Canada and the UN in the 21st Century: An Interview with Kathryn White
Kathryn White is the current president and CEO of the United Nations Association in Canada and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. She sat down with the MIR’s Stephen Friedrich to discuss her work and the future of Canada in the UN and the challenges the international community will face in the coming years.
STEPHEN FRIEDRICH: For our readers who may not be familiar with the work of UNA Canada, so, in a short summary, what exactly is your mission? What are you seeking to accomplish?
KATHRYN WHITE: The United Nations organization in Canada is an historic Canadian civil society organization. We’re celebrating our 70th anniversary this year. We are a founding member of the world federation of UNAs, of which there are a 110 or so in the world, and I have the privilege of serving as the elected president of the organization. The mandate of the UNA Canada is to educate and engage Canadians on international issues of concern to us all and on the UN, of course. We also work internationally where we can build the capacity of other civil society organizations and meet overarching development objectives.
You were president of UNA Canada for 12 years. How has the role of Canada in the United Nations and the role of UNA Canada changed during that time?
This is a very complex question, very complex. I came to the organization during a minority government and of course subsequently a Conservative government that not only did not really believe in the United Nations per se but actually eroded our relationship with the organization in a number of ways, some quite apparent. You know, the Prime Minister going to the opening of a Tim Horton’s instead of speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, as an example. And so in a way, it means we had to transform what we did. I often refer to a what a civil society organization does is basically: we’re a disruptive small business. We have to look at places where we can make a strategic difference, bring awareness of issues that we really believe we can get some traction on and make some change on and at the same time encourage citizens who are committed to the organization that their voice can be heard in the organization. But I have to tell you it was quite challenging, I worked very hard to make sure that I was able to get into political offices, and I was. What I would say then is that therefore I had influence but no power. And in a way of course I’m only understanding it – I mean I’m still a victim of my own context – I’m only understanding it with a new government that has dramatically turned the page on how they see this relationship.
That ties into my next question: recently, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that he intended to pursue a UNSC seat for Canada. Do you see this as closer to your organization’s vision of how Canada should operate in the UN? What is that vision for Canada’s role in the UN and on the world stage generally?
We would like to see Canada more involved. Let me add to you about our mandate, which is: we’re not a blind cheerleading agency for the UN. We don’t see it as a perfect institution. We see it as an essential institution and want to make sure that it has the ability and the capacity to the most efficient and effective it can in the world. Having said that, in terms of Canada, of course I want Canada more present. But that doesn’t just mean on the Security Council. It means I want young staffers to be hired and to be promoted, and that means that our government has to be shoving them forward. I want more young Canadians to be deployed to UN agencies which is one of our missions and one of our mandates.
Moving beyond the Security Council, I know you personally have done a lot of work on pandemic response and on women and development, both of which are obviously highly related to the Zika pandemic in Central and South America. How would you rate the international national response to the pandemic?
As you know, I’ve published an article on the role of civil society in pandemics, and it changed. This is important to know – individuals and organizations can change the UN system. It changed the architecture of the UN. The Secretary General had named an advisor, David Nabarro to deal with [Ebola]. It is actually quite remarkable. Sometimes institutions can ossify, and from time to time we need to be kicked – whether it’s civil society organizations, whether it’s bureaucracies or UN agencies. I think we have to continue to integrate best practices and so on. I’d certainly like to see that and I think that Canada can have a role in doing this. One of the few senior Canadians in the UN system right now is Bruce Aylward at the WHO, assistant to the Secretary General. [Canadians in the UN] dealt with SARS, people who were dropping dead because they breathed the air near someone else. We had this moment, and I think we can have that moment again.
Looking forward 10-15 years down the line, what do you see as the coming challenges that the international community is going to face? What kinds of responses do you think the current and future Canadian governments can do to address them?
It’s an interesting question because of course I have to think of the political as well as the speculative. In other words, it’s outside of an election cycle and it would be a third term or a new government. In a way, what I hope happens between now and then before envisioning what comes after then is that Canada has enough successes through the UN system on its strategic priorities that in ten years it sees that it must be there, whatever the ideology of the day is. As I’ve often argued, if you’re a conservative and only believe in trade, you need to sit at the UN because that’s how you build friends. Our borders are loosening. Canada and to some extent the United States is protected by oceans, [but] we’ll have issues with the Arctic. The world is going to change physically and our understanding of it is going to change physically. I think that an organization like the UN is essential to bring disparate thought, conflicting views, but creating new norms. For getting plastics out of the ocean, how we could possibly screw up the north, trans-national crime,what are the norms that we can set as much as possible? These issues, I think, will continue to be with us. And I think the other issue that concerns me is the world of work and young people. You know, as we come up with more and more disruptive technologies, how will we be viewing that and how will we see our identity if we’re not engaged in meaningful work? How can states and therefore the UN help think about those issues? On the technical side, what about new technologies like drones? If we’re using them both to deliver makeup or dresses that we’ve ordered online and we’re using it to bomb – to engage in transnational crime – I think these are going to be pressing issues that are going to confront us for some time to come.
One more question – a lot of the challenges you just mentioned involve to a significant extent the power of non-state actors. How do you see the – as the international community and the UN are built around state actors – the system adapting to challenges that are beyond its purview, like transnational crime?
I believe first of all it is a way to galvanize sovereign states, to realize that their borders are porous and therefore they must cooperate and that is the only way forward. It may even be, if we’re focusing on eliminating vector-borne diseases or transnational crime, may even bring us together in some way.
Correction: The previous version of this interview mistakenly listed Ms. White as the former CEO and President of UNA-Canada, when in fact she retains the role in addition to being vice-president of the WFUNA. The MIR regrets the error.