OTTAWA – Officials at National Defence have dusted off their briefing books and are back looking at where they could send Canadian peacekeepers as the clock ticks down to a major UN summit on the subject next month in Vancouver.
The flurry of activity ends months of idling as military planners waited for some signs of interest from the Trudeau government, which first promised up to 600 troops and 150 police for peacekeeping last year.
National Defence conducted a number of fact-finding missions and drew up options on possible missions following that commitment in August 2016, but the Liberals refused to pull the trigger.
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Instead, the whole idea was put on the back burner for months amid concerns about the potential risks of modern peacekeeping missions, and as the government turned to dealing with the Trump administration.
In the meantime, National Defence’s proposals collected dust as they sat largely untouched with the Prime Minister’s Office and Global Affairs Canada.
Sources tell The Canadian Press that defence officials are now back at it and that the Liberals hope to make a decision before the Nov. 14-15 peacekeeping summit in Vancouver, though it’s not certain they will.
The government has previously said it will not be rushed into a mission, but the UN expected last year when it agreed to let Canada host the meeting that Canadian troops would already be on the ground.
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The summit, to be hosted by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, is only supposed to be open to officials from countries that have made concrete pledges to peacekeeping missions.
Defence officials are still looking at possible roles for Canada in Africa, but have also reportedly expanded their search to include the new mission in Haiti, where Canadian peacekeepers previously served.
The UN has prepared a list of requirements in advance of the Vancouver summit, which includes three missions with “critical” shortages of specialized troops and equipment: Mali, South Sudan and Haiti.
The UN is specifically looking for an intelligence unit, bomb-disposal company and transport helicopters for Mali; a special forces unit and transport company for South Sudan; and helicopters for Haiti.
But it also needs more medical personnel, engineers, female peacekeepers, francophone troops and police officers across the board – all of which Canada has in supply.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that the Liberals remain committed to peacekeeping, but that Canadians would want the government to take its time before putting troops into harm’s way.
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“We need to make sure that we’re doing it right, that we’re doing it in a thoughtful way and that it’s the right mission,” Trudeau said at the time. “We will take the time necessary to do it properly.”
A UN official expressed frustration Friday at the government’s apparent foot-dragging, noting that the needs of the world’s hotspots have not changed significantly since the Liberals first promised to do more peacekeeping.
“Mali is still Mali, and South Sudan is still South Sudan,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivities. “You have all the information. There isn’t much left for discussion.”
The Liberals were expected last year to send a large number of troops to Mali, where the UN is policing a ceasefire between the local government and various rebel groups amid attacks from terrorist groups.
French Ambassador Kareen Rispal, whose country has a large counter-insurgency mission in Mali, came out in French-language media this week saying she hopes Canada will still support the UN there.
That may still be the case, but sources warn Canada’s footprint is likely to be smaller than anticipated wherever the government ultimately decides to go.
Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn, who has done extensive work on peacekeeping, said it’s way past time the government took another serious look at potential contributions to the UN.
Canada stands to be embarrassed if a decision isn’t made before the Vancouver summit, though he warned that simply offering a token contribution to one mission or another likely won’t be enough.
“Canada has pledged up to 600 military personnel and 150 police personnel,” he said.
“If we don’t deliver more than half of that, then it will be a great disappointment because the UN desperately needs well-equipped forces and francophone forces, in particular.”