By Ronny Al-Nosir.
The Trudeau Administration is set to revive the country’s legacy of peacekeeping in its efforts to reengage Canada with ongoing conflicts in Africa. Justin Trudeau’s oft-quoted phrase, “Canada is back”, is a very strong indicator of his intentions: a return to what made Canada the country it is today. But to do so, Canada first must face a changing geopolitical situation that’s moved on since Canada’s “golden” years as peacekeepers.
It’s no secret why the government is so keen to relive our glory years, Canada’s historical reputation as a peacekeeping country is deeply ingrained in the country’s conscience. Lester B Pearson’s invention – a new military force, famously known as ‘blue helmets’ – forever changed the parameters of military engagements and staked Canada’s reputation as a peace-seeking country. No longer were a nation’s soldiers necessarily deployed solely for missions where they would occupy a combat role. Defusing the Suez Crisis still stands as one of Canada’s greatest diplomatic accomplishments.
It was Roméo Dallaire’s ordeal in Rwanda, documented in the voluminous and chilling book Shake Hands with The Devil, and the failed Bosnia mission which prompted Canada’s rollback of its peacekeeping activities. It’s easy to attribute Canada’s isolation from peacekeeping missions to the Harper government, especially since it showed such contempt for international treaties and multilateral diplomacy. However, in terms of actual peacemaking, Canada has taken part in few, if any, legitimate UN peacekeeping missions. During the Rwanda genocide, for example, Canada only had stationed thirteen soldiers there. During the Chrétien and Martin years, Canada deployed troops solely under the NATO umbrella. Whether it be in Serbia, Libya or Afghanistan, Canada has favoured NATO to traditional UN peacekeeping for at least the past two decades.
Over the time of Canada’s absence, conflicts have since become more protracted and sectarian. In its place, guerrilla warfare has become the norm.
Wars today cross borders between forces, many of whom are not identifiable with a specific nation or cultural group. It is in this context that it has become immensely more dangerous for troops to be committed to danger zones. It’s also become harder for peacekeepers to avoid being a part of actual combat, which defeats the point of peacekeeping in the conventional sense. In fact, traditionally speaking, peacekeepers were prohibited from using their weapons unless they were used in self-defense.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan has admitted to this sobering reality, preferring instead to use the term “peace support operations” rather than “peacekeeping.”
“We don’t have two parties that have agreed on peace and there’s a peacekeeping force in between,” says Sajjan. Adding: “Those peacekeeping days, those realities, do not exist now and we need to understand the reality of today.” In fact, the term “peacekeeping” itself was only used twice in the entirety of the government’s latest press release.
Putting troops at risk is always a difficult decision for any government. In the past, Canada has refused to commit to sending troops for conflicts it’s believed it had no stake in. Many Canadians praised then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s decision to reject pressure from the White House to commit Canadian troops to the Iraq War. But in Africa’s case, Canadians may feel differently. There is no denying the horrible conditions these active war-zones create in their wake. Mali, for example, has been plagued with Islamic militant groups who, along with being responsible for the deaths of many peacekeepers and French troops, have committed untold atrocities.
In the Central African Republic, civil war has been raging for years between the Séléka and government forces. Institutions like the UN, or the wider international community, are often blamed for not acting to put an end to these sorts of conflicts.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a brainchild of then Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy post-Rwanda, was used to justify intervention in Libya and puts extra pressure for actions to be taken even if a conflict does not represent a threat to international peace or security.
The UN Charter, in articles 42 and 51 respectively, says that intervention can be justified either as a response to a threat to international peace and security or in self-defence. In cases where R2P is invoked, however, military action might be taken solely on humanitarian grounds, with neither of the two aforementioned conditions being met.
Following his election, Trudeau announced we would seek a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, as well as reiterating his engagement towards the international community. On the peacekeeping front, Trudeau sent a mission to Africa in August, in order to evaluate the possibility of joining of a UN peacekeeping mission somewhere on the continent. Sajjan, accompanied by the former ICTY Prosecutor, the UN High Commission for Human Rights and Canadian Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour, as well as Roméo Dallaire, flew to RDC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda to meet with officials and evaluate the situation last month.
As a result of this trip, the Canadian government announced a new pledge to send troops to Africa. 600 soldiers and 150 police officers are to be scattered across the UN missions currently ongoing on the continent, with the RDC, Mali and the Central African Republic being the three main destinations. However, it’s also become clear that what Canada will be doing is not peacekeeping. Rather, the more accurate term would instead be “peace enforcement” or “peacemaking.”
The major question that remains is whether Ottawa ought to seek parliamentary approval for these new UN peace operations. As it stand now, it does not seem likely that they will seek approval from the legislature before proceeding, having already ruled it out.
In Canada’s political system, the executive – in this case, the prime minister and his cabinet – has the final say on the deployment of troops. Therefore, the practice of approaching Parliament for the go-ahead before proceeding is an extra-constitutional convention – it’s not technically an obligation – and it’s often regarded as a way for the government to legitimize its military operations.
In this specific case, when asked, Sajjan initially said “No. We will be deciding in cabinet and moving forward as quickly as possible on this.” However, later the same day, when asked again, the minister said “Once we have that discussion, a process will be decided on.” This does seem to indicate that the government is open to asking for Parliament’s approval, but going that route seems unlikely at this juncture.
According to Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé, motions in the House in the past have not sought to authorize peace operations, but rather “support.” In this case, before sending people off to dangerous areas of the world, parliamentary approval would act as a show of support from not only the executive, but parliamentarians, and therefore the people who voted for them. While the government has no obligation to ask for parliament to approve the operations, tabling a motion could perhaps be beneficial.
Despite the evident death of traditional peacekeeping, the government is still capitalizing on the nostalgia which surrounds it to promote its diplomatic agenda. This new engagement towards UN peace missions is no doubt a way to extend an olive branch to the international community, in the hopes that they remember this commitment when the time comes to choose new Security Council members.
Whether or not these missions are in Canada’s national interest or well-adapted to the country’s foreign policy remains a valid question. On the one hand, it’s reasonable to hesitate before putting troops at risk for a conflict that does not directly affect a country. On the other hand, Canada has an international responsibility to protect, along with other guiding humanitarian considerations. At its heart, the dilemma before us is a question of realism versus idealism; one as old as foreign policy itself.
Ronny Al-Nosir is a proud Montréaler of Syrian and Kurdish descent who studies Political Science at McGill.
Through his writing and civic engagement, Ronny hopes to show that anyone who wants to can have a voice.