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How could Canada possibly be rejected for a seat on the UN Security Council, losing by a wide margin to Portugal, a country with little international profile?

A generation ago, such an outcome would have been inconceivable. Today, sadly, it was not surprising.

Canada was once known for its internationalism. Canada created the modern concept of UN peacekeeping. It stood at the forefront of global efforts to promote human rights, such as the fight against apartheid.

When my organization, Human Rights Watch, wanted a governmental partner to help create a treaty banning landmines, we came to Ottawa, where then foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy embraced the cause. And it was another Canadian, Philippe Kirsch, who chaired the negotiations to launch the International Criminal Court, the first global war crimes tribunal, and then served as the new court's first president.

Canada is, of course, a mid-sized country, but because of its activist foreign policy, because of the values that informed its dealings with the world, it punched above its weight.

It was a nation to be contended with. It was a nation that regularly was chosen to sit on the Security Council, having served in each decade since the creation of the United Nations -- until this one.

Now, unfortunately, when it comes to the international arena, Canada is barely punching at all. It is still a member of the G8, but it is no longer seen as a strong moral voice on key international issues.

Like most western nations, it contributes few peacekeepers. When Human Rights Watch sought a governmental partner to lead our recent campaign to ban cluster munitions, we had to go to Norway instead of Canada.

Canada is the only western country to let a citizen, Omar Khadr, languish in Guantanamo, with a plea deal in the works to avoid trial by an unjust military commission.

When confronted with evidence that Canadian soldiers handed over Afghan detainees knowing they would likely be tortured, Canada sought to cover up and then deny the allegations rather than investigate.

The government endorsed a free-trade agreement with former president Alvaro Uribe's Colombia even though hundreds of Colombian trade unionists had been murdered with impunity. Canada opposed even discussing Israel's conduct in Gaza at the UN Human Rights Council, and since then has been trying to cut off funds to organizations that criticize Israel.

One can quibble with whether Canada is right or wrong on any single issue, but the pattern is deeply disappointing -- reflecting Canada's transformation from a government that regularly stood with victims of human rights abuse to one that, these days, mostly stands aside.

Canada's foreign policy was once driven to a significant extent by Stephen Harper's desire to align himself closely with George Bush, but that rationale is long gone.

The first Bush administration was openly disrespectful of human rights, sympathetic to radical right-wing views of Israel's interest, and contemptuous of international collaboration, but even the second Bush administration repudiated much of that, and Barack Obama has travelled even further toward what, ironically, might be called a traditional Canadian vision.

In Ottawa, however, Harper's foreign policy team is still acting as if 9/11 happened yesterday and George Bush is still in the White House.

One can only hope that Canada's inability to gain a Security Council seat will serve as a wake-up call. It became possible for the nations of the world to reject Canada for this leadership role because Canada no longer acts as a leader -- or at least the kind of leader that once was so widely admired.

A return to a foreign policy built around respect for human rights, multilateralism and international law will do wonders for Canada's global stature.

It will also lend a hand to the many people worldwide who once depended on Canada's assistance -- and still need its help.

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