As Canada finally ends its protracted military engagement in Afghanistan this year, it will face a key decision: does it want to deploy its troops overseas again? And if so, should it eventually return to a substantial role in peacekeeping?
The Harper government, with its disdain for the United Nations, has avoided any significant involvement in UN peacekeeping missions, aside from a token contribution of a couple of dozen troops in a few isolated places. But the latest disastrous conflicts in Africa, and the desperate need for foreign peacekeepers to save lives and separate the combatants, are examples of the kinds of pressures that could some day persuade Ottawa to consider another UN request for troops.
The brutal fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic over the past several weeks is just the latest evidence of how the world still badly needs peacekeepers. This week, the European Union tried to round up 1,000 troops to help stabilize the Central African Republic, but it ended up with only 500 soldiers, mostly from small countries such as Estonia. And the European troops won't arrive in the war-torn country until the end of February at the earliest.
There is no immediate likelihood of any Canadian help for the African crises, but Canada could return to peacekeeping in Africa at some point, especially if there is a change of government next year. With its modern equipment and bilingual forces, along with its peacekeeping tradition, Canada could be an ideal contributor in a country like the Central African Republic.
While Canada has been famed for its blue-beret peacekeepers since the 1960s, the Harper government has allowed this peacekeeping tradition to wither away into irrelevance. According to the latest UN figures, Canada is currently providing a total of only 115 personnel for all UN peacekeeping operations worldwide, even when its police and civilian personnel are added to its 20 soldiers. That ranks Canada as just the 61st biggest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, behind such world powers as Fiji, Togo, Yemen and Djibouti.
Meanwhile, as bloodshed continues in the Central African Republic, its new president is pleading for foreign help. Catherine Samba-Panza, chosen as interim president on Monday, said the current pledges of foreign troops are "not enough to restore security and order."
There are already 1,600 French troops and about 4,000 African troops in the CAR. But many of the African troops are from neighbouring Chad, a far from neutral player in the conflict. And the French troops bring their own echoes of colonial intervention. The new president is appealing for bigger contributions from the European Union and the African Union – both of which have been slow to respond.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have argued that the African peacekeepers lack the equipment and professionalism that a long-term UN mission could provide. "African Union and French peacekeeping forces are the lid on the boiling kettle, but aren't ideally suited to contain this human rights and humanitarian disaster," says Lewis Mudge, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"A UN force would have better arms and equipment as well as logistical and communications capacities," he wrote in a commentary this month. "UN peacekeepers would have the long-term commitment French troops lack…. A UN mission would also come with civilian expertise to help rebuild the country, which the AU doesn't possess."
Many hopes have been pinned on Mrs. Samba-Panza, just the third woman president in Africa today. She is a well-respected moderate who was serving as mayor of the capital, Bangui, when she was plucked for the president's job.
Known for her activism on women's rights and human rights, she is seen as an independent mediator who has supported peace and dialogue for years. Now she is trying to restrain the Muslim and Christian militias that have become embroiled in revenge killings and looting.
In her first speeches this week, she made a strong appeal to all sides to lay down their weapons. She warned that the country was "at the brink of implosion." She promised to meet the armed groups and listen to their concerns. And she suggested that her "sensibility as a woman" could help to moderate the conflicts.
Words, however, will not be enough. Looting and killing are continuing in Bangui this week, despite efforts by the African and French troops to disarm the militias. On Wednesday alone, seven people were killed in reprisal attacks and inter-religious clashes, and Red Cross workers found a further 11 bodies dumped in Bangui, most of them burnt beyond recognition.
Outside of the capital, the Red Cross said its volunteers had buried more than 60 bodies this week in three towns alone, while a further 29 injured had to be rescued. Armed groups are still visible on roads leading out of Bangui to the north and west, the Red Cross said. Thousands of people are continuing to flee from the violence, seeking shelter in the bush, in places of worship, or out of the country entirely. More than a million people have been displaced – almost a quarter of the country's population.
Peter Bouckaert, emergency director of Human Rights Watch, is in Bangui this week and witnessed how peacekeepers can save lives. He saw a heavy presence of French troops protecting a Catholic Church where hundreds of Muslims had taken shelter in one neighbourhood of Bangui. Then his team found 30 Muslims under threat of being killed in reprisal attacks in another neighbourhood. With the help of French and Rwandan peacekeepers, the Muslims were evacuated to safety.
"Many more Muslim and Christian communities remain under threat," Mr. Bouckaert tweeted from Bangui on Wednesday night. "More peacekeepers needed."
It's the kind of appeal that Canada might some day be willing to hear.