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At a summit of 53 Francophone countries last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed what it means to be a great power.
Standing alone on principle, Canada forced the conference to introduce a modicum of balance into a lopsidedly anti-Israel statement on the recent war in Lebanon.
At the end of the summit on Friday, Egypt proposed an amendment, as a Lebanese minister put it, to "condemn the war because it was deplorable â€¦ Everyone agreed accept Canada."
In a press conference scheduled just before the last-minute crisis had been resolved, Harper explained Canada's veto: "The [Egyptian] amendment wants to recognize and deplore the war and recognize the victims of Lebanon. We are able to deplore the war, we are able to recognize the victims, but on both sides. â€¦ The Francophonie cannot recognize victims according to their nationality. Recognize the victims of Lebanon and the victims of Israel.'"
Harper added that his goal in opposing the Egyptian amendment was to shape the resolution so as to "avoid a similar attack on Israel in the future, a similar response and a similar result."
About an hour later, a compromise proposed by France was accepted unanimously. The adopted resolution stated: "In deploring the tragedy in Lebanon and its dramatic consequences for all of the civilian populations, we call for a total cessation of hostilities and a return to calm in Lebanon."
Note that the improved resolution is far from a fair reflection of reality, let alone "pro-Israel." It did not blame Hizbullah for starting the war on July 12 with its initial cross-border bombardment, kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and killing of eight other soldiers, nor did it call for the soldiers' unconditional release, as did UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
But the rejected Egyptian amendment had nothing to do with being fair, constructive, or promoting peace; it was a pure, old-fashioned power play led by Arab states. These states expected the attending democracies to meekly go along with yet another rewriting of history, largely unnoticed among the heaps of other such resolutions that are routinely passed.
France's reaction to Canada's principled stance reflected exactly such cynical complacency. French President Jacques Chirac said that Harper's position flew in the face of "the great majority" of countries at the summit. Chirac did not say that Harper was wrong and - by proposing a compromise that did grudgingly imply recognition of Israeli civilian suffering - admitted that Harper was right.
Harper's veto was the latest reflection of a positive shift in Canadian foreign policy toward Israel. An ambassador, Yvon Charbonneau, who had been appointed by a previous government despite a long history of animus toward Israel, was removed from his post at UNESCO. In July, Canada voted against a resolution condemning Israeli actions against Palestinians, arguing that it was biased.
This is a refreshing change in Canadian policy that seems to have accelerated under the new conservative government, formed in February. In 2003, for example, out of 18 UN General Assembly resolutions that were unbalanced against Israel, Canada voted for 13 and abstained on 5 resolutions. In 2005, Canada voted for "only" 11 anti-Israel resolutions, voted with Israel four times, and abstained twice.
We hope this tally, kept by the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, will improve dramatically in the UN session that has just begun. Though some critics of Canada's emerging stance warn that Ottawa is losing its moral voice and stance as an "honest broker," the opposite is the case.
As the voting records show, Canada is still voting against more often than it votes with Israel. If such a record is deemed "pro-Israel," it is clearly so only in relation to the extremely unfair treatment Israel receives in international bodies. But even if Canada voted with Israel on every biased UN resolution, this would not make Canada blindly pro-Israel; it would only mean that Canada had decided to courageously support basic principles of fairness and constructiveness that every democracy should proudly uphold.
In the meantime, Canadians should be proud of their government's leadership, which put France, the titular head of the Francophone summit, to shame. France revealed that it could not stand up to the "great majority" when that majority was clearly in the wrong. Canada has proved that it could, giving hope not only for Canada, but for free nations the world over.