Jemma Finnegan Society, Culture, and Security

Reengaging Canada: Ottawa’s ambition for a UN Security Council Seat

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council for a two-year term beginning in 2021. Last week in a formal address at the United Nations (UN), Trudeau unofficially kicked off Canada’s campaign telling the General Assembly, “we’re Canadian. And we’re here to help.”

Canada has occupied a seat on the UN Security Council every decade since it’s inception until 2010. Under the former Conservative government, Canada’s six-decade streak ended when it withdrew its candidacy after finishing third during the first round of voting. In 2021, Trudeau hopes to end Canada’s 21-year absence from the council and capture a seat for the first time since 2000.

The Security Council is one of the six main organs of the United Nations and arguably the most powerful branch of the body. It is composed of 15 members, five permanent members and 10 non-permanent members. The five permanent veto-holding members of the council are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other 10 member-states are elected on a regional basis to serve for a period of two-terms.

The bid plays into the the Prime Minister’s reoccurring political narrative that ‘Canada is back.’ Since the Liberals came into power last November, they have pushed for Canada to reengage with international institutions as part of a new multilateral foreign policy. According to Foreign Minister Stephen Dion, a seat on the UN Security Council is essential for Ottawa to restore Canada’s influence in global affairs. Membership in the UN Security Council will allow Canada to advance its international objectives and “make meaningful contributions to solving global challenges.”

Experts have welcomed Canada’s candidacy, but have said that Ottawa cannot “rely on nostalgia alone if it wants to get back on the Security Council.” Instead, the Liberals will need to present a specific platform, just as Canada did in its 1998 campaign, when it focused on human security, the principle of the responsibility to protect and the International Criminal Court. This is especially necessary given the strong competition in Canada’s Western Europeans and Others Group (WEOG). Ireland and Norway, the world’s largest aid donor per capita, face Canada in a three-way race for only two available seats on the Security Council.

According to Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, Trudeau’s opening speech has begun Canada’s campaign on the right tone. The Liberal government has made it clear that Canada does not want to be defined as a nation that is strictly concerned with its national interests, and sees no purpose in the UN. In his first official address to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Trudeau lay the groundwork for this case and emphasized Canada’s re-engagement with the world body. Trudeau’s speech highlighted the pivotal role Canada played in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement on climate change, its revived military and financial commitments to UN peacekeeping missions and Ottawa’s acceptance of 31,000 Syrian refugees since December 2015.

Last week at the General Assembly, Trudeau told reporters that Canada wants a Security Council seat to push the message of diversity as a source of strength. Citing rising anxieties related to globalization, migration, and domestic security that have insulated states, the Prime Minister argued that a dialogue of inclusion is “a narrative that, right now, the world needs.” According to Trudeau, investing in economic growth, that is broadly shared, can be a source of stability, as “a fair and successful world is a peaceful world.”

The Prime Minister told the assembly that Canada is ready to assume a leadership role in the world body. Citing Canada’s recent contributions to the UN and international diplomacy, Trudeau said, “we’ve done all of this – and we will do much more.”

A seat on the Security Council would be a major comeback for Canada, after losing its bid to Portugal in 2010. Membership in the council would place Canada at the table of the world’s most important diplomatic forum, and allow Ottawa to recapture the international influence it believes has faltered in recent years. Moreover, Security Council votes carry weight. Having a place on the council would allow Canada to influence policy at a high level and make constructive contributions to issues of international peace and security.

As a major beneficiary of international trade, Canada would play an active role in preserving the system it benefits from by securing a seat. Membership could lead to greater economic opportunities for Canadians in the global market place, especially in Africa and Asia where Canadian expertise “such as infrastructure, renewable energy and access to clean water, are desired.”

The Prime Minister’s dialogue of inclusion, boost in foreign aid spending and re-engagement with big UN projects, will not go unnoticed by voting members. That being said, Canada has visibly lost standing in the UN in recent years, and so Ottawa must be clear about the principles that motivate them to recapture a Security Council seat.


Photo: Meeting of the UN Security Council (2009), by White House (Pete Souza) via wikimedia. Public Domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Jemma Finnegan
Jemma Finnegan is the Program Editor for Global Horizons at the NATO Association of Canada. Jemma recently graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland with an MA Honours Degree in International Relations and Social Anthropology. Her research interests are focused on Global Public Policy, avenues of International Governance and Conflict Intervention. Jemma has conducted research for the Sentinel Project relating to the emergence and development of genocide in the Central African Republic and has supported the implementation of poverty alleviation programs both locally and abroad in communities in Uganda. Jemma hopes to continue her studies and pursue a Masters Degree in International Public Policy. Jemma can be reached at