By: John Ivision, The National Post
OTTAWA — Harjit Sajjan is heading to West Africa this month on a fact-finding mission impossible.
The defence minister will search for an elusive United Nations peacekeeping mission that will maximize Canada’s chances of winning a seat on the UN Security Council but minimize the potential cost in Canadian lives and resources.
“That’s hard to find in Africa,” warned a senior military source.
Justin Trudeau’s belief in the United Nations as an effective institution runs from the top of his perfectly coiffed head to the tips of his stripey socks, and he is apparently prepared to send Canadian Forces into action to test it.
At a time when people like former UN assistant secretary general Anthony Banbury are lamenting an organization he called a “black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again,” the Liberals are exploring a role in an African trouble-spot like Mali or the Central African Republic.
Trudeau and his team feel obliged to do something in the world. There was the small deployment to Latvia, as part of NATO’s mini-surge in eastern Europe, but these Liberals have a Chrétien-like aversion to being aligned too closely with U.S. foreign policy and they see the UN as much more sound ideologically than NATO.
A mission in Africa would bring about the happy coincidence of winning acclaim from the developing nations who will decide which country gets the “Western Europe and Others” seat on the UN Security Council in 2020 (Canada is in the running against Ireland and Norway).
Winning this prize would be all the sweeter given the Conservative government’s abject failure to do so in 2010.
“The UN thing looms much larger (for Trudeau’s team) than people credit,” said one senior source.
The military is gung-ho, not least because there are no other major deployments on the horizon — dangerous for morale (there has been a mass exodus of experienced soldiers since Afghanistan) and budgets (the view in National Defence Headquarters is that it would be a good idea to get the army out the door before the completion of the current defence review; “More missions mean more visibility,” said one NDHQ source).
None of this need necessarily be a bad thing. Dr. Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, has long argued that Canada should beef up the number of military personnel on UN deployment from its current level of less than 30.
Canada, he contends, has special capabilities that could be used in French-speaking West Africa, not least of which are language skills, and there is a “new generation” of peacekeeping missions that differ from those Canada experienced in Rwanda and Somalia because the UN has since adopted a “protection of civilians” mandate.
In the government’s defence, it can be argued that a mission to bolster local African forces would be useful in denying haven to Islamist terror groups. But even if the cause is noble, the Canadian public deserves a thorough explanation on where we might be going and what the mission might entail.
Will we have an end-date or a plan to hand off responsibility to another country? Is there even a peace to keep?
Nobody in Sajjan’s office was prepared to answer these questions, presumably on the basis that the minister hasn’t yet found his facts.
Yet Jon Vance, chief of the defence staff, told a change-of-command ceremony on Parliament Hill last month that the army would be deploying to Africa “very soon.”
If we are going, and it seems we are, let’s hope it’s not to Mali (apparently Sajjan’s trip will not take him to Bamako, though this doesn’t necessarily mean Canadians won’t end up there).
Of 27 UN fatalities so far in 2016, 24 of them were inflicted in Mali as part of the country’s nasty civil war. (In 2015, 12 of 34 deaths were in Mali, and 10 were in the Central African Republic, another potential landing place for Canadian troops).
As Banbury, who quit the UN earlier this year, wrote in The New York Times: “Our most grievous blunder was in Mali.… More than 80 per cent of the force’s resources are spent on self-protection.
“The United Nations in Mali is day to day marching into its first quagmire.”
For a Canadian military with recent experience of fighting in hostile terrain, where hard-won tactical gains were rarely sustained, the prospect of spending all its time and resources on “force protection” can scarcely be an attractive one.
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“I think they will be extremely leery of putting themselves in an area where significant groups target peacekeepers,” said one senior military source.
With the security situation in Sudan deteriorating, perhaps Central African Republic offers the best prospect for Sajjan to fulfil his impossible mission.
For reasons best known to themselves, UN bureaucrats sent soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo as part of its CAR mission, resulting in serious human rights violations by the soldiers. Banbury noted “a persistent pattern of rape and abuse of the people the UN was sent to protect.”
Protecting civilian populations from rape and abuse; winning the acclaim of emerging nations; avoiding cost in blood and treasure — that would be an ideal trifecta for a government launching its first peacekeeping mission.
It must seem such a no-brainer to the Liberals that they see no need to hold a parliamentary debate, or “consult with Canadians,” normally their favourite pastime.
“It seems anything labelled ‘peacekeeping’ gets a free pass,” said one defence source. “But given the destination, that’s a very bad idea.”