The Current

Should Canada risk soldiers' lives in its peacekeeping mission in Mali?

Committing troops to peacekeeping efforts in Mali will risk Canadian lives, some say. But retired Lt.-Gen Roméo Dallaire thinks it’s 'high time' that Canada returns to the global stage.
Canadian peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 28, 1997. Two years ago, Justin Trudeau promised to spend $450 million and deploy 600 Canadian troops to UN missions in Africa. (Daniel Morel/Canadian Press, AP)
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While critics warn that Canada's move to send troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali puts Canadian lives at risk, others argue it's time re-engage in the world of modern peacekeeping. 

Canada will commit as many as 250 troops to join UN peacekeeping efforts in Mali this summer, along with up to six helicopters.

The year-long deployment to the troubled West African country was officially announced Monday by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. CBC News first reported on it Friday.

Romeo Dallaire argues that Mali represents a very good way to re-enter the fray of the modern era of peacekeeping. (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)

The conflict in Mali erupted in Jan. 2012, when rebel groups in the north waged an insurgency against the Malian government. French troops helped the government regain control in 2013, and UN peacekeepers arrived in April of that year.

Over five years of violence have made it one of the UN's deadliest missions, with 162 fatalities to date.

Despite this, retired Lt.-Gen Roméo Dallaire said it's "high time" that Canada returns to peacekeeping.

Dallaire led the UN's peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the country's genocide, in which more than 800,000 people were killed in a mere 100 days.

Canada's commitment of military hardware to Mali is a very good way to re-enter the fray of the modern era of peacekeeping, he said.

"Peacekeeping has changed from the historic framework that it used to be," he said. "I use the term conflict resolution."

"We're into assisting nations [to] resolve a conflict that is in their territory."

UN peacekeepers in Mali in 2015. The mission has claimed 162 lives, to date. (Marco Dormino/United Nations/Associated Press)

Peacekeeping versus peacemaking

Martin Woods, who served as a Canadian peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, has concerns that what is happening in Mali is not peacekeeping, but rather peacemaking.

In the former, the UN is setting itself up between two sides who have agreed to stop fighting, he said. The latter comes with a much higher level of risk.

"We're sending armed-escort helicopters there," the Afghanistan War veteran said. "We're not sending armed-escort helicopters to drop teddy bears. Obviously, they're there for a reason."

"Putting that level of armament on our helicopters is because there is a real danger."

He wants to see a debate in parliament.

"That way it's on the record of exactly what the government's expectations are of our personnel, and also puts in the public forum a commitment — by the government to the public — of what it is that we're actually going to do."

"Any time we're going to risk our personnel's lives, we should make sure the public is well aware of exactly what risks are being put on the table".

A French soldier flies over Gao, northern Mali, in May 2017. The conflict began in 2012 when rebels tried to overthrow the Malian government. (Christophe Petit Tesson/The Canadian Press)

James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, responded to the announcement Monday with a similar call for a debate and vote in the House of Commons.

"Mali is a war zone," he said on Monday. "This is a combat mission, and there is no peace to keep."

Not a lot of 'reluctance' from Canadians

Former senior policy advisor Jocelyn Coulon said Justin Trudeau is taking "a modest step" toward fulfilling his 2016 promise to spend $450 million and deploy 600 Canadian troops to UN missions in Africa.

Canada is ready to play a greater role in operations, and the Canadian public backs that decision, argued Coulon, who now works as a researcher at the University of Montreal. 

"I don't think there's a lot of reluctance from Canadian people, perhaps from some politicians," he said.

He previously advised former minister of foreign affairs Stéphane Dion about peace operations in 2016 and 2017.

Romeo Dallaire at the Kigali airport, Rwanda, on Aug. 1, 1994. More than 800,000 people died in the country's genocide. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
Dallaire agreed that returning to the field is in line with Canadians expectations.

"One must also remember there isn't a conflict in the world that will not knock on our door," he said.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Karin Marley.

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