Recent positions could harm attempts to be seen as balanced player: expert
Canada has long supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Less than two weeks before the brutal Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, when it says 1,200 people were killed and 240 were taken hostage, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, expressed grave concern over escalating violence in the region and urged both sides to return to the negotiating table.
"The measures and rhetoric that make two states impossible must stop," Rae said in his speech during the UN's annual high-level week in September, a meeting attended by more than 100 world leaders — including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
At the time, other competing crises garnered more attention — the war in Ukraine, recent extreme weather events, a looming deadline on an ambitious list of development goals.
But amid Israel's war with Hamas and the heated debates that have arisen at the United Nations as a result, Canada's public positions on the Middle East are being examined and scrutinized more than ever before.
Since Oct. 7, more than half a dozen resolutions have been up for a vote at the UN, either directly related to the attacks or regarding the Palestinian question.
Canada abstained from crucial UN vote
"Canada has positioned itself very unambiguously pro-Israel in these contexts," said Michael Manulak, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. He co-authored a 2023 report examining Canada's role at the United Nations.
He said Canada's recent votes could be detrimental to being seen as a balanced player in the Middle East conflict.
In an emergency session at the UN General Assembly on Oct. 27, 120 countries passed a Jordan-led motion calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian truce. After more than two weeks of fraught debates between member states, including impassioned speeches from the Israeli and Palestinian envoys, it was the first concrete action taken by the UN to address the Israel-Hamas war.
But Canada abstained, after its amendment calling for a condemnation of the attacks by Hamas failed to pass.
In his explanation of the vote, Rae said the assembly had an obligation to name Hamas and that the Canadian amendment "brings balance to the resolution, and names what must be named. What we are proposing is factual. And it is fair."
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a non-profit advocacy group that has been vocal in its call for a ceasefire in Gaza since the Israeli military operations began, denounced Canada's vote as political gamesmanship.
"It's a total abandonment of any pretense of concern for human rights and international law," said Michael Bueckert, the group's vice-president.
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The organization has also long called for Canada to change its voting record at the UN when it comes to the broader regional conflict.
"It's hurting our reputation. It's totally unprincipled," Bueckert said, adding that Canada's votes should be more consistent with the rest of the international community.
Pro-Israel voting record goes back 20 years
On Nov. 9, Canada went on the record again on a number of resolutions that regularly come up for a vote at the UN regarding the Palestinian question.
Among them, Canada voted against a resolution that condemns Israeli settlements. It sided with just six other countries, including Israel, Hungary, the United States and three small island nations that depend on American support.
Canada also voted against a resolution that supports Palestinian refugees — again voting against a majority of member nations and siding with just five other countries, including the U.S. and Israel.
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Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said he believes that Canada's voting record reflects its support for multilateralism while signalling concern over the UN system's deficiencies.
"Pretty much every UN agency is viewed in a way that is hostile to Israel," Fogel said, adding that he believes Canada recognizes that.
Canada's pro-Israel voting record goes as far back as the Paul Martin government, from 2003-06, with the support solidifying even more during the Stephen Harper years, from 2006-15.
In a recent statement, Global Affairs Canada explained it this way: "We will continue to vote no on resolutions that do not address the complexities of the issues or address the actions of all parties. We also remain opposed to the disproportionate singling out of Israel for criticism."
Fogel said he doesn't want to see Canada's voting record changed, but he does recognize that it reflects what he sees as the government's effort to support the UN system while calling for reforms.
"Canada hasn't abandoned its hope that the UN can be the kind of instrument for international stability, security and peace that it was originally intended to be."
Support for UN relief agency
Last week, on a resolution it has often abstained from, Canada voted in support of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The UN is the largest humanitarian presence in Gaza.
Canada issued an official statement to explain the change in vote, citing the devastating death and displacement toll in Gaza: "Given the conflict and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, Canada believes it is important to recognize the vital role played by UNRWA in the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians."
In an expansive humanitarian briefing on Friday, UN agency leaders reported mounting casualties exceeding 11,000 people, the majority of them children and women. As well, more than a million people have been displaced and nearly half of the housing stock in Gaza has been destroyed or severely damaged.
"This is correcting a long-standing mistake," said Bueckert of the CJPME, but the group is calling for more changes, including bringing the votes in line with Canadian foreign policy.
Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967, including settlements in the West Bank. Yet its votes against condemning those settlements go as far back as 2011.
Canada has also provided financial support for UNRWA during all of the years it abstained on resolutions supporting its work. It recently committed a new injection of $60 million in funding.
"I think that Canada wants to be seen as it's doing the right thing, but that it is ultimately committed to the status quo and committed to protecting Israel from criticism," Bueckert said.
The UN considers Israel to be in violation of international law when it comes to its actions in the region, including its settlements and blockade of Gaza. Israel has maintained that its actions are justified by its country's security concerns.
Influence at UN 'sapped by neglect'
Carleton University's Manulak said he sees Canada's votes through another lens — its long game plan for managing influence on the global stage, beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Our capacity for influence at the UN has been sapped by neglect," he said. "One of the ways that we hurt ourselves is by taking positions that make us a preference outlier."
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Manulak said Canada's votes could alienate countries that it may later need for support.
"Countries of the Global South are becoming more and more important in the current fractious international context," he said.
Richard Gowan is the UN director at the New York-based think-tank Crisis Group, which analyzes and provides briefings on conflicts around the world. He sees Canada's role at the UN as a constructive one, in part because of its support for Israel and the UN system.
"You're going to need countries like Canada that do have trust in Israel to sort of support some of these diplomatic efforts to stabilize the wider situation."
Canada clearly aspires to play that role, but the question is who will trust it enough to take the offer.
"We must find a way to shift the dialogue from the language of impulse to the language of consequence," Rae said in another speech to the UN General Assembly following the Oct. 7 attacks. "Canada is ready, as we have always been, to play our part in establishing this dialogue."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kris Reyes CBC’s correspondent based in New York. She is a multimedia journalist with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast and digital newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada, as a host, producer, anchor and reporter.
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