Will Canadian troops support peace in Mali?

Defence & Human Security, Featured, News

Almost two years ago, Canada pledged to bolster United Nations peacekeeping missions with as many as 600 troops. The Canadian government finally made good on that promise when it recently announced that it will be sending an estimated 250 troops and six helicopters to support the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. But the news is garnering a lot of negative comment from critics who say that Canadian peacekeepers will be joining a dangerous mission in which there is little peace to keep. Are they right?

The situation in Mali is undoubtedly daunting. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is the most dangerous UN mission in the world, claiming the lives of 162 blue helmets since its creation in late April 2013. In comparison,

  • 130 Canadians have died while on UN missions since Canada began supporting UN peacekeeping in 1956;
  • 23 members of the Canadian forces died while protecting the peace in the former Yugoslavia in one of the largest peace missions in recent history.

Canada’s allies point out that the Canadian troops will be safer than some of the troops from other countries. Canadians will be living on a base that is protected by Belgian and Dutch guards. To date, all but nine of the MINUSMA fatalities have been soldiers from non-Western countries, most from countries whose forces are not the best equipped and trained. Mali, it seems, is particularly dangerous for troops from the developing world.

As well, Western troops often don’t face the most onerous and dangerous duties while on mission. When Western countries provide troops, they sometimes attach conditions that can reduce risk exposure. Ousmane Aly Diallo, a PhD candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, cites the example of Western troops who only go on patrol duty “during the ‘golden hour’, referring to the immediate hour after a traumatic injury of a soldier.” African troop-contributing countries “are more willing to engage with spoiler groups,” as has been the case in Somalia with terrorist group al-Shabaab.

It is also worth pointing out that, even though there is still armed conflict, Mali is not a combat zone like Yemen or Afghanistan, and it needs help to maintain even a semblance of order. As Walter Dorn, a Royal Military College professor, points out, “If there was a perfect peace we wouldn’t need to send a peace mission.”

Still, the Mali mission is not without danger for Canadians. Peacekeepers face shifting ethnic allegiances, increased activity by terrorist networks, the easy availability of weapons, and drug trafficking, along with other criminal activity.

To add to the complexity, the war-ravaged economy of Mali is intrinsically linked to the conflict. Mali is one of the 10 poorest countries on Earth; ethnic militias that control lucrative drug, gun, and human trafficking routes play a critical economic role. As University of Toronto professor Aisa Ahmad points out, these militias, which are “directly profiting from the political chaos,” are being tacitly supported by the peacekeeping troops. Why? They are trying to prop up the Bamako peace agreement that was signed in 2015 and to prevent an Islamist takeover of the country. Canadian troops must navigate in this complicated web of economic interests and ethnic politics. But the inescapable reality is that peacekeeping is a dangerous enterprise.

So should Canada go to Mali?

Canadians must remember that peacekeeping has always been perilous. The troops we send will be in harm’s way. But if done correctly, peace support missions can contribute not only to national and regional stability and security but to greater security for the world.

Canadian forces should go where they can be most effective in reducing human suffering and where they can support the country and region in addressing sources of insecurity and instability. Canada has led the way in crafting international norms and commitments to protect civilians, and peacekeeping operations constitute a concrete way to advance them.

Peacekeeping, of course, is but one of several elements needed for sustainable peacebuilding efforts. Canada will need to consider the multiple ways it can contribute to supporting peace and stability in the country.

Mali, with its fragile peace accord and heightened insecurity, needs Canada’s help. The modest peacekeeping contribution should be just the start of our commitment to peace in the region.

Figure 1 Top ten troop and police contributors to MINUSMA as of February 2018. Source: UN Peacekeeping

Above photo: Peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) carried out civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) activities with the local community in Gao, which included free medical consultations, distribution of drinking water, and mine-risk education on the dangers and identification of unexploded ordnance. July 12, 2017. UN Photo/Harandane Dicko


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