Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says what Canada will ask its soldiers to do in Africa can no longer be called peacekeeping because the term doesn't reflect modern demands of stabilizing a conflict zone – something experts say could run the gamut from training other countries' troops to counterterrorism.
Mr. Sajjan spoke from Ethiopia, the first stop in an eight-day fact-finding mission to Africa, as Ottawa tries to narrow where to deploy soldiers in what it promises will be a return to a major peacekeeping role for Canada.
The Defence Minister acknowledges the job in conflict-ravaged countries is potentially more dangerous these days and said he prefers the phrase "peace support operations" to describe the task Canada is preparing to embrace in one or more places in Africa.
"I think we can definitely say what we used to have as peacekeeping, before, is no longer. We don't have two parties that have agreed on peace and there's a peacekeeping force in between," he told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
"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."
Mr. Sajjan has been directed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "renew Canada's commitment to United Nations peace operations" – a campaign pledge made by the Liberals, who had accused the Harper government of turning its back on peacekeeping.
Canadian soldiers' participation in peacekeeping has dwindled over time to about 100 today – a major drop when compared with 1993 when 3,300 were deployed in UN peacekeeping missions. Current deployments include about 30 in support of UN peacekeeping missions and 70 posted to a multinational peacekeeping operation in the Sinai Peninsula.
Peacekeeping expert Walter Dorn, with Canadian Forces College, said it's his understanding that an official memo on the deployment went to cabinet in June, a document he expects would have come with recommendations.
Mr. Sajjan said he's made no decisions yet. His options include, but are not limited to, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic – all countries with UN peacekeeping missions.
The remainder of his trip includes the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The Defence Minister declined for security reasons to say if he was to visit Entebbe, Uganda, a major staging ground for logistics to UN missions in East and Central Africa, including the DRC.
Mr. Sajjan remained non-commital when asked to identify his priorities for a mission choice, saying he must gather more information first.
"Just because I am not going to a place doesn't mean I am ruling it out. And just because I am going to a place doesn't mean I'm putting resources there," he said.
Prof. Dorn said if Mr. Sajjan were to visit Entebbe, rather than Kampala, while in Uganda, then he would take that as a stronger indication that Canada is seriously leaning toward a major commitment to the UN mission in the DRC.
He expects Ottawa will announce its new commitment in September, by the time the UN Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping takes place in London.
The DRC has been trying to recover from what has been called "Africa's World War," a massive conflict that at its peak involved nine countries and was formally ended in 2003 after a peace agreement. The UN mission has dealt with its aftermath and subsequent smaller conflicts.
"That is a tough conflict, partly because it's multilayered, partly because of the size of the country," said Jane Boulden, research chair in international relations and security studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston. "There is no easy transport across different zones in the country. It's deeply corrupt."
The former Harper government more than once turned down the command of the peacekeeping mission in the DRC. The last time, in 2008, Canada was still busy with a combat mission in Afghanistan but many in the military were wary, and for some, the prospect of leading a complex mission evoked memories of events in Rwanda, when Canadian general Roméo Dallaire was forced to watch spiralling mass killings under indecisive UN leadership.
Mr. Sajjan said Canada has a responsibility to do what it can to help African countries, plagued by high unemployment, to fight the forces of destabilization, including terrorist groups such as the Islamic State that are building alliances with regional militants such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabab.
He said military is not the only tool necessary for peace support operations, noting development assistance helps, too. "Far too often, we think we want to be able to send in a military resource because that is what we've done in the past."
Accompanying the Defence Minister are Mr. Dallaire, now retired, and Louise Arbour, a former UN high commissioner for human rights who also sat on Canada's Supreme Court.