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UN calls Canada's pullout from drought fighting convention 'regrettable'

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OTTAWA - The United Nations said Friday that it is “regrettable” Canada will withdraw from a UN convention that fights the spread of droughts.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada was withdrawing from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification because the program has proven too bureaucratic, and not worth the $350,000 contributed each year.

The decision would make Canada the only country in the world not part of the convention.

“The Convention is stronger than ever before, which makes Canada’s decision to withdraw from the Convention all the more regrettable,” the Bonn-based secretariat for the convention said in a statement Friday.

The federal cabinet last week ordered the unannounced withdrawal on the recommendation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, ahead of a major scientific meeting on the convention next month in Germany.

The decision has led to widespread criticism of the Harper government from opposition parties, non-governmental aid agencies, civil society groups and former Canadian diplomats, including at least one former UN ambassador.

The government’s decision also caught the UN secretariat that administers the convention off guard — a spokesman was informed through a telephone call from The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

The government has said that it served formal notification to the Bonn-based secretariat and the United Nations Secretary General on Monday. On Tuesday, the government posted the order on an obscure website, and it was found by The Canadian Press.

The government did not issue a news release about its withdrawal plans.

In Friday’s statement, the secretariat – also known as the UNCCD – said Canada formally notified it on Thursday.

“Canada, a country that is frequently subjected to drought and where 60 per cent of the cropland is in dry areas, is also a major actor in global efforts to address food security in developing countries,” the UNCCD said.

The UN body said Canada’s annual contribution of $291,000 – less than the $350,000 the government says it was paying – accounted for 3.1 per cent of its budget.

It said the Canadian government and “Canadian civil society have played significant roles in moving the Convention to where it is today.”

In 2007, Canada along with the other 194 countries that are party to the convention agreed to a 10-year strategy to “enhance the implementation of the Convention as a blue print for a more effective and efficient process grounded on a strong and cutting-edge science,” Friday's statement said.

The government's decision to pull Canada out of the convention came less than a month before a major scientific gathering to be hosted by the Bonn-based secretariat of the UN convention.

The meetings, set to begin April 9, would have forced Canada to confront scientific analysis on the effects of climate change, droughts and encroaching deserts. The Harper government has been vilified an as outlier on climate change policy in past international meetings.

“The next gathering of the scientific conference, in two weeks, is expected to deliver a major breakthrough by presenting the first ever cost-benefit analysis of desertification and sustainable land management,” said the UNCCD’s Friday statement.

“Canada played crucial roles in both processes. Crucially, these processes have also moved the actions taken by parties to a result-based management approach where performance and impact are not only measured using indicators, but also assessed and monitored every two years.”

Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, has accused the government of pulling out of the convention because it does not want to confront the scientific realities of climate change at the upcoming Bonn meetings.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian International Development agency has said that even though Canada would make good on its $315,000 commitment for 2013, it would not be attending the upcoming science meeting in Bonn.

Parties planning to opt out of the convention have to give one-year notice.

Harper told the House of Commons this week that less than one-fifth of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the convention goes to programming, while Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the entire process a "talkfest'' that does a disservice to Canadian taxpayers.

In its Friday statement, the UNCCD said it believed Canada would "seize every opportunity to sustain the implementations of the convention for the good of present and future generations."

The government has denied repeated requests to interview International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, the minister responsible for CIDA.

Baird was travelling Friday, as he begin a lengthy trip to the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Europe.

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