OTTAWA – The head of a new international commission wants Canada’s tough-talking foreign affairs minister to help him reform the United Nations World Health Organization because it responded too slowly to the Ebola crisis.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is the head of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and he slipped into Ottawa largely unnoticed this past week to meet one of his co-chairs: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Baird and Borge Brende, his Norwegian counterpart, are co-chairing the commission.
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It aims to repair what many see as an ineffective UN system to help it cope better with threats to global security such as terrorism and international pandemics.
Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have frequently criticized the UN, the world’s largest multilateral body, as being ineffective and inward looking.
Many international observers, including the departing French ambassador to Canada this past week, have noted with alarm that the Harper government is pulling away from the UN.
But Rudd says Baird’s tough-minded approach makes him a good fit as a partner over the next two years as he seeks concrete ways to make the WHO more efficient.
Rudd said he’s focusing on recommendations that will help make key UN institutions run better. That includes the decades-long aspiration to reform the Security Council, which has been hopelessly deadlocked on the Syrian crisis.
Rudd has also joined other critics who have blasted the WHO for being too slow to respond to the West Africa Ebola outbreak.
“In the 21st century, with globalization and mass communication, mass movements of people, we must have a fully competent integrated global health system which can say, ‘we have a problem,’ and send a red flare up straight away,” Rudd said in an interview on Friday.
The problem, he said, is not with the leadership of WHO director general Margaret Chan, but with structural problems that give regional federations within the organization a veto over its Geneva headquarters.
“That’s wrong; that has to change,” said Rudd, adding Baird is just the person to help him to “structurally alter the rules” of the WHO.
“He’s what I would call a pragmatic internationalist. And it’s practical problem-solving, rather than having a seminar on castles in the air” that will lead to change, said Rudd.
“He speaks with a high degree of credibility from a realist perspective; he wants to see the UN function and function effectively.”
Rudd addressed top-level managers and experts within Foreign Affairs, and said he wants to tap them to help him in his two-year mandate to recommend changes to UN institutions.
He said Canadian officials “know the UN system backwards” and have decades of experience.
“You have institutional cred and grunt because you are a middle power, which over decades has contributed so much to the UN system,” he said.
Rudd’s upbeat assessment on Canada’s engagement with the UN is in contrast to a view presented earlier in the week by the French ambassador, who said he’s noticed Canada distancing itself from the institution in recent years.
Philippe Zeller cited the Harper government’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention to Combat Desertification and its decisions not to join the Arms Trade Treaty or ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
“When it’s such a question as to how to deal with desertification – well, it’s difficult to accept, to see a leader like Canada, countries that are known for having developed aid policy since the 1960s, to decide to go out.”
The UN desertification convention fights the spread of droughts. Harper has said Canada withdrew because the program is too bureaucratic.
Rudd’s commission was launched last fall by the International Peace Institute, a non-profit think tank headquartered next to the UN in New York City.
Baird has been outspoken about the need for the UN to reform, but has usually singled out the UN Human Rights Commission for criticism, not the WHO.