Political fight brewing over Canada's peacekeeping role

As the Liberals prepare to deploy 600 Canadian peacekeepers, Conservatives argue 'peacemaking' is a better option

Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – Battle lines are being drawn between Liberals and Conservatives as the government prepares to deploy hundreds of Canadian troops to an as-yet-unannounced United Nations peacekeeping mission in Africa.

The pending clash, which is breaking along ideological lines, was previewed Thursday and is expected to figure prominently when the House of Commons returns from its summer break later this month.

At a peacekeeping summit in London, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan affirmed the government’s plan to make up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers available for peace operations. The government will also spend $450 million on peace support projects, and will host a similar peacekeeping summit next year.

“Supporting and encouraging peace is certainly part of what it means to be Canada,” Sajjan told counterparts from around the world.

“Canada has a rich history of supporting and building peace around the world. We have seen the tremendous contributions that Canada and our allies can make, and we stand ready to take up this role again.”

But even as Sajjan was touting the return of Canadian blue berets, Conservative defence critics James Bezan and Pierre Paul-Hus were in Ottawa taking shots at the UN’s record on peacekeeping, and the Liberal government’s motives for pursuing such a mission.

Raising the spectre of peacekeeping failures including Rwanda and Bosnia, which many Canadians still remember, the Tories said the UN hasn’t proven itself capable of managing peacekeeping missions.

Instead, Bezan held up Canada’s participation in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Daesh, as an example of a proper military mission. Canada has about 800 troops in the region, including 200 special forces operatives in northern Iraq and three aircraft operating out of Kuwait.

“In the last 15 years,” he said, “our success in these types of missions has been in peacemaking, not in peacekeeping.”

The Conservatives also accused the Liberals of being more interested in winning a UN Security Council seat than actually participating in a mission that is in Canada’s national interest.

“The ultimate goal here is to achieve a seat at the UN Security Council when it becomes available,” Bezan told reporters. “That to me is politics, and we shouldn’t be using our troops as pawns.”

To that end, the Conservatives called on the government to have a debate and vote in the Commons once it decides where Canadian troops will be deployed. Parliament is set to resume on Sept. 19.

The Liberals have yet to say what peacekeeping missions they are considering, aside from a broad statement about heading to Africa.

Mali, which has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous peacekeeping mission, is considered the frontrunner, though the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also believed to be on the table.

“The Liberals must clearly lay out the details before deploying Canadian Armed Forces personnel to a war zone,” Bezan said. “As the Official Opposition, we are calling on the government to bring the UN mission that they choose to Parliament for a full debate and a vote.”

Sajjan who said he is still collecting information on the best mission for Canadian troops, which will include a strong mandate and rules of engagement to protect civilians, appeared to reject Bezan’s demand in a telephone call with reporters.

“It should not come as a surprise to anyone, especially the opposition, that we are looking at peace support operations. We have been working on this for some time,” the minister said. “When I have the necessary information (on which mission to choose), I will be bringing this to cabinet.”

When pressed, however, Sajjan said his job is making sure to choose the right mission for Canada. He said the reasons for the decision will be clearly explained to Canadians, though exactly how that will happen will be up to cabinet to decide.

“I want to make sure that when I make that recommendation, I can justify properly that when we send our troops into harm’s way, that they are going to have a meaningful impact on the ground,” he said. “That’s what I’m focused on.”

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