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Canada Pulls Out of U.N. Treaty to Combat Desertification

Endless search. Even under normal conditions, families can spend several hours each day collecting water.

Oxfam East Africa

Any doubts that Canada is an "outlier" on climate change were dispelled this week, say critics, after the Conservative government announced it is withdrawing from a U.N. convention to combat desertification signed by 194 other nations.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decried the move as another sign of the Conservative's indifference to environmental protection. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "making us a rogue nation. The North Korea of environmental law," she tweeted.

Harper says his government is simply being fiscally prudent. Only 18% of the roughly CAD$350,000 per year that Canada contributed to the U.N. initiative is "actually spent on programming," he told Parliament this week during question period. "The rest goes to various bureaucratic measures. … It's not an effective way to spend taxpayers' money."

The decision to withdraw was made last week—ironically Canada Water Week—at the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Yesterday, Baird told a Parliament Hill scrum, "We're just not interested in continuing to support bureaucracies and talkfests."

The formal notice that it was pulling out of the international treaty, officially the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, was delivered to the United Nations on Monday. Canada has previously shied away from the Kyoto Protocol, and this decision is another example of U.N. bashing by the Conservative government since its unsuccessful campaign in 2010 to gain a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Withdrawal from the desertification convention suggests that Harper is still in a fit of pique.

Noting that Canada was one of the first countries to sign onto the 1994 treaty, New Democratic and foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said its decision to withdraw shows "that they either did not understand this convention, or they're willingly isolating Canada even more." The government said Canada will not attend an international scientific conference on the convention taking place next month in Bonn, Germany, and Dewar surmised that "maybe they were concerned because we hadn't been doing enough. Maybe they were concerned because they were going to be asked to do more. I don't know. … It's a real head scratcher."

Equally puzzling is that the Canadian International Development Agency has announced that its $315,000 allocation to the convention will be honored for 2013. Last week, the Conservative government unveiled a fiscal plan that merges the agency with the departments of foreign affairs and international trade so that all international activities can be aligned along government "priorities."

Maude Barlow, head of the advocacy group the Council of Canadians and author of a forthcoming book on drought, accused the government of kowtowing to industry. "This government is a total enabler of Canadian mining companies destroying local water systems in Latin America and other places," she said in a press release. "This is simply the worst signal Canada could make to the global community and it comes at the worst time." Robert Fowler, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Canadian Press that the withdrawal amounts to a "departure from global citizenship."