CHICOUTIMI, Canada — The Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Marc-André Blanchard, told a Canadian newspaper in March “now is not the time to campaign for a Security Council seat,” as world diplomacy is being disrupted by the coronavirus and the United Nations headquarters remains physically closed for now.
But the reality is there will be two empty seats in the Council at the end of the year in the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG), left by Belgium and Germany — and they will need to be filled, virus or not. The three countries vying for the seats, Canada, Ireland and Norway, are eager to fill the precious two-year spots in January 2021.
Despite that UN member states cannot meet physically at the UN in New York, the president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, announced a set of alternative procedures on April 29 to move ahead with the Council elections and other voting that normally gets done in June. No decision on the formats has been finalized as of May 4.
According to the new procedure proposed specifically for the Security Council election, the vote could be done through secret ballots cast at a specific site (such as a lobby in UN headquarters) or electronically, with the Assembly president circulating the results in a letter to members. The Assembly already has a new procedure for voting on resolutions during the lockdown, done by silence procedure for no less than 72 hours. If silence is not broken, the resolution is adopted.
While campaigning for the Security Council seats has not been a priority during the pandemic for the three countries, they say, the vote is still likely to take place on June 17. The latest guidelines from Bande’s office recommend that the Assembly not hold meetings in the UN through the end of June.
On April 30, Bande held a closed meeting with the chairs of the UN regional groups, including WEOG, to discuss the possible voting procedures for elections. (Djibouti and Kenya are competing for Africa’s single open seat in the Council; the Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean regions have clean slates and Eastern Europe has no open seat this term.)
While the pandemic disrupts traditional campaigning, the Council elections are carrying on.
“The pandemic has obviously changed our campaign and the working methods of the entire Foreign Service,” Meena Syed, the deputy head of Norway’s Security Council campaign, told PassBlue in an email from New York. “This has not been the time to focus on traditional campaigning.”
The Irish mission in New York is following a similar mind-set: “Like all member-states, our main focus in recent weeks has been on supporting the role of the UN in leading the global response to the pandemic,” Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an email from New York.
When the United States recently announced it would withhold its funding to the World Health Organization, for example, Ireland announced it would quadruple its donation to approximately $10 million this year.
While it has been impossible to hold traditional campaign events, such as Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day party at the UN or Canada’s waffles-with-maple-syrup giveaways in the UN Delegates Lounge, the three countries have never stopped campaigning through policy and diplomacy.
Although policies always matter in UN electoral campaigns, the competitive edge comes from bilateral relations or joint interests, according to a report done by the International Peace Institute in 2013.
“I always said that the best campaign we could do is let Canada be Canada,” Blanchard told PassBlue in a video call from his home in Toronto, “and throughout this Covid-19 crisis, this is what is happening.”
Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the three countries have stepped up their diplomatic efforts in their own ways. They share common values in supporting multilateralism and peacekeeping — so it’s not surprising that they have focused more heavily on these agendas during the pandemic. The issue of multilateralism is getting more global exposure now, and the candidates seem naturally well placed to promote this agenda.
Norway, for example, holds a prominent perch in the UN as the current president of the Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), enabling Ambassador Mona Juul to stay in the spotlight more in the crisis than her competitors. Ecosoc is responsible for overseeing progress on the sustainable development goals, which include the environment.
Besides pledging to quadruple its regular donations to the WHO, the Irish donated $11 million to UN agencies fighting the coronavirus. Canada has donated $159 million to global to “support international efforts” to fight Covid-19, it said, including to many UN agencies. That amount includes a $50 million injection in March.
Currently, the three countries have relative control over the virus at home: Canada has been hit the hardest in the number of current confirmed cases, 60, 541 (deaths, 3,795) — but its population is 38 million. Ireland’s population is 5 million, and it has 21,506 confirmed cases and 1,303 deaths so far; Norway, with a population of 5.4 million, has 7,884 confirmed cases and 214 deaths.
How much is too much for a Security Council seat?
With the end of the campaign looming, it’s also an opportunity for the candidates to disclose how much money they have spent on their efforts, an issue that Norway highlighted independently.
In February, it released details of its campaign-related expenses. These include travel, study trips, promotional material and temporary employees’ salaries since Norway’s campaign started in 2016. As of December 2019, Norway’s expenses were approximately $2.8 million. This push for more campaign transparency is one of Norway’s key campaign promises.
“We see that transparency has become something that is discussed in various elections at the UN,” Syed of Norway said in March. “Norway is a member of the ACT group at the UN, that works for increased coherence transparency and accountability, and the work of the Security Council — it’s something that we kind of ran our campaign on, that we want to work on if we get elected into the Security Council.”
Norway’s mission to the UN says it is important to hold member states accountable when they campaign. Countries giving away all sorts of gifts is not unusual. Malaysia went so far as to give out iPads in its successful campaign for the 2015-2016 Council term. The current campaign in the WEOG group also came with some pop-culture bonuses: Ireland invited diplomats to a U2 concert in New York City in 2018, while Canada held a concert in early 2020 with Céline Dion.
Ireland and Canada also sent a rough accounting of their expenses to PassBlue. For Canada, as of March 2020, the campaign-related expenses (including travel, hospitality, promotional items and more) were estimated around $1.56 million. This figure, however, does not include staff salaries, which comes from existing resources, the mission says.
When contacted in March, the latest figures Ireland had available were $798,900, dating from November 2019. This number includes “launch event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in July 2018, promotional materials, and campaign-related travel and subsistence,” it said. A spokesperson for the Irish mission added, before the pandemic slowed campaigning, “We would expect expenditure up to the end of the campaign to be proportionate with expenditure to date.”
While Norway’s transparency goals may be commendable, the three countries seem to be doing their calculations differently, and the General Assembly has no rules on campaign spending limits.
For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ambassador Blanchard traveled to Africa — Ethiopia and Senegal — in February to try to win votes for the Security Council seat, including a stop at the 2020 African Union summit in Addis Ababa. The expenses related to the trip are not counted in Canada’s expense report to PassBlue.
“This was not a trip about the campaign,” Blanchard said. “It was way more about the relationship between Canada and leaders in countries in Africa, and also with the African Union, an important partner for Canada and for jobs and opportunities, and the future of the relationship between Canada and Africa. And it is a very important relationship — election for the Security Council or not.”
The trip was Trudeau’s third to Africa since he became prime minister in 2015; the first was to Liberia and Madagascar for a Francophonie meeting in 2016; he visited Mali, to visit Canadian troops in the UN peacekeeping mission, two years later.
The prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, also went to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa but without Juul, the UN ambassador. Norway included some travel in its campaign expenses. But it is unclear if it featured the trip to Ethiopia.
“So what we’ve said is that our politicians travel a lot,” Syed of Norway said in early March from Norway’s mission in New York. “And a lot of their travels are not 100% because of the campaign. So it’s very difficult to draw the line between what is a bilateral visit where you might also talk about the campaign, but if our foreign minister would make that travel. In any case, then the travels of the politicians have not been included, but many times for example, officials travel with them because of the campaign.”
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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.