, realistic and backed by the human and material resources required to complete the assigned task successfully.

On other fronts, such as human security, Canada should remember that the Organisation has racked up a long list of successes. I refer to UNICEF, the UNDP, the WHO, the HCR to name only a few agencies. The steady development of international legal instruments and conventions in its first 50 years in a vast range of human activity, should lead Canada to approach its UN reform efforts with caution.

I leave for another time my musings about reform of the Security Council, of the secretariat and, generally, the fixing of its dramatic financial woes. Reform in these areas is both imperative and easy to prescribe. It is, however, very difficult to accomplish.

In view of the importance of the United Nations for the future of human security in all its dimensions, without any doubt, Canada and other like-minded nations must continue to do all they can in order to sustain the Organization’s integrity. A comprehensive assessment of what is right and what is wrong with the UN is needed, and as much and as varied input into that process as possible is required. In most of those periodic reviews of Canada’s foreign policy to which I have referred, we have made abundantly clear our fundamental commitment to the goals of the UN. One conclusion remains clear: for all of its faults and for all of its setbacks and disappointments, the United Nations has proven to be a remarkably durable and adaptable institution.

The human race will have to face numerous problems in the coming years. No government, however powerful, has the capacity to manage those problems on its own. Only a collective effort of nations is likely to be able to channel into a constructive direction the forces which are already shaping the future. The only existing, universal, politically acceptable, international framework for this purpose is, for all its shortcomings and deficiencies, the United Nations. The international community has the obligation to assist the UN to meet the challenges of the next fifty years.

Thus far, I have displayed uncharacteristic restraint in foregoing the opportunity to relate our international accomplishments to that other chal-lenge which confronts us: maintaining the unity of Canada. With your indulgence, I would like to make that point now. In January 1947, Louis St. Laurent, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, and later Prime Minister of Canada, called national unity the first basic principle of its foreign policy. “The role of this country in world affairs will prosper only as we maintain this principle”, Mr. St. Laurent remarked, “for a disunited Canada will be a powerless one”. That statement is at least as true today as it was in 1947.

I have no doubt that the break-up of Canada would be a devastating blow, not only for Canadians but also for the international community. It seems so ironic to me that we can agree on the need for co-operation, for compromise, for understanding and for reform in international affairs, yet fail utterly to heed that same advice now when we confront our domestic problems. It also amazes me that those who would break this country apart, who would bring to an end this noble experiment, who would cast their fellow citizens into a maelstrom of economic, social and political uncertainty beyond all reckoning, that those people can do so with such casual disregard for the disastrous consequences of their actions, for Quebec and for the rest of Canada.

Those who advocate independence for Quebec – however cloaked in obscure language and problematic arrangements – occasionally invoke the image of the international community welcoming a new nation. I am not sure how warmly that nation would be received if it emerged from the ruins of one of the greatest and most successful contributors to the peace and well-being of the world.