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Liberals edge closer to peacekeeping, stop short of choosing a mission

OTTAWA — The Liberal government has edged Canada closer to a return to peacekeeping, but stopped short of what might be the most important — and toughest — question: Where?

Four federal cabinet ministers used an air force base in Quebec as a backdrop Friday to announce that Canada will allot up to 600 troops for United Nations peacekeeping operations. They also revealed plans to spend $450 million over the next three years on peace and stability projects.

Speaking to reporters a few hours later in nearby Saguenay, Que., where his caucus held a two-day retreat in advance of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted the announcement as a sign of Canada's re-engagement with the UN.

"The commitment we made today," he said, "is us demonstrating to the world that we're very much interested and supportive of the work that the United Nations does to stabilize, to create security, to create opportunity in difficult places right around the world."

Yet noticeably absent was any indication of which countries or UN missions the government is considering for Canada. Trudeau said the government will discuss this with the UN and other nations.

"We will now have important decisions to take around where and how those Canadian forces and resources are deployed," Trudeau said. "That will be in conversation and concert with the United Nations, but also with friends and allies around the world as we look at how Canada can best help and contribute."

Trudeau and his ministers repeatedly emphasized that the government will look at missions where Canada can make a meaningful impact. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said there are some missions in Africa that have the potential to make a difference with a little support from a country like Canada.

But Sajjan did not specify which operations he was referring to and the reality is that all the missions the government is believed to be considering — Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — are fraught with risk and complexity.

In Mali, for example, 105 peacekeepers have been killed since the UN mission there was established in April 2013. Peacekeepers in the DRC and South Sudan, meanwhile, have been accused of not doing enough to protect civilians. The political situation in those countries is also extremely volatile.

During the news conference at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville announcing the new funding commitment, Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion appeared cognizant of the risks Canadian blue helmets will face as the nature of peacekeeping has changed over the last 20 years.

The ministers also acknowledged the UN is not perfect when asked what measures were being taken to ensure Canadian troops aren't put in no-win situations as happened in Rwanda. But they said the UN had learned from the past and that it was in Canada's own interest to return peacekeeping.

"It's for the protection of the world and Canada that we cannot be absent from peacekeeping," Dion said. "The goal is not to be in never-ending fights around the world. The goal is to make a difference."

The government did not say when a decision on a specific mission will be made, though one prime opportunity would come when Trudeau addresses the UN General Assembly in New York next month.

The lack of specifics made it difficult for military experts to assess the government's plan, even as opposition parties called on the Liberals to put any future mission to a debate and vote in the House of Commons.

While Royal Military College professor Walter Dorn believed Friday's announcement represented the first tangible step in Canada's return as a leader on peacekeeping, which he has long advocated, "once we know where we are going we will be in a better position to assess the risks and challenges."

Even without details, Carleton University professor Steve Saideman questioned whether the Liberals have raised expectations to unrealistic levels. While deploying 600 troops would represent a dramatic increase from the 19 deployed on UN missions at the end of July, he said it's still not a sizable contingent.

"They haven't picked a spot and that's obviously the big question," he said. "But I'm also concerned the rhetoric and the reality are going to be two different things."

Canada also had 75 police officers and nine military experts involved in UN missions at the end of July.

Raising the spectre of Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia, Conservative defence critic James Bezan said his fear is the Liberals are more concerned with picking a mission that will help them win a UN Security Council seat than choosing one that is good for Canada.

"This is why it's important to know where we're going, why we're going," he said.

Asked about a link between peacekeeping and a Security Council seat, Dion said: "The only link is that Canada is back. … We need to be in peace operations, as difficult as this may be. We need to be back in the United Nations."

— With additional reporting from Joanna Smith in Saguenay, Que.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

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