Twenty years ago, Canadians blamed others—the US, the UN Security Council, Belgium, and France—for standing by and abandoning General Romeo Dallaire in his calls for help to prevent the Rwandan genocide.
So why is the Canadian government acting as a silent and indifferent spectator to the unfolding catastrophe in the CAR?
For one, the CAR has no influential voter constituency within Canada.
While Ottawa is well aware that the Ukrainian crisis—certainly a major political and strategic issue in Europe, though not one costing thousands of lives—has direct importance to a significant voter contingent of over 1 million Ukrainian Canadians, the crisis in CAR stands to bear little influence over any Conservative votes in the next year’s election.
Interestingly, the Ukrainian crisis also has Washington’s attention, as well as that of NATO while the CAR involves the United Nations, the African Union and the EU—with the latter only holding any interest in Ottawa.
Of course, this is not “news” to African leaders. Since 1994, both Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa have preferred to avoid any new engagements in African (or any other) peacekeeping operations under the United Nations, opting instead to take part in NATO-led missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya and in anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.
In 2010, Ottawa rejected a request from the UN Secretary-General to provide Canadian leadership to the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A small handful of Military Liaison Officers were provided to post-independence Sudan and South Sudan, but were withdrawn as tensions rose.
Africa simply is not on Ottawa’s political map, unless Washington and NATO say it is, as they did with Libya.
The Turmoil in CAR
The conflict in the Central African Republic between the Seleka Muslims and the anti-Balaka Christians started out as a political struggle in late 2012, and has subsequently turned into an increasingly violent sectarian conflict.
The current wave of killings, which began in late 2013, has claimed thousands of lives, and left close to a million people displaced, including cross-border refugees. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, an additional 15,000 Muslims remain at risk across15 sectors of western CAR that fall under the influence of the anti-Balaka militias.
The capital city of Bangui has turned into a battlefield, forcing people to flee to the northern regions of CAR. This mass exodus has, inevitably, created serious issues surrounding the provision of basic utilities, including access to food, shelter, sanitation, and healthcare.
Thousands of men, women, and children remain stranded at CAR’s main airport in Bangui where they have been forced to create sprawling settlements in order to escape the militias.
Amidst the turmoil, the attacks continue. In recent reprisals, Muslim rebel groups attacked a local hospital in Boguila, killing at least 16 people, including three humanitarian workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Subsequently, a French-escorted convoy carrying 1,300 Muslims to safety also came under attack from Christian militia fighters, further perpetuating the sectarian violence.
Although the United Nations has authorized a peacekeeping mission comprising of over 10,000 personnel, these peacekeeping forces must first be raised from willing troop-contributing countries and then moved into place with the necessary logistical support. As such, UN peacekeepers are set to arrive no sooner than September 2014, a year after the outbreak of the recent spate of violence.
The current contingent of peacekeepers, which includes around 6,000 African Union (AU) forces and 2,000 French and European Union (EU) troops, is not sufficient to halt this simmering genocide. This is also where Canada can step in by sending our combat-ready troops to contribute to the mission and prevent the killings of thousands of innocent civilians.
This is the sort of rapid response effort that General Dallaire pleaded for in 1994, which the US and the West refused to provide, and which he still believes could have halted that brutal genocide in its tracks.
Canada’s Role in CAR
The UN itself has learned hard lessons from previous failures, and applied them, as can be seen in its recent offensive deployment of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) led by South African combat troops and attack helicopters.
The aggressive actions of the FIB played a decisive role in ending the attacks in DRC by the Rwandan-supported M23 militia force in 2013. Canada’s military is well suited to take a leading role alongside the French and EU forces in a peace enforcement mission in CAR, filling a critical gap in the short term and possibly accepting an active engagement, thereafter.
The Canadian Forces will improve the quality and efficacy of the existing peacekeeping contingent, which mostly is comprised of relatively weak peacekeeping forces from neighboring African countries.
Despite recent budget cuts imposed by Ottawa, the CF along with the French and EU troops are better equipped—both in terms of resources and skills, including combat experience hard-won in Afghanistan—to respond to increasing incidences of violence within the country.
A Canadian contribution of tactical transport helicopters, light armoured vehicles (with advanced surveillance and communications capabilities), and highly disciplined troops would be immensely valuable in the much-needed evacuation of civilians to safe areas, potentially saving the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and creating improved safety for humanitarian workers in the region.
Politically, even a deeply utilitarian Ottawa—where the UN is viewed, at best, with distaste for the variety of views, opinions and values expressed among its members—stands to gain from sending such urgently needed material support to its European NATO allies in CAR.
A small but capable Canadian contingent would demonstrate our commitment to our Western/NATO allies who do seem to believe that “something must be done” to prevent genocide—the same argument that seemed so important to Ottawa in the case of Libya.
Finally, if Ottawa advertises its foreign policy as being based on principle rather than pragmatism, then as a signatory to UN Conventions and Treaties, including the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), Canada accepted the principle of preventing mass atrocities and human rights violations across the globe, not just where it is convenient for domestic electoral interests.
As a nation, Canadians are blessed to have the resources and capacity that could go a long way in preventing the situation in CAR from escalating into a full-blown genocide. Although the risk of physical harm for our armed forces in CAR will be significant, the risk of not doing anything is significantly higher—both morally and with respect to the thousands of innocent lives that need protection.
Obligations and Opportunities
Despite our governments’ recent historical record of rejecting or ignoring requests from UN Headquarters for more substantive Canadian Forces’ contributions to peacekeeping missions, Canadians still value their peacekeeping legacy.
As a pioneer of several notable humanitarian ideas, including the creation of R2P, Canada has long positioned itself as a promoter of peace. There is no reason for us to give up on our principles—indeed, it is both our principled obligation and our interest to contribute meaningfully to international efforts to address the conflict in CAR.
Pleading poverty now—after spending tens of billions of dollars on combat operations in Afghanistan and tens of millions of dollars in Libya—is an excuse, not a reason. Arguing that UN-led operations are overly politicized, and that divisive UN Security Council politics leads to failure ignores the considerable improvements made since the mid-1990s in how the UN runs its missions.
It also ignores the very clear case that neither Afghanistan nor Libya, nor Iraq, are testament to the success of US and NATO military commitments, rather they are the opposite.
The Canadian government needs to reevaluate its response to the CAR crisis. As the NDP member of parliament, Paul Dewar, pointed out, “If we can deploy fighter jets to Ukraine in a speedy fashion, we should be able to commit to a UN peacekeeping mission that allows us time, until September, to fulfill that commitment.”
It is principled, as well as prudent, for Canada to consider a serious, meaningful, and especially rapid military contribution to the peacekeeping mission in CAR rather than waiting in silence and watching another Rwanda unfold right in front of our eyes.
We, as Canadians, need to keep the promise we made in 1945 and in 1994, of “never again.”