By Alistair Edgar, Associate Professor

In a few weeks’ time, on 17 June 2020, the UN General Assembly is scheduled to vote to elect the new non-permanent members of the UN Security Council – the highest body of the international organization charged with establishing its positions and actions on issues of global peace and security – for the two years term 2021-2022. Assuming that the UNGA either can hold the vote in person with all necessary health and safety measures in place for the member states’ delegates, or else virtually while retaining the integrity (and traditional secrecy) of the voting process, we will learn in June whether Canada has done enough in the last three or four years to persuade at least two-thirds (129 of 193) of the members of the General Assembly to support its candidacy above that of its two competitors in the Western Europe and Other Group, Ireland and Norway.

What are Canada’s prospects for winning a seat, after entering the 2020 competition only in 2016, a decade later than Ireland and Norway? Should it succeed, will a seat at the Council table – in person or, as happens currently under the new safety restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually – give Canada a meaningful voice and vote in helping to shape Council debates and decisions? Can the ‘elected ten’ (E10) Council members expect to make positive contributions, either individually or as a group, in responding to critical global security issues while working in the fragmented political environment of today’s Council? If the General Assembly vote in June favours another candidate in the first round, what is a ‘second ballot’ strategy for Canada? And should that too prove unsuccessful, what next?

Canada traditionally had been seen as a trusted, independent North American voice on the Council and in the General Assembly, but the image and role of Canada at the UN declined substantially over the first decade and a half of the new millennium. Since 2015, Canada has sought to rebuild and rebrand its image, reputation, and engagement. Ottawa’s new signature foreign policy initiatives, such as the Feminist International Assistance Policy and the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations, and its military contribution to the peace operation in Mali, were part of that effort. It is unclear, however, whether these are enough to reverse that decline and to render Canada ‘competitive’ against Ireland and Norway. Both of those countries have comparable foreign policy initiatives and approaches; they have been the known candidates for a decade, and actively campaigning for as long as Canada.

In February 2020, Prime Minister Trudeau and Ambassador Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, traveled to Ethiopia and Senegal and met with members of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Their discussions covered broader Canadian economic and diplomatic relations with African states, but keeping Canada in mind for the Council seat amongst African leaders undoubtedly was considered as a secondary benefit. Norway’s Prime Minister likewise led that country’s delegation to attend the AU summit.

Joining the recently established Alliance for Multilateralism, and offering support to the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international bodies in their efforts to address the global health, economic and other challenges that have resulted from the pandemic, and supporting efforts to ‘recover better’ for all states, is the most recent positive step for Canada. Of course, alongside Foreign Minister Champagne’s name on the Alliance’s statement of purpose are those of the Foreign Ministers of Ireland and Norway. As US President Trump cut American funding to the WHO, Ireland pledged financial support towards filling that gap.

Should Canada succeed, it will return to an elected seat on the Council for the first time since 1999-2000, having failed in 2010 when it lost to Germany in the first ballot and ceded to Portugal in the second round – after succeeding in the first round of voting in each of the previous six decades. The Security Council in 2021-2022, however, will be a very different experience than twenty years earlier, with deep divisions now between the USA, Russia and China (three of the P-5 members with veto power in the Council) over a range of issues that make cooperative solutions to hard problems even harder to find. The success stories of the 1999-2000 term might belong to a ‘golden age’ of cooperation – or at least, of room to innovate – within the Council that no longer exists.

The global pandemic severely disrupted the normal daily functioning of the UN, and the Security Council with its always-heavy workload, in hard-hit New York City. It also has become another source of deepening divisions between the US and China, as President Trump has sought to lay blame on Beijing – after initially targeting the WHO – while the rapidly worsening toll of infections and deaths in the United States already (after just four months) is higher than the total of US military casualties during the entire Vietnam war. US relations with Russia have been strained over the latter’s intervention in Crimea and its support of the Assad regime in Syria. Canada’s diplomatic relations with China also were damaged in a dispute that linked Ottawa to the US Trump Administration’s trade dispute with China, with Canadian citizens being arrested and detained in China in retaliation.

New elected members thus will join a divided Council that has been criticized for its relative silence on the pandemic, while the UN Secretary-General has been active in calling for parties engaged in conflicts around the world to declare a ‘COVID ceasefire’. A French proposal for a Council resolution setting out an international response has been hamstrung by the US-China dispute, although it also was criticized by a number of other European states; and a proposed Council statement advanced by ‘E10’ member Estonia to identify the pandemic as a threat to international peace and security was blocked by China and ‘E10’ member South Africa, which proposed the WHO as the most appropriate institution to deal with COVID as a global health issue.

Some of these political problems within the Council might change, depending on the result of the US presidential election in November; the Council might then be able to respond to the pandemic and the ‘post-COVID’ context in a manner closer to its much more constructive actions addressing the Ebola crisis in 2014. Whatever the outcome of that ‘other’ election, however, the five new E10 members will face working within a Council that has been dysfunctional in a time of crisis, and that needs to find a way to move forward constructively on its full range of challenging agenda items such as the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Mali, as well as the humanitarian and other impacts of the current global pandemic.

What now, or what next? As the official campaign comes to a close for all three of the candidate countries for the Western Europe and Other Group, there is little left to do at least formally although quiet contacts and discussions will continue. All three WEOG candidates have stepped back from hosting from any in-person events, obviously, and have given their public accounting in terms of direct costs incurred. Canada will be hoping for a ‘win’ on the first round of balloting, but it should have a plan for the second round if necessary, emphasizing what Canada could bring to the Council that would complement the strengths and the goals of the first-round winner.

This time, at least, should the campaign not end with the positive result that Canada seeks and for which it hopes, any disappointment it feels should be balanced against the positive aspects of Canada’s constructive re-engagement with the multilateral body and its global membership. Ottawa also then should pledge its active support to the newest WEOG representatives, and identify its candidacy for the next uncontested vacancy.


Nico Schrijver and Niels Blokker (eds), Elected Members of the Security Council: Lame Ducks or Key Players? (Leiden: Brill/Nijhoff, 2020).

John Langmore and Jeremy Farrall, “Can Elected Members Make a Difference in the UN Security Council? Australia’s Experience in 2013-1024”, Global Governance Vol. 22 No 1 (Jan-Mar. 2016), pp. 59-77.

Adam Chapnick, Canada on the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020)