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Liberals won’t hold parliamentary vote on peacekeeping deployment

by Steven Chase (feat. Stephen Saideman)

The Globe and Mail
September 8, 2016

The Liberal federal government is refusing to commit to a parliamentary vote on troop deployments for what it promises will be a return to a major peacekeeping role for Canada – one or more missions that could hold significant peril for soldiers in an era in which stabilizing conflict zones has grown more dangerous.

The government shifted message on this matter within a matter of hours on Thursday. Early in the day, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told The Globe and Mail that the Liberals would not put the matter to a vote in the House of Commons.

The government is currently considering options for a major new peacekeeping deployment and Mr. Sajjan said in a taped interview that the government had already received an election mandate from voters to deploy soldiers to United Nations operations.

Asked twice whether there would be parliamentary votes on peacekeeping deployments, he replied: “No. We will be deciding in cabinet and moving forward as quickly as possible on this.”

But later in the day, after questions from journalists on a teleconference, Mr. Sajjan declined to answer whether MPs would be asked to vote on peacekeeping deployment.

Instead, he said the cabinet will determine how things will proceed. “Once we have that discussion, a process will be decided on,” he said.

His office later said the government was not ruling out a parliamentary vote.

In the Globe interview, Mr. Sajjan said Liberals campaigned in 2015 on a revived commitment to UN peacekeeping and Canadians expect this government to proceed as they promised.

“The Prime Minister, even during the [2015] campaign – we’ve been very prominent about the importance of multilateral organizations and our re-engagement on peace operations with the United Nations.”

Mr. Sajjan was in London for a summit of defence ministers from 80 countries on efforts to bolster UN peacekeeping operations.

He announced that Canada will host the next UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial in 2017. This summit is a new forum, inaugurated this year in London, to improve UN efforts to resolve conflicts.

The Liberals are fully within their rights to send soldiers abroad without consulting the Commons, but the past decade saw former prime minister Stephen Harper hold votes in some instances – for extensions or deployments of combat missions.

The government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged last month to make up to 600 troops available for UN peacekeeping missions – and to spend $450-million for peace and security projects around the world – but it has yet to decide where Canadian soldiers will be posted.

Canada is expected to commit soldiers to a peacekeeping operation in Africa and options include Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

Mr. Sajjan said the government plans to put more focus on bringing gender equality between male and female soldiers to peacekeeping operations – including more leadership roles for women – and said the London meeting has offered evidence that the idea has gone “mainstream” because many other countries are discussing this as well. “You have many other nations who weren’t even allowing females into combat roles [that] are talking about the importance of it now,” he said.

The Defence Minister said he is still gathering information before a decision is made on a new peacekeeping deployment and he could not provide a timeline. “Let’s put it this way: It won’t be years,” he said. “It will be moving much faster.”

He said he would like to make an announcement this year, but he will not commit to a schedule for a decision until he knows that a deployment would make a meaningful contribution.

The Liberals have come under fire this year for limiting debate on legislation on medically assisted dying.

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière called on the Liberals to hold a vote on any peacekeeping deployment. “For a government that wants to consult on every issue, I do not understand why they wouldn’t consult Parliament when it comes to combat or peacekeeping missions.”

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the Liberals are making commitments without sufficiently informing Canadians.

“Any use of the Canadian military must be in our national interest, not to secure a position on the United Nation’s Security Council or to fulfill the Prime Minister’s political aspirations. The Liberals must clearly lay out the details and risks of the mission before deploying Canadian personnel to a war zone.”

Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said he is not a fan of parliamentary votes on military missions partly because there are no clear rules on when they are necessary. “In Canada, the practice is effectively to vote when the executive thinks it’s in its political interest to do so. Is that the best approach?”

He said the Commons could make “take note” debates on deployments mandatory.

Canadian soldiers’ participation in peacekeeping has dwindled over time to about 100 today – a significant decline from historical levels. Current deployments include about 30 in support of UN peacekeeping missions and 70 posted to a non-UN multinational peacekeeping operation in the Sinai Peninsula. The Liberals accused the former Conservative government of turning its back on peacekeeping.

Asked why Canada is pledging only 600 troops for peacekeeping when in the past this country has fielded many more soldiers for such operations, Mr. Sajjan said Canada would have the capacity to deploy more if necessary.

“We have the flexibility for more, but it’s better to be pragmatic about decisions like this,” he said.

He said Canada must also retain the capacity to deal with threats such as Islamic State militants. About 830 Canadian Armed Forces members are being deployed to improve the security of Iraq and surrounding areas.

Canada is also sending a battle group to Latvia as part of a move by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter Russian aggression in that region.

At one point in 1993, about 3,300 Canadian troops were deployed in UN peacekeeping operations, but some experts say that was an unusually high commitment.

Stephen Saideman, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said the Liberals should consider a peacekeeping commitment in Colombia that could follow a ceasefire signed between Bogota and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end a half-century-old guerrilla war. Prof. Saideman said this deployment could end up proving “less violent and less costly” than an African mission.


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