Peacekeeping of the future: Thinking through Canada’s options in Africa

Canada’s defence minister isn’t shying away from the complexities that will be involved in any future mission to Africa. James Cohen outlines the issues the government should take into account when figuring out where to send Canadian soldiers next – and how to succeed when there.

By: /
August 12, 2016
Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrives at a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top foreign policy priorities when he took office last fall was for Canada to re-engage with international peacekeeping. Dialogue has built over the year as to what this re-engagement will look like and what capacities are needed.

In July, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and General Jonathan Vance brought Canada even closer to re-engagement, stating that the Canadian army was looking into contributing to a peacekeeping mission in Africa. 

This week, Sajjan is visiting five African countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – on a peacekeeping “fact-finding” mission, as Canada decides where to deploy soldiers. 

In a statement for National Peacekeeper’s Day on Tuesday, Trudeau wrote that going forward, the government “will increase Canada’s support to United Nations peace operations: providing more personnel and training to UN peace support missions; increasing our conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding efforts; advancing the roles of women and youth in the promotion of peace and security; and supporting UN reform efforts to make peace support initiatives more effective.”

There are nine United Nations Peacekeeping operations on the African continent, four of which have been floated as options for new or increased engagement. Two currently have Canadian contributions: the DRC and South Sudan missions have eight and seven Canadian soldiers respectively, with an additional six Canadian experts in South Sudan. The Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali are the two peacekeeping missions that have been noted in the press as likely options for new Canadian contributions. Equipment and funding support to the African Union mission in Somalia may also be in the realm of possibilities.

Modern day peacekeeping

Wherever Canada ends up, Sajjan, and likely the Canadian public, are aware that these won’t be the peacekeeping missions Canadian mythology has been built upon. A mission like Cyprus, where we still contribute one soldier to monitoring a ceasefire between two nations, is a rare case. Peacekeeping missions have evolved to address civil wars and their complicated dynamics. 

Speaking to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday from Ethiopia, Sajjan further elaborated: “I think we can definitely say what we used to have as peacekeeping, before, is no longer. We don’t have two parties that have agreed on peace and there’s a peacekeeping force in between…Those peacekeeping days, those realities, do not exist now and we need to understand the reality of today.”

Sajjan stated in a press briefing in July that if Canada does become engaged in an African mission, the army will be potentially involved in not only peacekeeping as traditionally conceived, but also capacity building and a stated goal of controlling the spread of Islamic militants across the Middle East and Africa. In assessing the decision to engage, Sajjan acknowledged that the wider regional context and root causes of instability need to be taken into account.

Where to go?

In full credit to Sajjan, he has been consistently thoughtful as he approaches making a recommendation. Accompanying Sajjan on his current tour are retired Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour. Both are strong minds on the complexity of modern peacekeeping missions, and they also have differing opinions on the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine – Dallaire pro, and Arbour more reserved. 

Along with this week’s study tour, military advisors will also reportedly conduct an assessment in West Africa. Sajjan and his colleagues will be thinking through other options where Canada can add value in complex “peace support operations.” In this regard, it will be interesting to see how Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion and Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau will factor into decision making, building on Canada’s ‘3D’ approach to stabilization – encompassing defence, diplomacy, and development – that began in Afghanistan. The mediation and gender programs that Trudeau has flagged typically sit in Global Affairs and Development portfolios for both financing and expertise.

Without adding to the speculation of which peacekeeping mission(s) Canada could contribute further to, there is scope to think through how Sajjan may come to his recommendations. First, there are the UN’s needs. Peacekeeping missions are under strain and the UN has requested that countries with advanced militaries play a larger role, if not in direct troop contribution, then at least as ‘enablers’ – countries that can contribute much-needed logistics and equipment to improve the capability of operations. From there, each mission will have its own specific capacity needs.

Second, Sajjan, Vance and others will think through what Canada can offer. Experts have speculated that the army is capable of contributing up to 1000 troops to a mission, while others have highlighted Canada’s critical equipment assets, and the potential of rebuilding peacekeeping training. If troops were deployed, which Sajjan does not want to do “just because,” they may play different roles in different missions. For example, the Canadian army may be involved in civilian and supply protection in one setting and counterinsurgency in another. Canada can also respond to the UN’s logistics needs, avoiding large troop contributions.

…and what to do when we get there

Turning to Sajjan’s stated goals on capacity building so far, what would this mean? Canadian special forces have been quietly involved in a technical training program in Niger for over three years, and it was announced this week that the government is considering replacing them with regular army soldiers.

If Canada looks to emulate this program of training local troops elsewhere, then hopefully an expansive approach to security sector capacity building will be considered. Take Mali for example. Standard technical train and equip programs have occurred in Mali at an increased pace since 2001, when the U.S. and France ramped up resources to try and combat terrorism in the Sahel and Maghreb. Unfortunately, there was little measurement of the impact of the training. Notably, institution building and governance issues were not integrated into training.

In the face of the evidence of Mali’s military collapse in the 2012 coup, any capacity building needs to address these issues of oversight and accountability. Whether in Mali, the CAR or the DRC, this kind of capacity building, also known as security sector reform, requires expertise outside of military technical know-how. Security sector reform itself has expanded over the past decade to take in the expertise of professionals in change management, anti-corruption and political oversight amongst others. It also includes facilitating dialogue with citizens and civil society, a role where foreign affairs and development professionals can bring in support and even lead.

This leads to the politics of preventing the spread of Islamic militants. Militants are able to move through North, West and East Africa not just by force, but through corruption and loose alliances. Again turning to Mali as an example, the 2015 Algiers peace agreement that was meant to cease hostilities in northern Mali was conducted through grand bargaining and promised development for the North. This was similar to what happened after previous rebellions in northern Mali, only to see development funds squandered and repression continue. Citizens in northern Mali have already expressed frustration that the development promised in the latest peace deal is not being delivered, which is a higher priority than Western concerns with terrorism for many people. 

To tackle the structural and political issues that allow militants to move through the region requires a comprehensive approach to security and development that addresses socio-economic and rule of law grievances of local populations, and untangles the politically sensitive networks of corruption that prop up shaky alliances. These political dynamics must be considered and addressed in any peacekeeping operation for any true lasting and resilient peace to take hold, and for a mission to not be compromised by corrupt officials.

Peacekeeping is highly complex, which Sajjan is not shying away from. Canadians may no longer buy into the mythology of peacekeeping after the experiences of Rwanda, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Regardless, Sajjan will need to continue to convey the challenges and clear goals of any engagement. Canadians may have matured over the last 30 years as to their expectations of what peacekeeping now entails, but frustration can still stir amongst taxpayers who want Canada to do good in the world, while also ensuring any potential Canadian lives in harm’s way are worth the sacrifice, and that Canada’s reputation is not tarnished in scandals that have plagued UN missions. There are many factors that Sajjan needs to weigh in making his decision, both at home and abroad. If he continues his thoughtful, measured analysis, he may be able to guide Canada to an engagement that matches the challenging world we find ourselves in.