A new plan to deploy up to 600 peacekeepers in United Nations missions will allow Canada to leap into the front ranks of Western contributors to peacekeeping missions, even though it hasn't yet figured out where to send the troops.
A year after a campaign promise to revive Canada's long-neglected peacekeeping tradition, the federal Liberal government is beginning to invest money and soldiers in its pledge. Four cabinet ministers announced on Friday that Ottawa will commit up to 600 troops and $450-million over three years for "peace and stabilization operations."
For most of the past decade, Canada has languished near the bottom of the world's peacekeeping contributors. With slightly more than 100 peacekeepers abroad, Canada ranks only 67th in the list of contributing nations.
But if it deploys 600 additional troops and 150 police, as the ministers announced on Friday, Canada would rapidly move up to 36th on the list. And among Western nations, it would become the third-biggest contributor, behind only Italy and France, according to estimates by peacekeeping analyst Evan Cinq-Mars.
The new numbers might seem substantial, but the challenges for Canada will be complex and hazardous. Peacekeeping has become a perilous task in today's war zones, with the rising proliferation of militias and terrorist groups, unpredictable threats from multiple directions, intensifying religious extremism, and the growing scrutiny of the human-rights record of peacekeepers on the ground.
African conflict zones such as Mali or the Central African Republic are seen as the most likely places for the new Canadian peacekeepers. Yet the absence of any information on a specific UN mission in Friday's announcement is a sign that the government realizes that the deployment decision won't be easy or simple.
"The risks of deploying Canadian personnel are significant, and this is certainly primary in the government's consideration of the 'where' and 'how' of this policy," said Mr. Cinq-Mars, an analyst who specializes in peacekeeping and civilian protection in Africa.
"UN peacekeepers face immense expectations to robustly protect civilians and are increasingly targeted in the highly complex and dangerous situations where they're deployed. But delivering on a commitment to support UN peace operations means accepting this risk and moving forward with specific commitments."
Mali, a long-standing Western ally in West Africa and a favourite location for Canadian foreign aid and Canadian mining investments, is believed to be one of the front-runners for the Canadian peacekeeping deployment.
Yet Mali has been an increasingly hazardous site for peacekeepers in recent years, and today it has become the deadliest place for UN peacekeepers to serve. Since the deployment of the UN mission in Mali in 2013, more than 100 peacekeepers have been killed.
Islamist militant groups, which seized control of northern Mali for several months in 2012 until they were driven out by a French-led intervention, have claimed responsibility for ambushes and attacks that have killed many peacekeepers. And clashes have continued in the north, despite a peace agreement last year. The UN Security Council recently authorized another 2,500 troops for the Mali mission, giving it more than 15,000 uniformed personnel and an annual budget of more than $1-billion.
"The number of armed groups in Mali has increased steadily since the 2012 crisis, and a large swath of the northern part of the country still remains beyond the control of the national authorities," the Institute for Security Studies said in a recent report.
The institute, an Africa-based think tank, noted that last year's peace agreement was fragile because it excluded many groups, including Islamist militants. "There is still considerable doubt about the potential for creating conditions for a lasting peace," it said. "The terrorist threat, restricted to the north for a long time, has gradually spread through the rest of the country."
But if Mali is a dangerous and difficult place for peacekeepers, the other major African war zones are equally risky, or perhaps riskier. In South Sudan, fighting has raged since 2013, killing tens of thousands of people, and ceasefires have repeatedly fallen apart. In Burundi, hundreds of people have been killed, but the government has refused to accept any large-scale peacekeeping force.
The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the other leading candidates for the Canadian deployment. In both countries, however, UN troops have become embroiled in lethal clashes with local militias that could prove difficult for Canadian public opinion to accept.