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UN peace support operations to be announced soon: Sajjan from Africa

by Amanda Connolly (feat. George Petrolekas)

August 15, 2016

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he has decided on the size of Canada’s expanded contribution to United Nations “peace support operations” and plans to announce that decision soon but would not say Monday where he plans to put those troops.

Speaking with reporters via teleconference from Democratic Republic of Congo, where he is wrapping up an eight-day fact-finding mission to inform future peace support operations, Sajjan stressed no decision has been made yet on exactly where Canadian troops will go or specifically what their roles will be.

“I do have a number that we will be announcing shortly and that we can sustain for a long duration,” he said. “Police will be needed, capacity building will be extremely important and also keep in mind it’s not just one particular area, hence the reason why we’re actually branching out on a multi-country tour.”

Sajjan notably used the term “peace support operations” rather than “peacekeeping” — the term traditionally used to describe Canada’s long-vaunted role in post-conflict situations. As non-state actors have proliferated in the past 20 years and intra-national insurgencies and terrorism have overtaken bilateral conflicts over borders and resources, traditional peacekeeping has evolved into more complicated missions.

Canada currently has 103 individuals involved in UN peace missions, including 75 military police, 19 troops and 14 military experts.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran on a promise to restore Canada to its historic role as a contributor for peacekeeping missions abroad but coverage of progress on that file since the election has focused on the vastly-evolved nature of modern peace operations compared to the peacekeeping Canada was involved in in the past.

“The collective memory is an older memory as opposed to how peacemaking, peace enforcement has evolved,” said retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas in an interview with iPolitics for a Remembrance Day 2015 feature on the evolved nature of peacekeeping.

Petrolekas, who served in Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan, said discussions about modern peace operations need to acknowledge the reality is that such missions will actually involve “peacemaking or peace enforcement” in increasingly dangerous areas.

Sajjan acknowledged those changes last week in an interview with the Globe and Mail, saying the term “peace support operations,” which he used during Monday’s teleconference, fits better with what troops would likely end up doing on future missions.

“Even using the terminology of peacekeeping is not valid at this time,” he said. “Those peacekeeping days, those realities, do not exist now and we need to understand the reality of today.”

Sajjan departed August 9 for meetings with officials in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The trip is meant to help inform the decision of how and where Canadians can play a bigger role alongside international allies and the United Nations in peace support operations.

While there’s been no official word yet as to where Canadian troops might be heading, speculation has included support for a revamped training mission in Niger or stationing Canadian troops in neighbouring Mali, where a 12,000-strong French-led peacekeeping mission is currently trying to stabilize the country.

French troops loosened Al Qaeda’s grip on the country’s north in 2012 but ever since have been engaged in a highly volatile conflict to keep the group as well as other militants from gaining a foothold again, even as terrorist groups like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates work to expand their influence across broad swaths of North, East and West Africa.

Sajjan has repeatedly said in the past the decision about where to put Canadian troops will not be made with one particular country in mind but rather as part of a regional approach.

“We need to look at the areas by region because the groups we are dealing with in conflict, when war happens in a region it’s all interconnected,” he said, noting he has “optimism” for future peace operations can support the work of aid organizations operating in the region and help to elevate the level of conversation happening at the United Nations about peacekeeping.

That includes a willingness to have conversations about how and why some regional players may be invested in not resolving conflicts and how those dynamics play into how any future peace missions can operate.

“We have to be very blunt in some areas: the political situation is not supporting,” he said. “We need to make sure that the people are actually being looked after, that conflict is not actually being used as a method to maintain power in certain areas.”

When asked whether he would commit to holding a vote in Parliament on Canada’s future peace operation deployments, Sajjan did not answer.

Once he returns on August 17, Sajjan says he will be taking the information he learned during the trip to Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion so they can work out a “whole-of-government” approach for Canada’s peace operations abroad.

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