Training foreign troops will be the 'flagship' of Canada's new UN peace strategy, top soldier says
OTTAWA—Training foreign troops will be the “flagship” of Canada’s newly announced peace operations strategy, says the country’s top soldier, who concedes that elements of the plan still require months more work.
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau on Wednesday took the wraps off his government’s long-awaited effort to reengage with United Nations peace missions.
Elements of the strategy include $15 million in funding to boost participation by women soldiers in UN operations; an initiative to end the recruitment of child soldiers; and the promise of Canadian personnel to assist with training.
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It also pledges up to six helicopters, two transport aircraft and a quick reaction force of up to 200 personnel to support UN missions.
But apart from Trudeau’s promise of a single transport aircraft for UN operations based in Uganda, the plan offered no details on possible deployments.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, said it would be “inappropriate” to say when those might start.
“I’m not even going to hazard a guess on that one right now. Step number one is now to get into detailed planning with the UN and find out . . . the what, the where and the when,” he said in an interview.
This week’s announcement was months in the making. The Liberals pledged in the 2015 election to “recommit” to UN peace operations, in part by providing specialized capabilities such as medical teams and engineering support. That promise was followed in August, 2016 by a commitment to deploy up to 600 troops and 150 police officers on UN operations.
Canada’s contributions to UN peace missions are at their lowest levels in years with just 23 military personnel currently assigned to such operations.
That’s not likely to change soon. In the wake of Wednesday’s commitments, Vance made clear that it will take many months yet of planning and discussions with the United Nations to determine how Canada’s offers of personnel and equipment can best fit with ongoing missions.
“Some of the ‘when’ on smart pledges is years away. Some of the ‘when’ on other potential operations is sooner than that,” he said.
Some observers criticized the Liberal government for not committing personnel to a single mission, choosing instead to disperse personnel among many possible locations.
But Vance said that despite speculation, there was never a plan in the works to deploy troops on a single UN operation, saying, “I’ve never received guidance that said do a mission with 600 (troops).”
Suggestions that troops were headed to Mali, for example, or that the announcement had been delayed “didn’t match the reality of the work we were doing,” Vance said.
“There were a lot of assumptions made about, ‘hey, we’re going to Africa’,” Vance said
Instead, he said that Canada was working with the United Nations “to figure out a new way of doing business.” And he said repeated fact-finding trips by bureaucrats and politicians, including visits to African countries, were not about scouting any one particular mission.
“That’s us doing research . . . that allowed us to arrive at an approach that government could consider,’ he said.
“We’ve been working for over a year to determine what are the various options available to government in terms of how to improve UN performance overall with Canadian troops,” Vance said.
Yet given that Africa is the location of many UN missions so “it’s very likely a place where we would offer contributions,” Vance said.
The peace support strategy calls for a new training and advisory team to work with a nation before and during a deployment to improve their own ability to conduct peace operations. It also says that Canada will contribute to training centres and schools.
Vance said such activities will be the “flagship” of the plan.
“We’re going to try and leverage the Canadian expertise, one of the best trained militaries in the world and best equipped, . . . so that UN mission performance can improve,” Vance said.
Defence analyst Dave Perry said elements of the peacekeeping strategy make sense. The problem, he said, is that the government itself had raised expectations with its drawn-out decision-making and rhetoric about its intentions.
“It wasn’t just what the government was saying publicly. I think there were also a number of commitments that were strongly intimated to some of Canada’s key allies,” Perry said in an interview.
“My sense is that the different options that were put forward by the department of national defence for whatever reasons weren’t palatable to the government,” said Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
While he said the contributions to UN operations were “modest,” Perry said Canada is better off providing military support to other missions, such as coalition efforts to combat Daesh, or NATO roles.
“Bluntly, there are better ways of achieving Canadian national objectives in the world that through UN missions,” Perry said.