Hudson on the Hill
During the campaign for last October’s general election – which gave the Liberals a majority in the House of Commons after a decade in the political wilderness – they promised to renew Canada’s commitment to international peacekeeping operations.
Decrying the Conservatives’ scaling back of participation in UN-centric observer and peacekeeping missions, the Liberals said the demand had never been greater. Moreover, they added, “a more peaceful world is a safer and more prosperous world for Canada.”
Prosperity, a.k.a. economic gain, is simply a fact of life for countries that engage in peacekeeping. So, too, is the political desire to score points in global standings and possibly gain a UN Security Council seat for 2021-2022 (we held one every decade since the UN’s inception, but were rebuffed in the last round of votes). “We will recommit to supporting international peace operations with the United Nations, and will make our specialized capabilities […] available on a case-by-case basis,” the Liberal platform continued.
There’s a cliché about “punching above our weight”, which the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have clearly accomplished on dozens of deployments over the decades. Now, the Liberals were promising rapidly-deployable personnel to “lead an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations” while contributing more to UN conflict-prevention, mediation, and reconstruction efforts.
After winning the election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is evidently determined to play with stronger cards at the UN table, and has doubled down on the campaign rhetoric, promising to revitalize Canada’s peacekeeping machinery while supporting civil institutions. “This is how we will build the world of tomorrow,” he told Canadian staff at UN headquarters in New York in March.
In discussions with the UN and allies Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion pursued “the optimal way for Canada to re-engage itself,” suggesting that Canada’s military contribution would focus at the training end of the spectrum.
Whether packaged as revitalization or reengagement, or both, it is evolving into the first major test for the reborn Liberals in the global arena – and at home too. This became increasingly apparent during Parliament’s summer hiatus, which included a Liberal caucus retreat in Quebec’s Saguenay region in late August. Trudeau rolled out Dion, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to announce a plan to spend $450 million over three years on a Peace and Stabilization Fund. Not all new money, it would build on a resource already managed by Dion’s department, and include a renewed $47-million fund for RCMP involvement.
The PM later added “it is important that when we go into engagements internationally that we be clear-eyed around what we hope to deliver, about what kind of support and outcomes we can offer, at how we are going to achieve those and about how we will continually evaluate whether we’re making the best contributions.”
Left unanswered were such questions as where the up to 600 military personnel and up to 150 police officers might be tasked, and what operational constraints might apply.
Top contenders for such a mission are the Central African Republic, Congo, Mali, Rwanda and South Sudan. In August, Minister Sajjan and a team of advisors visited Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Tanzania in the company of retired General Roméo Dallaire and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour – to prepare for a “whole of government effort.”
Not the cultural monolith many still see it as, Africa is a continental mixed bag of regional, religious and tribal challenges with long-standing simmering animosities that routinely boil over.
Canada’s last involvement was a UN-led mission in Rwanda in 1993-1994, but peacekeepers’ hands were effectively tied by UN rules of engagement as the tribal conflict deteriorate into genocide. Dallaire’s 2003 book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, should be read by anyone hoping to discuss peacekeeping intelligently, particularly MPs.
In early September, after a two-day peacekeeping summit in London, and anticipating heated debate when the House would resume sitting a week later, Sajjan understandably declined to discuss specifics about the next CAF commitment (despite many signs pointing to Mali, where Canada recently completed a “reconnaissance mission” that included talks with Malian officials and members of the UN peacekeeping mission already on the ground. Mali is generally considered the most dangerous current UN peacekeeping mission, with 105 peacekeepers killed and hundreds wounded since UN troops took over the mission from their African Union counterparts in 2013.
“We are looking at peace support operations,” Sajjan confirmed, adding that he and other ministers with skin in the game would eventually pitch a mission to cabinet. But it was too early to discuss “further steps” or how to ensure that CAF personnel would have everything they need to make “a meaningful impact.”
When Frontline Defence asked Sajjan whether there had been any “broad brush consensus” on what summit participants might contribute to the next mission, he replied without elaborating that there were “significant gaps” to fill.
“We’ve been in conversation with the United Nations leadership and especially the various missions themselves,” he continued. “We know what we are good at and […] we will look at those gaps and [determine] how we can best contribute.”
He seemed particularly keen on capacity-building, pointing out that Canada has “significant experience” in that field, including the prospect of bringing other countries’ peacekeeping leaders to Canada for particular training.
When FrontLine asked if he would be averse to putting CAF personnel in roles for which they are trained (notably combat) during a peacekeeping mission, Sajjan demurred, saying he did not want to get into that debate. However, there was no gainsaying the fact that Canadian troops are put in situations which might require the use of deadly force. “We need to make sure that we have a robust enough mandate so that we can create the right rules of engagement that the military will sign off on,” Minister Sajjan explained. “But protection of civilians is a top priority. The potential use of deadly force would be addressed through what he said should be an appropriate mandate, rules of engagement, and training.
Meanwhile, ideological battle lines have hardened as the Conservatives suggest that the UN is incapable of managing peacekeeping missions. “In the last 15 years, our success … has been in peacemaking, not in peacekeeping,” said Manitoba MP James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic and former chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.
Then there were the Liberals’ motives for pushing ahead with the peacekeeping concept. “The ultimate goal here is to achieve a seat at the UN Security Council when it becomes available,” Bezan told reporters. “That, to me, is politics, and we shouldn’t be using our troops as pawns.”
Bezan seems to have lost sight of the fact, like it or not, that the CAF are an arm of the government and, hence, subject to its policies and directives. To have it otherwise would be problematic, to put it mildly.
As expected, when the Commons did resume, the opposition parties continued to press the government to clearly set out the details before any deployment. But the government would not commit to a vote – even though, with their parliamentary majority, the outcome would be predictable.
“Canadians must be able to trust that these decisions are made in our national interest, not the political interest of the Liberal Party,” Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose led off with. Sajjan’s response going forward was that the electorate in 2015 had “voted for a party that promised to re-engage Canada in the world and […] would be commited to actively contributing to greater security and peace.” He later added that the government welcomed “healthy debate” in the House and elsewhere, not only on peacekeeping but defence policy overall.
In London, Sajjan acknowledged that “this is not the peacekeeping of the past.” Truer words were never spoken; conflicts today are not conducive to the requirement of consent from the main parties, nor to political process. It clearly remains to be seen what the future holds for the Liberals, the CAF, and this country. That’s about the only thing that’s clear so far.
Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.