Canada’s long-standing support of Israel in votes at the United Nations has come under renewed scrutiny during the latest Israel-Hamas war.
On Oct. 27, Canada abstained on a motion calling for a sustained humanitarian truce in the Gaza Strip, and last week, it joined Israel and the U.S. in voting down a motion about Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Canada was also among only four states that rejected a different motion last week calling on Israel to stop impeding the work of the UN agency that conducts humanitarian efforts for Palestinians, and it also rejected a motion affirming the property rights of Arabs inside Israel.
Here’s how Ottawa has approached these votes over time, and what experts say it could mean for Canada’s relationship with developing countries.
A LONG-STANDING POLICY
Israel is regularly subject to motions at the United Nations condemning its treatment of Palestinians. Many Arab countries argue that Israeli officials are violating international law. Israel rebuffs those claims, arguing it receives disproportionate scrutiny animated by antisemitism.
Kerry Buck, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO, said in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Ottawa has generally taken pro-Israel positions since the time of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, which was in power from 2004 until 2006.
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Cdn UN voting moved pro-Israel under Martin, much more so under Harper & didn’t move back (much) with current govt. This particular vote is consistent. Not that it’s right – during the same period, Netanyahu grew settlements. So we can question, but not be surprised by Cdn vote
— Kerry Buck (@kerry_buck) November 11, 2023
That’s a trend that increased under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has largely kept in place, said Buck. “Any minor shift is significant,” she added in an email.
Votes by Canada’s mission to the UN have received more attention since Israel declared a war against Hamas last month, following its militants’ brazen Oct. 7 attacks that killed an estimated 1,200 people in Israel. The Israeli military’s assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has local officials saying that more than 11,470 Palestinians have been killed.
Canada’s delegation has taken the unusual step of putting out a statement clarifying its approach.
“We would like to underscore our long-standing concern that there are still too many resolutions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict being put forward at the UN General Assembly every year. And too many of these also unfairly single out Israel,” the mission wrote on Nov. 9.
“Canada reiterates the importance of a fair-minded approach at the United Nations and will continue to vote ‘no’ on resolutions that do not address the complexities of the issues or seek to address the actions and responsibilities of all parties, including the destructive role of terrorist organizations like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.”
David Carment, a Carleton University international-affairs professor who is editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, noted that the Liberals had faced intense scrutiny in November 2020 when Canada, which advocates a two-state solution to the protracted conflict, voted in favour of a motion supporting Palestinian self-determination.
RECENT VOTES AT THE UN
On Oct. 27, less than three weeks into the war, Canada abstained on a motion calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” in Gaza.
Canada’s lead ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, moved an amendment to acknowledge that Israel’s tactics were the result of terrorist attacks by Hamas. When that motion failed, Rae abstained from supporting the motion.
“We consider it essential that the international community speak clearly in condemning this terrorism by Hamas,” Global Affairs Canada wrote in a statement.
Last week, Canada joined Israel, the U.S., Hungary and three small island states in voting down a motion about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The motion called for an end to settlements that violate international law and sought accountability for Israel violating the UN charter.
Ferry de Kerckhove, a former high-ranking Canadian diplomat, said despite that voting decision, the motion fell squarely in line with Canada’s long-standing policy on the Middle East, which notes: “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”
Also last week, Canada was among just four states — along with Israel, the U.S. and Micronesia — that rejected a motion calling on Israel to stop impeding the work of the UN agency that undertakes development and humanitarian work for Palestinians, known as UNRWA, and to ensure the safety of its personnel. Canada, Israel, the U.S. and three small island states rejected a motion affirming the property rights of Arabs inside Israel.
REACTION TO CANADA’S VOTING DECISIONS
Canada’s votes at the United Nations tend to get attention, and prompt strong opinions, from those who closely follow policy toward the Middle East.
But former Canadian diplomats are also now joining the list of people who have been questioning the votes.
Louise Blais, a former second-in-command at Canada’s United Nations mission, called the vote on settlements a “devastating decision for Canada’s standing in the world” that comes with “an enormous cost.”
She wrote on the platform X that in her experience, the United States would not have asked Ottawa to take such a line.
Rosemary McCarney, another former ambassador to the UN, replied to that post by saying that “for the average Canadian, this vote implies Canadians support the illegal settlements and the continuing policy to do so.”
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For the average Canadian, this vote implies Canadians support the illegal settlements and the continuing policy to do so. Agree a clear explanation is required. Mumbling “two state solution….” is not an explanation.
— Rosemary McCarney (@AmbMcCarney) November 12, 2023
CANADA’S HISTORY WITH UNWRA
Canada’s approach to the UN agency serving Palestinians has its own history.
Jewish groups and past Canadian governments have taken UNRWA to task over social-media statements by the agency’s staff that they argue don’t uphold neutrality. They also voice concerns that the UN aid could be diverted to Hamas, which Canada and others consider a terrorist organization.
The Harper government cut off Canadian funding for UNRWA in 2010, amid allegations it was too closely tied to Hamas.
But the Nov. 9 vote came the same day that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly praised UNRWA for providing the essentials of life in Gaza, noting it’s “the only organization able to concretely do this” and that Canada is “a significant donor” to the agency.
In a rare public statement, Canada’s mission at the UN laid out its thinking for the vote following Joly’s comments. It said that Canada’s funding is in part “to identify, monitor and follow up on neutrality violations” and boost “transparency and accountability of UNRWA’s approach to humanitarian principles.”
The United Nations says the recent Gaza conflict has killed more than 100 of its aid workers, the most such workers killed in any conflict in UN history.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF CANADA’S STANCE
Former diplomats and academics argue Canada’s UN votes risk putting Ottawa offside with developing countries in the Global South, while undercutting its own stance on the Middle East.
“It’s very difficult to say anything positive about our government’s position on the Middle East peace process, on the settlements, on all of these issues, because we no longer have the moral fibre to actually at least recognize some of the horrors that are being meted out on the Palestinians,” de Kerckhove said.
He says Canada is losing the relevancy it would need in the campaign it launched in May to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
“Twice we presented our candidacy to the Security Council and we brilliantly failed,” he said, referencing Canada’s loss in 2020 and 2010 at the UN’s highest body. “We’re no longer the country that has the moral rectitude to actually be convincing.”
Buck said the vote on settlements was unsurprising. She co-authored a report last month for an advisory panel on Canada’s role at the UN, published by Carleton University. The report argued that pro-Israel votes isolate Ottawa in some forums.
“The government has positioned itself as (an) outlier on some key UN debates, at times favouring domestic political positioning at the expense of its broader UN objectives. Canada’s stances on (UN Security Council) reform and Middle East issues, for instance, have alienated key UN members,” the report reads.
Carment said Canada is undercutting its connections with the Global South, just weeks after Joly spoke in a keynote speech about the need for Canada to acknowledge that developing countries feel global institutions uphold double standards.
“Canada is an outlier here (in) the court of public opinion,” he said. “Most of the world doesn’t see the conflict (in) the way that it’s been framed.”
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.