How Canada’s UN vote breaks with long-standing policy — and what Israel says about it

By

Published December 13, 2023 at 6:40 pm

Canada shifted its long-standing stance at the United Nationsto join international calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday.

It marked a departure from years of Canada backing Israel at the international body, a policythat had come under renewed scrutiny during the latest Israel-Hamas war.

The conflict was sparked when Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people and took 240 more hostage in an Oct. 7 attack on Israel. More than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed since then amid Israel’s retaliation campaign in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Here’s a look at how Canada has approached its UN votes over time, and what Israel is saying about the policy shift.

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 on social media 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.

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 last month.

On Nov. 9, Canada’s delegation at the UN took 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 said.

“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 last month 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.

In November, 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 at the time that despite the voting decision, the motion fell squarely in line with Canada’s long-standing policy on the Middle East, which says: “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 in November, 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 also rejected a motion affirming the property rights of Arabs inside Israel.

At the time, former Canadian diplomats questioned Canada’s stance. 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.”

This week, Canada broke with tradition by voting in favour of a UN motion that called for an “immediate ceasefire” but did not specifically condemn Hamas. Canada supported a U.S. amendment that would have done so. But it didn’t get the two-thirds support that would have been required for it to pass.

Rae said that the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza compelled Canada to take that stance.

HOW ISRAEL IS REACTING

Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Iddo Moed, said in a Wednesday interview that the change in Canada’s typical posture only emboldens people who don’t want Israel to exist.

He said it is “disappointing to see that Canada, which maintained that point for a very long period of time, decided now to contribute to the singling out of Israel.”

Moed stressed that both countries still have strong relations, but he said that the vote distracts from pinning responsibility for the conflict on Hamas. He argued Israel has no choice but to fight the group.

HOW OTHERS SEE IT

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which advocates for most of Canada’s Jewish federations, said it was “disgusted and frankly shocked” by Canada’s stance, and argued it will “undoubtedly lead to further hate being directed towards Jews here in Canada.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims called the UN vote a “milestone” that needs to translate into “the reality of action and deeds.”

The issue has split the Liberal caucus, with some saying the UN motion should have reflected atrocities committed by Hamas, with others saying there is rarely a perfect resolution in a forum designed to speak for all the world’s nations.

The NDP and Bloc Québécois sided with the government’s position, while the Conservatives released a statement that urged condemnation of Hamas but didn’t take a specific stance on the UN vote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

insauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising