Canada's ambassador to the UN says there will be "no quick fix" in Africa — a sign that Canadian peacekeepers waiting for deployment there could be in for a long-term commitment to the region ravaged by civil war and terrorism.
"There is no quick fix for anything in peace and security in some areas of the world and in the regions [Canada is considering for a mission]," Marc-André Blanchard said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House. He said while the road ahead might be dangerous for Canadian troops, the country has an obligation to intervene to prevent the violence from reaching our shores.
The government announced Friday it will commit $450 million to peace operations and the Canadian Armed Forces will, on top of existing commitments in the Middle East, eastern Europe and elsewhere, deploy up to 600 troops as part of the mission to Africa.
While Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan did not reveal Friday where this new contingent of peacekeepers would be headed, sources told CBC News that UN and U.S. officials have been pushing the Trudeau government to consider missions in Africa to help prevent peacekeeping disasters like those in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Sajjan himself has said Africa hasn't gotten "the right amount of attention" in recent years.
The leading candidates for Canadian troop deployments include Mali, Congo and the Central African Republic. The final destination for these troops will be decided at the UN peacekeeping conference in London, which is scheduled to take place in two weeks.
There will also be air transport, medical, engineering and training components to Canada's plan.
Blanchard, a top Liberal fundraiser and corporate lawyer tapped by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bolster Canada's role at the UN ahead of a bid for a Security Council seat in 2021, said that the new mission in Africa will be different than those of the past. A big shift will be a focus on "peacemaking" and the right of Canadian troops to protect civilians caught in the crosshairs of conflict.
"The mandates are multifaceted [but] there are things Canada has been a strong proponent of ... the right to allow UN forces to protect citizens rather than just maintain peace and the status quo," the ambassador said. "Peacekeeping is very different than it was 25 years ago. It's all about mitigating the consequences of conflict."
He said many in Africa are "hopeful" about Canada's new role because the country enters conflict zones without any of the colonial baggage they associate with European countries. The bilingual nature of the armed forces also makes our troops effective in both east and west Africa, he added.
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Blanchard said Canadians are not being deployed to simply supply boots on the ground but rather to provide leadership for existing troops and police officers, and to help train those local forces to confront mounting security threats — an expertise that was developed on the battlefields of Afghanistan and honed in northern Iraq in the face of ISIS.
The ambassador conceded that while the UN is not "a perfect forum," it still does a lot of good promoting human rights.
He said that Canada will be pushing for reforms — including breaking down bureaucratic barriers that prevent closer co-operation between different UN bodies — and it will back France's push to end the Security Council veto when the world community faces mass atrocities. Observers have said this sort of proposal would have allowed the UN to intervene in Syria sooner, as Russia initially blocked action to help support ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Dallaire's Rwandan experience lingers
Any Canadian peacekeeping mission abroad will be partially defined by Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire's frustrating experience on the ground during the Rwandan conflict in the early 1990s.
Dallaire, who led a contingent of blue helmets, faced push-back from officials in New York, who frequently blocked his attempts to intervene militarily to stop the killing of Tutsis by marauding Hutu militias.
The UN dragged its heels in officially declaring the conflict a genocide, leaving Dallaire's hands tied. Equipment was slow to arrive, and the force of Bangladeshis and Ghanaians under his command — who made up the bulk of his force — were largely inept. Ultimately, help came too late and an estimated one million people were slaughtered.
"The UN has progressed considerably since that time," Sajjan told reporters Friday when asked about Dallaire's experience with UN bureaucracy. "The mandate is extremely important for each mission. Protection of civilians is a part of it.
"However, we need to elevate the conversation," he said.
Peacekeeping missions have been marred by problems in the recent past, including a dearth of Western participation. This has left ill-equipped soldiers from developing nations shouldering the burden of quashing violence in some of the most war-ravaged regions.
There has also been a series of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation involving peacekeepers in missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. The UN secretary general has called it "a cancer in our system," and says major reforms are underway.
The number of casualties have been mounting, too, as some 51 UN personnel have been killed in deliberate attacks in the past year, 230 in the past four years.
"Of course we are aware that our brave men and women will come into tough situations, but Canadians are proud of it," Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said Friday. "It is for protection of the world and Canada that we cannot be absent from peace operation missions. We have a lot of expertise to offer."