Jockeying for a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council starts early — way early. Three countries are already vying for the two open seats in the regional group known as Weog — Western Europe and Others — for the 2021-22 term. The election is June 2020, and the “others” are Australia, Canada, Israel and New Zealand.
The 2020 contenders — Canada, Ireland and Norway — are competing to represent the oddly configured regional group in an election that will be decided by the 193 members of the General Assembly. Two will serve in 2021 and 2022 alongside the Council’s five permanent members and eight other nonpermanent members. The Weog bloc is often one of the most contested elections.
For the 2020-21 term, the one seat open in the Eastern European bloc is being fought by Estonia and Romania, who face election this June. India and Vietnam are competing for the single Asia-Pacific seat. The remaining groups — Africa and Latin America-Caribbean — usually avoid public campaigns by preselecting countries through rotations.
The feminism card
For the race among Canada, Ireland and Norway, each offers a different approach to one of the most pressing issues facing the UN: the quest for gender equality, internally and around the world.
Only two women currently sit on the Security Council, Britain’s ambassador, Karen Pierce, and Poland’s ambassador, Joanna Wronecka. The Weog bloc is fielding two female ambassadors — Mona Juul of Norway and Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland — for what could be the first time in UN history.
Gender equality is a sensitive issue at the UN. Secretary-General António Guterres has achieved gender parity at the senior management level but much remains to be done at all other levels.
Adding more women to the Council would meanwhile give weight to the global push for gender equality. Nason of Ireland chaired this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s global conference on women’s rights. Between 2011 and 2014, she was the highest-ranking woman in Ireland, as second secretary-general of the Department of the Taoiseach (Ireland’s prime ministry).
While Canada is the only contender with a male ambassador, Marc-André Blanchard, it is also the only one of the three countries pushing a publicly avowed feminist foreign policy, led by its female deputy ambassador to the UN, Louise Blais.
“We are very supportive of the secretary-general’s work on gender equality,” Blais told PassBlue. “He has achieved gender parity in high echelons of the UN, but we think it needs to go deeper than that. There are other layers that need to become more representative of women.”
Though Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, is a woman, the country is reluctant to tie its policies to a feminist agenda. When it named Juul, a high-profile diplomat who was a key figure in the 1990s Oslo peace process, ambassador to the UN in January, it was not “because she is a woman, but because she is the most qualified person in this role,” Ragnhild Imerslund, who is leading the Norwegian campaign from Oslo, told PassBlue.
In contrast, its neighbor Sweden was the first country in the world to proclaim a feminist foreign policy agenda, led by Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. The country includes a feminist perspective in all its foreign policy decisions to ensure human rights are upheld for both women and men across the world.
Norway has focused on women, peace and security “without explicitly defining it as ‘feminist,’ ” according to a blog post by Torunn L. Tryggestad, deputy director of the private Peace Research Institute Oslo. “The attitude in Norway has been that labels aren’t necessary; we just do it.”
Juul told PassBlue: “I’m not sure being a woman makes any difference. Here [at the UN], as in all other places, you have to prove yourself by being knowledgeable and present your country’s position in an understandable way.” Still, Norway’s campaign brochure is pink.
In January, Norway launched a new national plan on women, peace and security, targeting peace and reconciliation processes; peace agreements; operations and assignments; and humanitarian efforts.
Who’s on first?
The Weog bloc comprises 28 countries, and the United States, which is not a member of any bloc, attends meetings as an observer. The bloc’s open seats on the Security Council are generally the most openly competitive among the UN’s regional groups.
Even 14 months before the election, speculation is apparent. Ireland may win votes by being the sole representative of the European Union. “We are the only member of the EU running on this campaign, and the European worldview is a very important one,” Byrne Nason told PassBlue. Some diplomats at the UN also quietly sympathize with Ireland amid the Brexit negotiations.
But Norway is a strong contender, too. Not only is it the biggest donor to the UN per capita by far among the three countries, but many Norwegians also play important roles at the UN. Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, for example, is the UN envoy for Syria. The Norwegian campaign also has strong backing at home. Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon came to New York City last June to throw his visible support behind the campaign.
Juul’s husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, is the president of the International Peace Institute in New York and was equally involved in the Oslo peace process. He talks about Norway’s legacy as a “facilitator” and a “very engaged and consistent UN partner,” financially and diplomatically.
Ireland and Norway, said one observer watching the race closely, are promoting their work on the environment, specifically on preserving oceans, reflecting their proximity to the Atlantic. Canada, of course, has a long Atlantic coastline but is not focusing on it as a priority in the campaign so far.
While Norway has the highest contribution to the UN general budget per capita of the three, Canada contributes the largest sum. It is also the biggest financial contributor to peacekeeping operations, while Ireland, with a population about the size of Norway’s — around five million — comes last. The financial amount does not reflect how many troops each country has in a mission; Ireland, for example, has 628 officers in peacekeeping operations, one of the largest per capita contributors, the press office said.
Of the three countries, Ireland has spent the least amount of time as a member of the Security Council, a fact that can influence General Assembly sympathies. Canada has spent a total of 12 years on the Council, the fourth-longest among elected members. Ireland has spent three terms and Norway, four.
Aside from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit during the General Assembly opening session last September, Canada has yet to host a big event for the campaign. “We’re running a fiscally responsible campaign and we want Canadians to be proud of the campaign, not only the outcome and how we ran based on our values, and why we believe can make difference on Council,” Blais said.
Ireland launched its campaign for the 2021-2022 term last July by inviting UN ambassadors to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. (U2 star Bono is a prominent supporter of the UN’s antipoverty agenda.)
More recently, Canada called attention to its campaign by handing out samples of poutine, the carb-heavy symbol of Canadian quirkiness, to fellow diplomats. Not to be outdone, Norway served waffles, and Ireland threw a St. Patrick’s Day party, complete with Guinness and Jameson, at the UN.
Like many activities at the UN, campaign spending is usually a secret, making it hard to estimate.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said in September 2018 that Canada faced “steep odds” because of Ireland’s and Norway’s strengths and Canada’s voting patterns, which tend to favor Israel. That could be a turnoff for the Group of 77, a coalition of 134 developing countries, including China, that is pro-Palestine (and led this year by Palestine).
While the Irish government told PassBlue that it does not support a parliamentary Occupied Territories Bill banning the trade of Israeli-settlement products, it could cost it votes from other nations, notably from the US, a tight ally of Israel.
The bill, which does not refer to a specific country, has been proposed by opposition parties in Ireland, and though the government is against it, Ireland now has a minority government, and the bill passed the Senate and the next stage of the legislative process. The bill is currently in a phase of legislative scrutiny. The government will use this phase to highlight the legal problems and costs associated with the bill, said a press officer for the Irish mission to the UN.
The press officer added that while the government is opposing the bill for “legal and political reasons, support for it in the Irish parliament is a sign of the deep concern in Ireland at the continued seizure by Israel of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, contrary to international law, which is seriously endangering the prospects for peace. The Irish Government shares this concern, and itself firmly opposes all settlement construction, as all EU governments do.”
Norway lends economic support to Israeli trade and innovation.
Canada faces another challenge: a possible change of government as the Trudeau government wrestles with a national scandal and possible fallout during the 2019 election of the next prime minister. Some diplomats at the UN expressed hope that Canada would drop out of the Security Council campaign if the government changed.
Blais’s response: “It is not unusual to run for a seat at the Security Council with an election between announcement candidacy and the vote of the Council.”
The CBC has aired the possibility of Canada and Ireland splitting one of the Council seats, each assuming it for a year, which Italy and the Netherlands did in the 2017-18 term, after neither could win a majority vote in the General Assembly.
The option was brushed off by Blais, who said, “We are not considering or even contemplating it at this point.”
This article was updated on April 1, 2019, to better reflect the position of the Irish government to the Occupied Territories Bill proposed in the parliament.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.