In the week of September 22, 2014, Stephen Harper will address the UN General Assembly, the global forum that not only he has shunned in his almost nine years of office but also one that his Foreign Minister, John Baird, has so infamously dismissed as a debating club for dictators. So one can be rightly questioning why he now thinks that it is the right stage to address what he claim is the most serious challenges to the world, namely the extremist terror group called Islamic State or ISIL that is tearing apart Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by Putin’s attempt to dismember Ukraine. There are reasonable suspicions that there has not been an international statesman like conversion on the road to the General Assembly the part of Harper. It is strengthened by the fact that he is replacing his usual anti-UN spokesman at these events, namely his foreign minister John Baird who at the last General Assembly meeting slammed the Organization speaking to a near empty room.
The desire to speak to his loathed forum may be motivated by the start of the campaign for the 2015 federal election triggered by the campaign style launch of the fall sitting of Parliament by the Prime Minister on September 15, 2014. He devoted a large part of his speech at the Ottawa Convention Centre to his claimed success in foreign policy. It seemed like a strategy to portray him as an international statesman in comparison to the man he now fears the most in the coming election, Justin Trudeau. Harper asserts his claim to experienced statesman by his cold war rhetoric on Putin’s stealth war on Ukraine and his sending of limited Canadian military involvement to the US led coalition to combat ISIL. These actions will be part of Harper’s speech at the UN General Assembly, but perhaps the real target audience are the electors who will see the PMO directed clips of the speech. These same clips will also, no doubt avoid any scenes of a less than filled General Assembly as Harper takes the stage.
The actions and posturing on both the Ukraine and ISIL by Harper indicate that in both situations, the UN speech may be used by Harper to burnish his statesman credentials for a domestic electoral audience. On Ukraine, the goal seems to be shopping for votes with the one million Ukrainian diaspora in Canada rather than going further than other allies on resisting Putin’s illegal actions in Ukraine. While keen to have photo-ops by attending the Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s inauguration and talking of new cold war dangers posed by Putin, the sanctions that Harper has established against Russia are significantly less than the US and the EU sanctions while trying to hide that fact from potential voters in the Ukrainian diaspora.
On Harper’s increasingly strident statements on ISIL, there is again an insidious and indirect attempt to focus for possible electoral advantage on attacking Justin Trudeau on statements he made on the need to examine the root causes of terrorism following the terrible Boston bombing by two terrorists. In addition, without any real Parliamentary input, he speedily sent a very small contingent of special forces to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces rather than debating with the opposition and experts on what Canada can effectively do to combat the genocidal terror that ISIL is spreading.
In his Ottawa Convention speech he implied that the Liberal opposition would be dangerous and naïve on fighting terror groups focusing on root causes while Harper would ignore root causes and focus on fighting unambiguously “evil” and “vile” groups like ISIL. The Ottawa Citizen which endorsed the Conservatives in the last election pointed out in a blistering editorial attack on September 17, 204, the stupidity of this thinly veiled attempt to use terrorism and ISIL for electoral advantage: “One way to oppose terrorism is to understand it. The Conservative talking point implies that anyone who tries to figure out how to stop a kid from suburban Ontario becoming a jihadi, is somehow a terrorist sympathiser”. Indeed, there is little doubt that the RCMP and most of the security agencies around the world are probably trying to figure out how to combat the causes of radicalization that are sending hundreds of western youth to fight with ISIL.
The only genuine leadership that Harper can claim internationally is his success in getting the G8/G20 meeting in Toronto to focus on maternal health but there again partisan reasons to exclude Canadian contribution to family planning and abortion has clouded the achievement in Canada and worldwide.
So while Harper will no doubt praise his government’s leadership on both Ukraine, Iraq and Syria and condemn those who are weak on these threats to international peace and security, he may not really care if it does not go down well with many of the other delegations in the General Assembly. Many will know that it is primarily all “hat and no beef” from a leader whose track record lost his country a long standing Security Council seat that instead went to Portugal. He has not come to praise the UN, but to try to find one more propaganda tool to bury the opposition.
Errol Mendes is a professor of Constitutional and International Law at the University of Ottawa. His latest book is titled “Global Governance, Human Rights and International Law” published by Routledge, New York and London, 2014..