Is the UN the answer to the world’s needs in the 21st century?

What is Canada’s role at the UN, how effective is it, and how does the world view this country’s contribution to UN activities? These were some of the questions Ambassador John McNee, Canada’s permanent representative to the UN and a York alumnus, addressed at a public lecture titled "Canada at the UN", at York’s Glendon campus on Dec. 12.

McNee, who graduated from Glendon in 1973 with a BA in history, said the the UN’s traditional goal of peacekeeping is a fundamental element of Canada’s national identity, but there is a need for "facts not fervour" when evaluating the UN’s 60 years of activities and Canada’s participation in them.

Right: John McNee

"We need to examine not only whether Canada serves the UN well, but also how well the UN serves Canada," said McNee.

He explained 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, peacekeeping and peacemaking. He pointed to the importance of the UN’s participation in rescue missions after the 2004 Asian tsunami, 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 and the real question is whether it will measure up to this challenge," said McNee.

He described the fundamental purpose of the UN as four-fold: 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.

Right: Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts (left) with John McNee

In describing Canada’s reputation within the UN, McNee said 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 three per cent 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]," said 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.

McNee closed his lecture by revisiting his question of whether or not the UN has the 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.

Left: John McNee (left) and Professor Emeritus Albert Tucker, former principal of Glendon and McNee’s former history professor

"The UN has taken leadership in several transnational and global issues, notably on the topic of climate change," said McNee. 

The UN, however, has many problems to overcome. Recent transnational problems have 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. 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.

He also pointed out the difficulty in bringing 192 countries to a consensus, in particular, the major emitters of greenhouse gases.

"The UN can and should be the answer to the world’s current problems provided it can make the transition to 21st-century needs and restructure itself as a modern, effective organization," said McNee.

More about John McNee

As Canada’s permanent representative to the UN, John McNee has represented Canada in the General Assembly and before the Security Council since July 1, 2006. McNee was previously ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg from 2004-2006. He joined the former Department of External Affairs in 1978 and served abroad in Madrid, London and Tel Aviv. From 1993-1997, he was ambassador to Syria and Lebanon from 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 of the personnel division and as director general for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf States bureau. He was assistant deputy minister for Africa and Middle East from 2001-2004. McNee also served on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Task Force on International Peace and Security and at the Privy Council Office.

In additition to his York BA, McNee holds an MA (‘75) in history from Cambridge University. He was a Canada Scholar at Cambridge from 1973-1975.

Submitted to Y File by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.