Canadian Parliamentarians soon will have the opportunity to debate the merits of Canada’s military and other assistance to the UN-sanctioned intervention in Mali. To increase the possibility of successfully contributing to stability in Mali and the broader region, certain principles should be followed in making operational decisions about Canada’s current engagement.
First and foremost, the needs of Mali—rather than Canada’s own self-defined interests or those of its NATO allies—must be in Canada’s strategic sights.
Combatting terrorism, joining coalitions of the willing—in this case led by France—and even responding with troops to a UN Security Council resolution do not, in and of themselves, provide a sure rationale and guidance on where and how Canada can best make its contribution to Mali’s longer-term security.
As we are still learning from Canada’s extensive military engagement in Afghanistan and its more recent but limited air support to operations in Libya, battling terrorists and autocrats under the authority of a UN Security Council resolution does not guarantee success or sustainable political stability in fragile or weak states. Neither Afghanistan nor Libya has yet achieved sustainable security; indeed, military “successes” have had significant negative repercussions for those states and their immediate neighbours. Today’s situation in Mali is at least in part a result of the blowback from the NATO-led air mission in Libya.
Canadian Parliamentarians and the Canadian public now have the opportunity to reflect on recent Canadian Forces expeditionary experience and bring those insights to bear on decisions relating to Canadian engagement in Mali.
An effective Mali-first security strategy for Canada will be guided by the following principles:
- To provide on a priority basis humanitarian assistance (food, shelter, medical aid) to vulnerable civilians, including both internally displaced persons and refugees taking shelter in neighbouring countries.
- To support political processes that will re-establish in Mali a participatory and enduring democratic culture and institutions that are responsive to citizens’ primary needs.
- To provide diplomatic and other support to resolve longstanding tensions between people in the north and south of Mali; only such a resolution can ensure Mali’s continued territorial integrity and offer a defence against terrorist or jihadist incursions.
- To insist that Mali and international military operations make protection of vulnerable civilians their primary mission, and that the highest respect for human rights and international humanitarian law is integral to those military operations.
- To plan for and address the stockpile of illegally circulating small arms and light weapons in Mali and its neighbours, and to implement at the earliest possible stage a program of disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation of fighters on all sides of the conflict.
Guided by these principles, Canada can make substantial contributions to sustainable social and political stability in Mali, which in turn will provide a bulwark against terrorist or jihadist elements and serve the longer-term interests of Canada and the international community.