Plan to send Canadian peacekeepers to Colombia fizzled due to official foot-dragging

The Canadian military pulled together a small contingent of troops to contribute to the UN peacekeeping mission in the fall of 2016. Newly released documents show the soldiers were left cooling their heels for months - a delay that saw the UN fill all of its commitment without them.

Handful of Spanish-speaking troops 'identified, screened and trained' for Colombia weeks after Liberal pledge

Weapons belonging to rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, are stored at a rebel camp in La Carmelita near Puerto Asis in Colombia's southwestern state of Putumayo Feb. 28, 2017. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

Canada had a small military team on standby to take part in a high-profile United Nations peacekeeping mission in Colombia, but foot-dragging on Ottawa's part saw other countries fill up the mission's ranks instead, newly released documents reveal.

The army "identified, screened and trained" 19 Spanish-speaking soldiers to act as cease fire observers in the South American country, which is emerging from five decades of guerilla war.

The troops were, according to a briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, ready to go by October 2016 — just weeks after the Liberal government committed itself to deploying 600 troops and 150 police officers in support of UN-led peace operations.

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The soldiers remained on standby for months.

A decision to deploy them, however, remained in limbo — until it was too late.

"No [Canadian Armed Forces] nominations were submitted to the UN and, as of March 2017, the mission is currently fully manned with no foreseen additional requirements from Canada," said the March 30, 2017 briefing note, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation.

Worries about troop security

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country's top military commander, said the mission was considered — but he had concerns about how well protected the troops would be in the event of trouble.

He said concerns about force security are "a good reason for everything as to why we do, and do not, do everything the UN asks of us."

Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Canada did end up deploying two police officers to support the special political mission in that country.

Ultimately, it would have been up to the federal cabinet to decide whether to participate in the mission.

The UN mission in Colombia was one of the more benign deployments available to Canada in terms of mandate and risk.

A lower-risk mission

Over 450 unarmed soldiers, in 40 locations, acted as observers supervising the disarming of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — a mission that is more in line with the Canadian public's perception of peacekeeping.

The mission certainly presents a lower risk to peacekeepers than the tribal, jihadist-fuelled bloodshed in Mali, or the civil war in the corruption-tainted Democratic Republic of Congo — both sites of current UN peacekeeping operations.

Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute and Canada's former Ambassador for Disarmament, weighs in on the news that the plan to send Canadian peacekeepers to Colombia fizzled due to official foot-dragging in Ottawa. 5:08

"It is startling that we had the personnel trained and we didn't deploy them," said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces Staff College.

He said Canada's failure to send soldiers to the one of the most auspicious missions on the UN's plate throws into doubt the Liberals' election pledge to return to peacekeeping in a meaningful way.

Since the 2015 election of the Liberal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's declaration that "Canada is back" on the world stage, the UN has offered Canada a number of marquee posts and opportunities.

Multiple missions rejected

According to documents uncovered last summer by CBC News, Canada was: offered command of the mission in Mali; asked to deploy troops to replace the Dutch contingent in the same country; bombarded with multiple requests for helicopter support and; asked to establish a police training mission in the volatile Central African Republic.

All of the requests were turned down, much to the frustration of UN officials and diplomats with the European Union who were courting Canada on separate, but complementary peace deployments and training in the region.

"The cabinet is just not able to make up its mind about where it wants to deploy," said Dorn. "It seems there is eagerness at some levels of the Canadian government, but not others."

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Last fall, Trudeau laid out the Liberal government's roadmap for rejoining peacekeeping, which includes phased deployments of transport planes, helicopters, military trainers and a 200-strong rapid reaction force over a five-year period.

Where they'll go, and when, is still the subject of discussions.

The federal government also made an important social commitment to deploy more women peacekeepers and to end the exploitation of child soldiers.

Dorn said Canada's contribution to UN missions is at an all-time low.

At the end of December, Canada had only 43 peacekeepers deployed on various missions.

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About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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