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Is the UN the Answer to the World’s Needs in the 21st Century?


What is Canada’s role at the U.N., how effective are we, and how does the world see our contribution to U.N. activities? These were some of the questions addressed by Ambassador John McNee (right), Canada's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and a Glendon graduate, at a public lecture in Glendon Hall on December 12th, with the title ‘Canada at the UN’.

McNee affirmed that the UN’s traditional goal of peacekeeping is a fundamental element of Canada’s national identity. But he asserted the need for “facts not fervour” in evaluating the UN’s 60 years of activities and Canada’s participation in them. “We need to examine not only whether Canada serves the UN well, but also how well the UN serves Canada”, said McNee. His response was a resounding “yes” to both, explaining that in a time of globalization, there is a fundamental need for global institutions such as the UN, which promotes democratic values, provides experience, expertise and infrastructure for managing major events, peace-keeping and peace-making. He pointed to important UN participation in rescue missions after the Asian tsunami of 2004, in monitoring the threat of Asian flu, and organizing top-level international discussions on climate change. “The UN has an even more important role to play in the 21st century”, said McNee, “and the real question is whether it will measure up to this challenge.”

McNee described the fundamental purpose of the UN as four-fold: that of maintaining international peace and security, promoting social and economic development, supporting human rights issues and the rule of law, and overseeing and participating in new transnational issues such as climate change and pandemics.

Left: Glendon principal McRoberts with ambassador McNee

In describing Canada’s reputation within the UN, John McNee stated that Canada commands great respect among the participants. It is one of the founding members and a financial contributor, at the level of $246 million per year, or 3% of the UN’s overall budget – an amount that is proportional to Canada’s GDP. More importantly, Canada is seen as constructive and useful in finding practical solutions to problems. Canada contributes important ideas and an unusually high proportion of outstanding people to the UN, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and Daniel Bellemare, Commissioner of the International Independent Commission, and Prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

“It is not surprising that so many Canadians achieve such high positions [at the UN]”, added McNee. “Canadians have important skills and an excellent education; they are bilingual, they have experience and the ability to work with others.” What Canada benefits in return for this service is the ability to leverage the use of UN funds it contributes, and the implementation of numerous Canadian ideas which have become mainstays of UN activities. As an example, the creation of the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund was a Canadian idea, with $24 million as its base holdings. Replacing the old system of collecting money for aid during or after emergencies – uncertain in its scope and speed – the UN is now able to respond immediately and equitably when such a need arises. As the originator of this idea, Canada had influence in how this fund was shaped and defined. Canada also has influence on many other UN priorities in all of its activities.

But recent transnational problems have also revealed deep tensions affecting the decisions made by the UN. McNee outlined the conflict between the old doctrine of countries protecting their sovereignty, and the responsibility to protect populations where human rights do not prevail. “The UN has taken leadership in several transnational and global issues, notably on the topic of climate change”, he added, but also pointed out the difficulty in bringing 192 countries to a consensus, in particular, the major emitters of greenhouse gases.

John McNee with his former history professor, Albert Tucker: professor emeritus and former principal of Glendon

McNee closed his lecture by revisiting his question of the UN’s ability to measure up to today’s problems. In his view, the challenges facing Canada and the world today need international cooperation, with the leadership of the UN and other international organizations. But the UN itself has many problems to overcome. There are deep divisions and significant disagreement over priorities between the developed and the developing member nations. There is also a “values” divide, with differences in interpretations on human rights and other major issues. “The UN can and should be the answer to the world’s current problems”, concluded McNee, “provided it can make the transition to 21st-century needs and restructure itself as a modern, effective organization.”

Right: Consul General of France in Toronto Philippe Delacroix with John McNee

The public lecture at Glendon was attended by several of McNee’s former professors, notably retired history professor Don Pilgrim, who taught him Renaissance and Reformation History and Historiography; and professor emeritus and former principal of Glendon Albert Tucker, who taught him British Social History, both in the early 1970s. “John and I had long talks about his future at that time”, said Tucker. “It was obvious that he had a brilliant future ahead of him.” Other distinguished members of the audience included former president of York University Lorna Marsden, and M. Philippe Delacroix, Consul General of France in Toronto.

More about John McNee:

As Canada's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, John McNee represents our country in the General Assembly and before the Security Council since July 1, 2006. McNee was previously Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg from 2004 to 2006. He joined the Department of External Affairs in 1978 and served abroad in Madrid, London and Tel Aviv. From 1993 to 1997, he was Ambassador to Syria and Lebanon (1993-1995).

At Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, he served in the Policy Development Secretariat and in the Canada-United States Transboundary Division. He also served there as Director, Personnel Division, and as Director General, Middle East, North Africa and Gulf States Bureau. He was Assistant Deputy Minister, Africa and Middle East from 2001-2004. McNee also served on Prime Minister Trudeau's Task Force on International Peace and Security and at the Privy Council Office.

John McNee holds a BA in History (Glendon, 1973) and an MA in History from Cambridge University (UK, 1975). He was a Canada Scholar at Cambridge, 1973-1975.

Submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on December 13, 2007