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Canada on the (UN Security) Council.

Canada, recently elected to the United Nations Security Council for the fifth time, first served in 1948 and 1949. At that time I was with British United Press in New York, and covering Canada's activities at the UN was part of my beat. The Canadian delegation was in the Rockefeller Center, about an hour's drive from the Sperry Gyroscope plant on Long Island, where the Security Council met while the UN waited for its Manhattan headquarters to be finished.

Canada's ambassador was General A.G.L. McNaughton, whose typically Canadian approach to controversial issues involved searching for a solution acceptable to all parties. His instructions, drafted in the very early days of the cold war, set out the main lines Canada would follow in taking up its new responsibilities. `The Canadian representative on the Security Council ... should do everything he can to halt the deterioration in relations between the Great Powers, or failing that, to ensure that any conflict will be waged collectively and with an overwhelming superiority of power on the side of the western democracies. In following this principle, he will be concerning himself directly with the interest which Canada has in peace and security.'

The instructions noted that Council membership could involve Canada speaking out on issues which might seem to be outside its national interests and on which it might otherwise remain silent. `The judgments ... on United Nations matters must therefore be made with care and a sense of responsibility.' The ambassador was also briefed on the need for Canada `to establish and maintain a position of independence' and to avoid the possibility that `unfriendly observers will write us off as a satellite' of either the United States or Britain.(1)

It is worth noting that there was no mention of peacekeeping. That response to an international crisis did not come until 1956, when it was proposed by Canada's Lester Pearson as a way out of the Suez crisis. Nor is there any mention of human rights. That should not be surprising; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not adopted by the General Assembly until 10 December 1948.

The presidency of the Security Council rotated monthly. In February 1948, Canada assumed the presidency for the first time. The Council met 23 times in 29 days, mainly to debate three major items on the agenda: Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan were fighting; Indonesia, where the Netherlands and Indonesians were struggling over the political future of the colony; and the future of Palestine after the British mandate ended.

The Kashmir debates were memorable for the length of the speeches by Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan of Pakistan and Mr Ayyanger of India. They were lengthy (I believe they set a record that lasted many years), but they were also brilliant expressions of partisan positions. McNaughton's efforts to find common ground were fruitless, and he persuaded the Council to send the two men back to report to their governments and ask for new instructions.

In January 1948, the Netherlands and the Indonesian resistance signed a truce and an agreement on the principles for a political settlement. However, fighting broke out again in December, followed by a year of good offices and negotiations. The formal transfer of power took place in December 1949, and in September 1950 Indonesia became a member of the United Nations.

Britain was anxious to give up the mandate for Palestine bestowed upon it by the League of Nations. In May 1947, Canada had become one of 11 members of the Special Committee on Palestine, established by the General Assembly to make recommendations for the country's future. The committee recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem under a special UN trusteeship and the three entities linked by an economic union. This basic concept went through many variations, while violence continued in Palestine. When the British mandate expired on 14 May, a Jewish state, to be known as Israel, was immediately proclaimed, and the Arabs responded with an armed attack.

The UN did have one success during those early days, though it started with tragedy. Sweden's Count Folke Bernadotte was appointed mediator to ensure the protection of the Holy Places and to promote a peaceful settlement. On 17 September 1948, he was assassinated, allegedly by Itzhak Shamir, of the Stern Gang, who later became prime minister of Israel. Ralph Bunche, a US citizen on the UN staff, was appointed acting mediator, and, by great perseverance, he succeeded in negotiating armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. These, however, did not last.

If the UN's objective was to end the British mandate, one might say it was successful. However, peace, security, and statehood still elude Palestine, and the Security Council has been wrestling with these issues ever since.

George Ignatieff was the number two man on the Canadian delegation during Canada's first term on the Security Council in 1948. When he was transferred to Washington to take part in the negotiations over the North Atlantic Treaty, he was succeeded by Arnold smith, who later became the first secretary-general of the Commonwealth. The next man in line was John Starnes, who held several ambassadorial positions before becoming the first civilian director of the Security Service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Other members of the delegation were Harry Carter, George Grande, and Sidney Freifeld, all of whom became Canadian ambassadors. It was a distinguished group, and one that was invariably helpful to a young reporter.

There were, of course, stories which did not get written. For instance, the one about the American ambassador, a retired senator from Vermont, a true gentleman, and widely respected. He once mused that he wished the Arabs and Jews would behave in a Christian manner... Looking back at Canada's first term on the Security Council, perhaps the most obvious reflection is how little the issues have changed in fifty years. But the work of the Security Council should not be judged on that basis alone. It has had many successes over the years, and it will be interesting to see what Canada can contribute this time around.

Robert Reford is a former Executive Director of the CIIA.

(1) . Hector Mackenzie, ed, Documents on Canadian External Relations. 14: 1948 (Ottawa: Canada Communication Group 1994), 120-6. (Of course, as a reporter I did not have access to this document.)
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Author:Reford, Robert
Publication:Behind the Headlines
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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