What is the significance of Canada’s UN vote in favour of Palestinian self-determination?

On November 19, Canada voted along with 163 countries in favour of a draft UN resolution affirming the Palestinian right to self determination. The vote was immediately denounced by prominent Jewish Canadian organizations including CIJA and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. But it was praised by several Canadian human rights groups What was its real significance? What does it mean in practice? Read more…

In what has become an annual ritual at the United Nations, a package of 16 resolutions on the “Palestine question” is tabled every fall at the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

The resolutions have a strong symbolic significance. Generally, they support the Palestinian cause and are very critical of Israel. Every year they are upheld overwhelmingly by the General Assembly with only a few countries siding with Israel in opposition. In the past few years these have been USA, Canada, Australia and a few tiny island nations in the Pacific whose main interest appears to be keeping onside with the USA.

But while the resolutions do reflect world-wide support for the Palestinians, they are also largely “international political theatre” because General Assembly resolutions are not enforceable. And some countries simply use them as a platform to buff up their “anti colonial’ credentials on an international stage.

There is lots of hypocrisy on display. Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries are frequently among the countries voting and making speeches at the UNGA to support the Palestinian cause, while at the same time cutting agreements with the Israelis that go directly opposite to Palestinian interests. (In fact, according to Israeli sources, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in a secret meeting with Saudi Prince MBS almost at the same time the UN resolution was under consideration.)

Canadian voting has sharply moved closer to Israel

Since 2004, Canadian voting has gradually moved its votes from showing (at least nominal) support for human rights for Palestinians in favour of advocating for Israel. This evolution began under Prime Minister Paul Martin and his pro-Zionist Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, and accelerated further under Prime Minister Harper. Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has prepared a handy interactive dashboard that graphically illustrates this evolution.

The evolution of Canadian voting at the UN on the Israel/Palestine issue. In 2000 (at right) Canada mostly voted in favour of human rights for Palestinians (green boxes). By 2019 (at left) we were voting in defense of Israel in almost every vote. (source: CJPME)

A Canadian vote in favour of “Palestinian self-determination”

In 2019, and again this year, Canada broke ranks with Israel on ONE of the 16 resolutions. We joined 163 other countries declaring support for the Palestinian right of self-determination. Only five countries – Israel, the USA, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru voted against it.

The Canadian vote was significant in three ways.

  1. It showed Canadian independence from the USA. There should be little doubt that the USA wanted Canada to vote against the motion along with those tiny Pacific islands. But Canada chose to align itself with its European and other like-minded allies over the United States.
  2. By asserting the Palestinian right to self determination, Canada is explicitly expressing its disagreement with Israel’s recently passed “Nation State law”. which claims that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”
  3. It is one of Canada’s scarce actions in support of its long standing official policy in support of the “two state solution”. In 1947, Canada voted in favour of partitioning historic Palestine in order to create two states – a Jewish one and an Arab one. The Jewish state – Israel – did come into being in 1948 which Canada recognized in 1949. But Canada has done very little to support the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, while Israel works hard to undermine that possibility, by expanding settlements, demolishing Palestinian homes, ethnically cleansing Jerusalem, even bombing Gaza, Canada has stood by, hardly saying a word.

The Canadian vote is also “domestic political theatre”

The decision on which way Canada will vote on these resolutions is customarily a domestic political decision made by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Of course, Canada’s Ambassador at the UN, the Hon. Bob Rae who happily describes himself as a Zionist, will no doubt have a say. As does the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Francois Philippe Champagne. But according to insiders at Global Affairs Canada, the final call on Canada’s positioning on the Israel/Palestine file is determined “downtown” (i.e. by the PMO.)

This year, Canada voted WITH Israel and AGAINST the Palestinians on 15 of the 16 MOTIONS tabled in the UNGA. In domestic politics, it would appear, considerations of “ethics, human rights or the promotion of democracy”, are trumped by a cold political calculus.

Liberal strategists know that human rights for Palestinians are very far from the top of the political agenda for most Canadians who are more concerned about COVID, climate change, unemployment and a dozen other pressing issues.

But it is of high concern for Canada’s Jewish community and for Canada’s much smaller (and badly organized) Palestinian community. In this unequal competition the Palestinians (even including their Canadian supporters) have little to offer the Liberals in terms of either electoral or financial support.

And yet more theatre...

Virtually all of the significant Zionist organizations including CIJA, Bnai Brith Canada, and Simon Wiesenthal Foundation) came out with a strong public attack against the Liberals for their single pro-Palestinian vote.

But that too, is a bit of theatre. Every year CIJA and the others are routinely CONSULTED by the government BEFORE the UN vote. While they express outrage, they all know what is going to happen. It actually suits their purposes because it allows them to demonstrate to their base just how steadfastly they are willing to stand up to the Prime Minister.

Ironically, that attack by the Zionist organizations may also have served the Liberal’s objectives as well. Being attacked for voting against Israel on one of the 16 resolutions provides hope to the Liberal party’s “left wing” that they can still win the party over to more progressive positions on this issue. It prevents the NDP from being able to present itself as the only important party concerned about human rights for Palestinians.

Finally it allows the Liberals to also hold out an olive branch to liberal Zionist Jews who are deeply concerned about the rightward drift of the major Jewish organizations like CIJA, Bnai Brith and others. It would be more accurate, (..) if the organizations in question would make clear that they speak on behalf of themselves and not the Jewish community at large,” commented Jon Allen, a former Canadian Ambassador to Israel.


Even before being elected, Prime Minister Trudeau made no secret of the fact that he would have Israel’s “back” He has faithfully carried out his promises made to various Jewish groups across the country – at the UN, in trade deals and elsewhere.

Of course the UN vote and Canada’s participation is significant. It reflects a world-wide acceptance of the right of the Palestinian people to exist and be recognized as a people.

But looking at the whole suite of UN votes, in which Canada voted with Israel 15 times out of 16, it seems clear that the Trudeau Liberals feel that there is more to be gained in voting in defense of Israel than in defending the human rights of Palestinians.

“The Zionist narrative of the need for a Jewish State remains very powerful”, noted Palestinian American intellectual Dr. Rashid Khalidi in a recent OFIP webinar. The Liberal calculation is not likely to change until a lot more Canadians are aware of, and show concern for, the plight of the Palestinians.

NOTE: Last week’s vote was on a draft resolution in the UN’s Third Committee. The resolution now heads to the UN General Assembly for debate and vote in plenary session in December. While countries almost always vote the same in plenary as they do in committee, one can anticipate continuing behind-the-scenes pressure on Canada to reverse its position – and another opportunity for the lobby to make noise and self-promote.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org.


  1. The Canadian Jewish organizations complained that the resolution “affirms Palestinian self-determination, while failing to affirm Jewish self-determination in the indigenous and ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.” This complaint recognizes that when two or more groups have the same “ancestral homeland” they cannot both have the right of self-determination. Both Jews and non Jews can claim Palestine as their ancestral homeland. Sharing the land that they always shared is the only solution.

    1. No, the resolution confirms an equal right of Palestinian self determination ( to Israeli Jewish self determination) therebye directly contributing to the UN plan for sharing the land between 2 equal states of Israel and Palestine. It contributes directly to a 2 state soln that would end occupation and oppression and conflict. As such it is totally in accord with Canadian and international policy.

      The opposition by Canadian pro Israel lobby groups is natural propaganda and politics since they recognize the Jewish claim to all of the land, reject any Palestinian state claims and default to the view that all the land is disputed to justify continuing Israeli occupation, annexation and maintenance of elements of apartheid and discrimination.

      As Jon Allan the Canadian Amb to Israrl has poiinted out there is nothing new in this resolution which along with others have been around for decades. I worked on them in the Middle East division in Global affairs under Chretien where Canada usually vored with moderate Euros and rarely opposed before Pm Martin and Harper adopted a totally pro Israel apprioach followed by Trudeau’s slight adjustment. There is little or no merit to argument that there are too many UN resolutions on Israel Palestine aince if they had been. implemented there would be no need of them.

  2. Hello, Peter,Good piece. Do you have access to the full text of Amb. Rae’s explanati

      1. I see many flaws in the statement that Mr. Rae read.

        One problem is that it is talking about states when he should be thinking about individuals. Even if the governing bodies on all sides were able to agree a division of Palestine, there would be many individuals who felt that they were being deprived of their rights. There would be Jews who (citing Biblical stories) felt that they had the right to live in the Palestinian controlled area and Arabs who wanted to return to their ancestral towns and lands. There would be people from both groups who had a choice between living as a hated minority in their assigned state, or leaving their homes and moving to another area. Perhaps Mr. Rae forgets that we are supposed to protect human rights, not state’s rights.

        Another problem with Mr. Rae’s call to return to negotiations is that during those negotiations, the areas occupied by Jews would grow, and those available to non-Jews would shrink (as they have been doing from the start.

        In no way would such an agreement give any side “self-determination”. Each side would be restricted. Saying that both sides should have the right to self-determination ignores the fact that it is impossible to satisfy the demands of both sides. I do not believe that Mr. Rae is stupid enough not to see that.

    1. The UN’s press release of the meeting summarized Amb. Rae’s statement as follows:

      “The representative of Canada, noting that his country is a strong ally of Israel, said it is also committed to the goal of just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian State living in peace with Israel. Canada supports the draft resolution because of its focus on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.”

      The UN has posted a video of the meeting, at http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/general-assembly/main-committees/3rd-committee/watch/third-committee-14th-meeting-general-assembly-75th-session/6211097852001/. Consideration of this resolution starts at 1:25:38. You can view Amb. Rae’s full statement, beginning at 1:37:27.

  3. Ambassador Rae is both supporting and dissembling about a 2 state solution and the effectiveness and level of Canada’s support for it..

    He does not mention the stated current obdurate opposition of Israel to an independent and equal Palestinian state including its recent attempts to annex more land and continuing illegal settlement activities and ongoing occupation, blockade and oppression which makes such a 2 state solution increasingly impossible and by extension makes these resolutions a yearly necessity. Rae makes no reference to the UN special Rep on Palestinian rights Cdn Mr. Lynke.

    For the UN to have any positive effect on a 2 state sokution, Amb Rae should be encouraging universal recognition of the state of Palestine at the UN and then insisting on diplomatic practiise and arrangements between Israel and Palestine that will make this a reality. In this regard, Rae might have noted that the 1 sided Trump plan that excluded the Palestinians is now dead and should be assigned to the dustbin of history and that such a state must be based on UN precedents.

    He should also be warning that if the right of Palestinian self determination 8n their own state is put off much longer the focus will be on Palestinians achieving their equal rights and ending occupation apartheid elements within a unitary or bnational Israel. Palestine Arab Pals now outnumber Jews from the river to the sea..

    Hence he should stress it is in the stste of Israel’s ovveriding interest if it wants acceptance and status as a Jewish, democrstic human rights respecting state to cooperate within the UN system in all ways, – rather than crying discrimination – on the immediate establishment and full recognition of the state of Palestine which sits in the same UN forum and where cooperation could be easily effected.

    As Cda’s UN Ambo Mr Rae should pledge Canada’ support for such a 2 state solution of Israel Palestine at the UN in context of these UN resolutions.

  4. Frankly, Rae once again comes across as the convenient idiot who acknowledges the Palestinian rights, while pretending Isreal isn’t actively working fulltime to smother the entire Palestinian region in dispute with more and more new Israeli bodies, buildings and fences.
    In essence, Rae endorses Israel’s every effort to encroach on Palestinian zones, while paying mere lip service to Palestinian self-determination.
    I do not assume by any means that he is acting out of an abundance of naivity.

  5. George Jacoby, in his comments above, points out that Mr, Rae makes no reference to Mr. Micheal Lynk ( from Canada) , the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Since his appointment in 2016, Mr. Lynk has not been permitted to enter Israel. Perhaps this is why Mr, Rae did not mention him or his reports.

    1. Hey Stephen C and Allan,
      I actually think you are both selling Mr. Rae a little short. He is a true liberal Zionist. I think he approves of the idea of Palestinian self-determination… but only on 22% of historic Palestine. In fact, I think Rae would privately agree with most of the criticisms of Israel’s actions in the “Occupied Territories” that Lynk so clearly exposes, although I don’t think his government would allow him to say so for political reasons.

      As a Zionist (albeit a liberal one), Rae believes that Jews NEED AND DESERVE a state of their own, and seems to feel that it is fair that Israel keep 78% (and almost all of the fertile land) while giving a tiny bit (mostly desert) to the Palestinians to have a “State” of their own.

      It’s hard for an outside person (ie who is not a party to one side or the other) to think this is fair or reasonable.

      1. Rae also does not seem to mind that the tiny state that is offered would not be a real state. It would not have control of its borders or the ability to defend itself..

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