Understanding the Future of Peacekeeping with Harjit Sajjan

Canada’s Defense Minister discusses his upcoming fact-finding mission to Africa

Harjit Sajjan w Cadets 2016 - Tristan Johnston
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan in 2016 (Tristan Johnston)

Peacekeeping has long been a key component of both Canadian identities and our reputation abroad, yet it has been scaled back in recent years.

The modern idea of peacekeeping—put simply, the maintenance of peace conditions in conflict areas by international non-combatant forces—is largely credited to Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lester Pearson. Canada’s role in global peacekeeping efforts was at its most prominent in the 90s, when we had as many as 3,300 troops deployed in peacekeeping roles, a number that has since dwindled to about 100.

So strong has been the perception that Canada has strayed from our peacekeeping roots that Justin Trudeau promised to “renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations,” as part of his election campaign.

To that end, and to try to answer some of the questions about Canada’s future as a peacekeeping force, Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan embarked this month on a fact-finding mission to Africa.

Sajjan spoke to The Runner briefly at a public event in his local riding of Vancouver South shortly before departing.

“We want to figure out where can we have the best impact because the last thing you want to do is just say, ‘Pick a mission and send your troops. Put money in there.’ What we in Canada want to do is we actually want to have an impact and be responsible, and to do that you need to have a good understanding,” says Sajjan.

Sajjan departed on Aug. 9 for an African tour that will take him through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda over the course of eight days. Joining him was retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire—best known for his part in the peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide—and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.

This fact-finding mission does not necessarily imply that Canada will be taking part in peacekeeping operations in these countries, but the government is looking for a peacekeeping mission, and the troubled region could have use for our troops. Part of this mission is to coordinate with local authorities in the area to determine what sort of action would best suit the region’s needs.

“It’s about making sure we have the right information so we can make an informed decision, because at the end of the day you’re sending your troops into harm’s way.” says Sajjan.

This mission is part of the Liberal Party’s efforts to make good on a campaign promise to restore Canada’s status as a leader in global peacekeeping, a status that they believe was diminished by the Harper government.

According to the defence minister, a multilateral approach—working as a key part of international coalitions—is how Canada will resume its contribution to peace and stability in troubled regions.

“We firmly believe in multilateralism, the United Nations, and NATO, and the thing is, it’s not just about believing—it’s about the action you’re taking, [such as] our contributions to working in a coalition, the leadership role that we are taking in NATO now as one of the framework nations.”

Sajjan also acknowledged that simply taking the same approach to peacekeeping that has been taken in the past will not suffice, as the needs of conflict-ridden areas have changed and evolved. One of the goals of this trip was to learn more about these needs.

“The peacekeeping of the past is not up-to-date, and that’s why it’s so important get the right information—to talk about the peace operations of the future,” says Sajjan. “So if you assess an area, you might not need to send troops. You might need to send development projects. You might need to do capacity work in the policing. We want to make sure that it’s a whole government approach that we take to this, not strictly defence.”

The Liberals are expected to announce Canada’s next peacekeeping mission in September. Most likely the findings of this mission will factor into that decision.