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Memo to Bob Rae and Stephen Lewis: Palestine does matter

Canada’s anti-Palestinian voting record at the UN has played a role in our declining reputation in the world

Canadian PoliticsMiddle East

Thousands march through London demanding that the UK recognize Palestine and stop British support for Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, November 4, 2017. Photo by Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

On September 20, Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis spoke to the CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay about the UN’s 75th anniversary and the institution’s continued relevance in the world. Both Rae and Lewis talked about what can be done to protect multilateralism, but failed to critically address why Canada’s recent bid for a seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) fell short.

Rae was appointed ambassador after the international community rejected Canada’s bid for a seat on the UNSC in June.

A total of 128 votes were needed to secure a two-thirds majority. Norway won 130 votes while Ireland got 128. Canada received just 108 votes.

During the interview, Chattopadhyay asked what this defeat says about the perception the rest of the world holds of Canada and our foreign policy.

Rae maintained that the UNSC defeat had nothing to do with Canada’s foreign policy. Then, when Chattopadhyay challenged Rae about the UN’s recent condemnation of Canada’s role in fuelling the civil war in Yemen through arms sales to the Saudis, the ambassador claimed that the weaponized military vehicles we are selling are just “jeeps.”

“It’s not what you’d call a weapon,” he said.

For his part, Lewis did indicate that some of Canada’s domestic policies, notably the Trudeau government’s support of pipelines and its suppression of Indigenous land claims, played a role in the defeat.

Yet, the most striking omission from this discussion was any mention of Palestine, or the impact of Canada’s Middle East policy on its declining reputation in the world.

As Canadian Dimension reported in August, the CBC recently removed the word Palestine from its airwaves, going so far as to apologize for having uttered the word during an interview with Joe Sacco on “the themes of colonialism and resource extraction.”

When Lewis was asked in an email following the interview why he did not mention Palestine, he responded, “I didn’t include the Israel/Palestine issue because I genuinely believe that it had nothing to do with Canada’s loss of the Security Council seat. It’s as straightforward as that.”

Father Robert Assaly, a pastor at the St. Thomas More parish in Verdun and the former vicar of Gaza, responded to Lewis in an open letter:

With deepest respect, for the record I beg to differ.
I write as the one who devised and initiated the campaign to defeat our SC seat bid based on our telling UN voting record on Palestine. This resulted from my years as vice-chair of a UN committee on the Question of Palestine, interrupted by my three years serving the Church there, including as Vicar of Gaza. As such I believed that this question continues to be perceived at the UN as the litmus test for Western nations’ commitment to global peace and international law.


During Canada’s UNSC bid, an open letter was signed by over 100 civil society groups and dozens of prominent individuals urging countries to vote against Canada’s bid for a Security Council seat due to its anti-Palestinian positions. The letter stated, “the Canadian government for at least a decade and a half has consistently isolated itself against world opinion on Palestinian rights at the UN.” This claim was based on analysis conducted by Just Peace Advocates and other non-governmental organizations showing that the other two contenders for the UNSC seat, Ireland and Norway, had not voted against any Palestine resolutions at the UN this century, while Canada voted against 166 resolutions. More than 1,300 letters were sent to all 193 UN ambassadors, urging them to vote for Ireland and Norway instead of Canada for the two available seats.

In his letter, Assaly continued:

The ultimate evidence, however, lies in the choice of the Canadian Ambassador [former representative Marc-André Blanchard], at the behest of Ottawa, to respond neither to Greta Thunberg’s similar campaign based on our environmental record, nor to the parallel campaign based on Canada’s foreign and domestic policy record, but only to the Palestine-focused campaign. It seems at least he and the PMO agree with my perspective, however loathe to admit it. At a minimum they felt that a transparently misleading letter on Palestine was worth as much as peddling a few more shiny objects as a final offering. His surreptitious reply to all UN ambassadors, as amusingly disingenuous likely to several Ambassadors as to me, drew a reply to them from me personally. This not only allowed us to reinforce Canada’s utter failure on the Palestine file, but also to refresh the voting ambassadors’ consciousness just days before the vote.


Of course, Lewis’s response is not surprising. His pro-Israel positions are longstanding.

As Ontario NDP leader, Lewis demanded the federal government cancel a major UN conference in Toronto in 1975 because representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization were poised to attend (they had been granted observer status at the UN the previous year). Yves Engler has suggested that Lewis’s insistence that Canada’s anti-Palestinian voting record at the UN did not contribute to its UNSC defeat reflects the former politician’s enduring anti-Palestinian activism.

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, delivers some closing remarks at the High-Level Event on Financing for Development. Photo from Twitter.

As Father Assaly wrote to Lewis, “First, I do not find myself lonely on this—Rick Salutin pulled no punches in the Toronto Star: ‘There is one and only one reason, in my opinion, for the resounding defeat of Canada’s bid for a Security Council seat at the UN—Palestine.’”

Hundreds of letters have been sent to Ambassador Rae and the Canadian government in support of a call last week by 230 Palestinian, regional, and international civil society organizations, urging the UN General Assembly and member states to take urgent and effective action to address the root causes of Palestinian oppression. These include an international investigation into Israel’s apartheid regime, a ban on arms trading and military-security cooperation with Israel, and a prohibition of trade with illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to ensure that companies refrain from and terminate business activities complicit in Israel’s violations of international law.

There is no indication that Ambassador Rae has taken any steps to show Canada’s leadership in response to these demands, but then again, after hearing his apologetics for Canada’s military sales to one of the Middle East’s most repressive states, people likely won’t be holding their breath for even a response to their letters.

Karen Rodman is the director of Just Peace Advocates, an international human rights organization based in Canada.

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