Lateral thinking is important in foreign policy. By thinking laterally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could solve two major problems: the Saudi arms deal, and the Canadian Armed Forces' inability to deliver on both the new NATO mission to Latvia and significant UN peacekeeping.
The Saudi arms deal pits the maintenance of 3000 jobs against Canada's reputation for supporting international human rights. The jobs are important. However, as Saudi Arabia's behaviour at home and in Yemen worsens, Canada's chances of winning a much-coveted UN Security Council seat decline.
The centre point of Trudeau's effort to win a Security Council seat has been his determination "to revitalize Canada's role in peace-keeping."
That was already a tall order for the Canadian Armed Forces, which are suffering from a post-Afghanistan retention and recruiting crisis. The regular force has already fallen 1,870 soldiers below the mandated 68,000 personnel, while the reserve force is 5,293 below its mandated 27,000. By comparison, there were more than 120,000 men and women in uniform during the height of Canada's engagement in peacekeeping, from the 1960s to 1990s.
Today, these personnel numbers make it impossible for Canada to mount a significant peacekeeping mission while taking on the NATO mission in Latvia.
Moreover, the Canadian Army lacks the equipment needed for both a significant peacekeeping mission and the NATO deployment. With just 650 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) in hand, 500 tactical patrol vehicles on order, and a much-delayed procurement of trucks only just underway, the process of rebuilding the Army is in its early stages.
For these reasons, Canada's "revitalized" role in peacekeeping could be limited to just 200-300 soldiers embedded in operations dominated by other countries. With 90,000 soldiers from around the world deployed in UN missions, the addition of a few hundred Canadians would hardly be noticed.
Fortunately, there is a way to resolve these problems, because the Saudi arms deal involves not one but two contracts, and because these contracts are for thousands of LAVs.
One contract is between Canada (represented by the Canadian Commercial Corp., a Crown corporation reporting directly to the Minister of International Trade) and Saudi Arabia. As an agreement between nation-states, this contract is void if it facilitates the violation of fundamental rules of international law, such as the prohibition on the targeting of civilians in armed conflict. This legal reality is reflected in the inclusion of a human rights review within Canada's export permitting process; a review that, in this case, was conducted before a damning UN commission report on Saudi actions in Yemen was presented to the Security Council earlier this year.
The second contract is between the Canadian Commercial Corp. and General Dynamics Land Systems Canada. While this contract would be more difficult to cancel, there is no need to do so. This deal could continue as planned, with the resulting LAVs constituting this country's most significant contribution to UN peacekeeping since Lester Pearson invented the practice 60 years ago.
Most of the troops involved in UN peacekeeping come from developing countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nepal and Uruguay. There is nothing wrong with this, since developing country soldiers can, with the right kind of training and equipment, be highly effective peacekeepers.
However, troop-contributing countries are expected to supply their own equipment, much of which is old, unreliable, and unsuited for the higher-intensity "peacemaking" operations the UN has undertaken in recent years.
LAVs are perfect peacemaking vehicles. They can carry ten soldiers in relative safety, with good protection against roadsides bombs. Eight-wheel drive provides great versatility, and a 35 mm cannon a convincing deterrent. At the same time, a LAV does not look as threatening as a tank. As Canadian soldiers demonstrated in Afghanistan, it is possible to win "hearts and minds" from these vehicles.
There are several ways in which the Canadian government could use new LAVs to support UN peacekeeping.
The Canadian Army could simply be given more LAVs so that it could engage in two deployments concurrently, thus making a significant peacekeeping mission possible – at least on the equipment front.
More ambitiously, Canada could overcome both the equipment and personnel limitations by using the new LAVs to provide transportation for troops from other countries.
As with many of the aircraft used in support of UN peacekeeping missions, the LAVs would be owned, maintained and driven by the country that provides them. With Canadian soldiers doing the driving, Canada would necessarily be involved in the tactical decision-making within any particular mission, while contributing a relatively small proportion of the personnel.
Moreover, since countries providing equipment or personnel for peacekeeping are reimbursed by the UN, some of the costs of the contract with General Dynamics would be recovered over time.
Alternatively, Canada could loan or sell LAVs to troop-contributing countries. In 2005, the Paul Martin government loaned 100 Grizzly and five Husky armoured vehicles to the peacekeeping operation in Darfur, where they were used by African troops. The vehicles were later purchased by Uruguay, which has used them for peacekeeping ever since. Uruguay also bought 44 Cougar armoured vehicles directly from Canada, for the same purpose. All these vehicles were direct predecessors of the LAV.
There are many developing countries whose capabilities and willingness to engage in peacekeeping would be strengthened greatly by LAVs. By turning the Saudi arms deal from a problem into a solution, Mr. Trudeau could revitalize peacekeeping worldwide, boost Canada's reputation, clinch that UN Security Council seat – and still send troops to Latvia.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia