Canada’s Peacekeeping Missing in Mali: First-Class Decision or Disaster-in-Waiting?

J. Read Leask

26 March, 2018

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
    A Canadian CH-147F Chinook in operation.

A Canadian CH-147F Chinook in operation.


Recently, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that Canada will be joining the United Nation’s peacekeeping operation in Mali. Canada’s commitment to the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) marks its first peacekeeping operation in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. “I think it’s a first-class decision…” said retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire upon hearing of the mission. While this announcement fulfills a key platform commitment for the Liberal Government, there are a number of serious risks that may prevent the mission from being the political “slam-dunk” that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hoping for. 


Canada’s year-long commitment to MINUSMA will include two Chinook helicopters, to be used for logistical support and transport, and four Griffon helicopters to provide armoured escort and protection. In terms of personnel, the government was unable to confirm exact numbers, but up to 250 special forces, medical officers, and support staff are expected to deploy to the West African country. This commitment of equipment and support troops matches the request made of Canada by the UN last year.

Upon arriving in Mali, Canadian troops wearing ­les casques bleus will be confronted by a deeply complex and dangerous conflict. Since a rebellion and corresponding coup d’état in 2012, Mali has been rife with instability and violence. In 2013, the Security Council attempted to stabilize the situation by passing Resolution 2100 establishing MINUSMA. MINUSMA is a peace operations mission focused on supporting political rebuilding efforts, protecting civilians, and building the conditions for peace. However, there is little evidence that the mission has had any success stabilizing the bloody battle between insurgent, separatist, and Islamic terrorist groups of various ethnic origin. In fact, over the duration of the mission 162 peacekeepers have been killed, making Mali the most dangerous of the UN’s peace operations.

The reality of Canada recommitting itself to peacekeeping will be a welcome development for Canadians who have been critical of the country’s disengagement from this type of military mission over the last fifteen years. For this group, this mission will rightfully reverse Canada’s descent from the largest contributor of peacekeepers to the UN in the 1990s to 73 on that list today. Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan currently lead the UN in terms of contributions of troops to peace operations. However, this decision will not be praised in all circles.

Among those dissatisfied with the mission is Conservative Party National Defence Critic James Bezan who sharply criticized the decision as reflecting an out-dated “Pearsonian” view of peacekeeping from the 1970s. Bezan’s comments speak to a larger debate about Canada’s legacy and future role in peacekeeping. For some, Canada’s legacy of peacekeeping is both central to our identity as a country and ought to be a key part of our foreign policy as a middle power. Others, however, suggest peacekeeping is an antiquated term that fails to reflect the realities of modern operations that focus more on peacebuilding and enforcement. Public opinion polling suggests that the majority of Canadians endorse the former view of peacekeeping and there can be no doubt that this decision is, at least in part, a political appeal aimed  directly at them.

There is no doubt that Canada’s decision to re-engage is grounded in sound justification. Firstly, evidence suggests that UN peace operation missions of this nature are often (with a few notable exceptions) successful in stabilizing the host country and contributing to the development of peace. This evidence holds true for situations, like Mali, where war is being fought by several competing factions. Canada’s re-engagement in this area is certainly motivated by a genuine desire to use peacekeeping as a means of promoting peace and stability around the world. Secondly, the United Nations, Germany, and the Netherlands have all called on Canada specifically, to assist in Mali. In response, Canada’s contribution matches what was requested. This suggests that the Government’s choice of Mali is grounded in an objective desire to fill a niche capacity gap in order to maximize the impact of the contribution.

Although there is sound, evidence-based justification for this mission, there is also politics at play. The political appeal of this decision is two-fold. Firstly, it fulfills one of the Government’s key foreign policy platform promises. As mentioned, this platform commitment to re-engage in peacekeeping is targeted at voters who subscribe to a nostalgic view of Canada’s role in the world and want to see that role in the world reasserted. The second political aspect of this decision involves another key pillar of the Government’s foreign policy agenda. Specifically, this commitment is a key part of this Government’s campaign for a seat on the Security Council in 2021. The intense criticism leveled at the Harper Government after their failure to secure a Temporary Security Council seat suggests that this effort to use peacekeeping commitments to attract the support of other UN member states could have important domestic political implications. 

Both of these things represent significant potential political wins for the government in the lead up to the next election but, the prospect of political pay-off can sometimes erode sound policy implementation. While all missions, combat or not, involve some level of risk, the staggering level of violence in Mali means that Canadians troops could be put into harm’s way on a daily basis. This means that the government must take extra care to ensure the implementation of this policy protects its peacekeepers foremost. If they fail to do this, and Canadian troops are killed in Mali, the Canadian people will withdraw their support of this reengagement. That is, if the Government of Canada does not adequately consider the risks associated with this mission, this “first class idea” will quickly become a “first class disaster”.