Canada only UN member to pull out of droughts and deserts convention
Published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 5:50PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, March 27, 2013 11:13PM EDT
The Conservative government is pulling out of a United Nations convention aimed at fighting droughts and desertification in Africa, making Canada the only country in the world to leave the agreement.
The withdrawal from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification was ordered last week by the federal cabinet on the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, but only made public Wednesday.
Every UN nation -- a total of 194 countries and the European Union -- is part of the convention. Canada was one of the first countries to sign the UNCCD in 1994. Now it is the first to walk away.
Sources told CTV News that the decision was made more than a year ago as part of the government’s plan to cut the deficit. It was announced to the affected departments a few months ago and there was little, if any, consultation, they said.
Meanwhile, just two weeks ago, Canada attended a high-level meeting about the issue in Geneva, Switzerland.
At the Geneva meeting, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada manager Harvey Hill said it was “critical” that the international committee address drought.
The UN secretariat for the convention was not aware of Canada’s withdrawal, and was only informed through a telephone call from The Canadian Press.
Baird’s office forwarded questions about the withdrawal to the Canadian International Development Agency, but CIDA did not respond to interview requests.
In an email statement, a spokesperson for International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino said "membership in this convention was costly for Canadians and showed few results, if any for the environment."
Fantino’s office would not say how much money was being saved by withdrawing from the convention, but documents show that the government committed to providing around $350,000 a year to the convention.
Fantino said Canada is focusing tax dollars where they can provide “real results,” and remains committed to fighting desertification and drought.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the move risks further isolating Canada, by indicating that the government acts outside of “international norms.”
Dewar also questions why the move went unannounced.
“Was this something they were hoping no one would notice?" Dewar asked.
Canadian NGOs told CTV News they don’t understand the move.
“The biggest impact (made by) this move, for me, is the signal it’s sending to the world,” Oxfam Canada’s Robert Fox said. “And it isn’t clear what that signal is.”
Established in 1994 following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the UNCCD aims to fight increasing desertification and land degradation.
Desertification is defined by the UN as “the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas.” It is caused when dryland ecosystems, vulnerable to over-exploitation, are used inappropriately.
Increasing desertification has been pushed to the forefront in recent years, as droughts in Africa’s Sahel belt in 2012 and East Africa in 2011 pushed millions into poverty and caused severe food crisis.
The UN says that the UNCCD is the sole legally binding international agreement that links environment and development to sustainable land management.
Canada’s withdrawal comes before a major meeting about the convention in Bonn, Germany, next month.
Major stakeholders including scientists, governments and members of civil society will be heading to the meeting, where the United Nations Environment Program plans to complete “a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of desertification, land degradation and drought.”
The analysis will be the first ever, the UNEP said.
Canada’s withdrawal from the convention will likely prompt more criticism of the Harper government’s handling of environmental issues.
Critics have already slammed the Conservatives for their track record on the environment, pointing to the decision to opt out of the Kyoto Protocol, removing protections from thousands of lakes and streams in Bill C-45, and the muzzling scientists.
“Canada has been strong supporter” of UNCCD: 2008 UN speech
Canada’s participation in the UNCCD has been overseen by CIDA.
In a report called “Canada's First Report on Domestic Activities Relevant to the United Nations Convention to Combat Diversification,” CIDA said that Canada is affected by desertification because of the “existence of drylands in the Canadian prairies.”
According to the CIDA report, the convention requires Canada to address the issue of desertification in any sustainable development plans and policies. As well, Canada would be required to report on its progress in fighting desertification.
During a May 2008 speech to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, Canada’s representative said that “Canada has been a strong supporter” of the UNCCD.
The text of the prepared speech said that Canada pledged to support the fight against desertification and drought.
With a report by CTV News’ Daniele Hamamdjian and files from The Canadian Press