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Should Canada’s Next Peacekeeping Mission be in the Congo?

April 23, 2010

There are strong indications that Canada is going to be involved in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent articles in several major Canadian newspapers suggest that that Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie will soon be heading up the mission and consequently, Canada will have a greater role to play in this conflict.

See  The Globe’s article on the Congo mission, their coverage of Michaelle Jean’s visit to the Congo, as well as op-eds by Gerald Caplan, Jack Granatstein, Chris Selley and an editorial by The Montreal Gazette. In the blogospere, check out the posts from The Torch: A UN Congo mission for the CF? Local realities, Afstan, Congo, R2P, and  Congo no go? On the conflict itself, steel yourself and watch Rape of a Nation or read the International Crisis Group’s latest report.

On the Appointment of Andrew Leslie

It is certainly an honour for Andrew Leslie and for Canada to be asked to head the peacekeeping mission, especially in light of the fact that it is the world’s largest peacekeeping mission at the moment. This is a diplomatic coup and the Harper government should be congratulated for securing this opportunity—and I don’t say this lightly. The question though is whether Leslie’s appointment will lead to a greater commitment to Congo vis à vis future peacekeeping troops, development assistance, and political involvement.

First off, it needs to be underscored that Leslie’s potential appointment in and of itself is undoubtedly good thing. It speaks to Canada’s aspirations on the international stage and our desire to punch above our weight. It justifies why we belong in the new G20. It says that we care about a country that has long been forsaken by everyone else.

From a more practical standpoint, Leslie’s new success or failure in his new role, presumably as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), will not be tied to Canada’s reputation. If he takes on this role, Andrew Leslie will be working for the UN— not the Canadian government. (If you know otherwise then I am happy to be corrected on this point.) How he performs in this job will mostly be a reflection on him as an individual, not on Canada.

Of course, the more Canada becomes invested in the mission as a result of Leslie’s appointment, the more of a stake we will have in its success or failure. I doubt that anyone realistically expects Leslie to turn the Congo situation around. It is as The Gazette points out, an absolute quagmire so expectations are pretty low. If he leaves the situation better than it it currently stands, then I think those are grounds for success. Given the low expectations, it seems like there is only upside for our involvement. If Leslie succeeds, then Canada gets some of the credit. If he doesn’t succeed, then he can easily argue that the deck was stacked against him to begin with. Which is absolutely true.

So I definitely support Andrew Leslie’s appointment—that seems like a no-brainer to me. And I would also lend my support for having 250-500 troops and/or civilian support staff. I think the current concerns about having 50-150 troops support Leslie are completely overblown and an overreaction to all that Canada has been through in Afghanistan. Those in the Canadian Forces are understandably wary of another large ill-defined mission. And they should be. But the troop levels that are currently being debated sound limited and reasonable.

Further, Congo is not Afghanistan. Yes, it is dangerous. It is messy. It is ugly. It is corrupt. And peacekeepers are engaged in combat. But compare the casualty rates. Since the mission was authorized in 2000, 81 peacekeepers have died in the Congo— this is for all troops in the entire mission over ten years. Over roughly the same period, there have been 1,735 coalition deaths in Afghanistan.

Having said that, I do have deep reservations about seeing a limited engagement grow into a much larger one without a thorough examination of the potential consequences. It would be naïve to think that more would not be expected of us from the UN over time. As someone who researches peacekeeping in Africa, I’m of mixed minds about Canada getting more involved.

After weighing the pros and cons, I think I would reluctantly support such an intervention. Let me take you through my thinking on this.

A Complex Conflict

There is good reason why the Congo war has been labelled Africa’s World War: taken together, the past 15 years of on-again-off-again conflict in the DRC looks more like eight related conflicts than a single coherent one. It is deeply complex and multi-layered involving ethnic tensions, natural resources, interstate dealings and double-crossings, and regional rivalries. Even for Congo country experts, I suspect that it has been difficult to keep track of it all. Try skimming the Political section of any of the UN Panel of Experts reports on the Congo and you will see what I mean.

It does not help that Canada has very limited expertise on the Congo. This is not to say that we can’t build up our expertise, as we have with Afghanistan and Haiti, but at this moment, we don’t have the depth of understanding within the government bureaucracy (or outside of it) to really get a grip on the political dynamics. Remember, it took several years before the West fully understood the Afghanistan-Pakistan connection and we are still paying the price for our inability to grasp this link until it was too late.


Jack Granatstein’s op-ed laid out some of my reservations about our potential involvement, though at the time he wrote his piece (April 6, 2010), a larger mission may have been envisioned:

1) President Kabila wants the UN mission (MONUC) out by 2011;

2) MONUC is underfinanced; and

3) Muddy vision of Canada’s potential contribution to the mission

More concerns have since been expressed by Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, who led UN troops in Sarajevo in 1992:

The UN force in Congo finds itself supporting a shaky government, pursuing rebels in the jungle, killing people who have raped and murdered their way through villages…The UN has extreme difficulty commanding and controlling those types of operations…My only recommendation would be, ‘don’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.’

It’s also clear that we also don’t really have much of a national interest in Congo itself aside from some (not insubstantial) mining sites. And of course, as Gerald Caplan has pointed out, we may be getting involved for the wrong reasons (Security Council seat), and thus supply the requisite troops but not fully engage politically.

To intervene or not to intervene?

So far, there is a general consensus out there that Canada’s next peacekeeping mission should not be in the Congo.

While I share all of the concerns that have been expressed and quite a few more, I also feel that Canada is uniquely positioned to play a decisive role in this conflict. It may be a huge stretch for us and I realize that I am expressing something of a pipe dream, but maybe, just maybe, Canadians could help bring a decisive end to the Congo conflict. It’s a big risk and more likely than not, we will fail. But 5.4 million people are estimated to have died as a result of this conflict. To put this in perspective, 6 million died in the Holocaust.

For too long, the Congo has been neglected—Western donors keep saying that they care, but they have not been willing to invest and risk real political capital into changing the situation. Perhaps this is because the situation looks so hopeless. No government wants to take up a failed state and suffer casualties in a faraway place where there are no national interests at stake. But if the West took even 5% of the financial and political resources that it has spent on terrorism or the Middle East conflict and spent it the Congolese conflict, I bet that this conflict would have ended long ago. As it stands, we are all sorry about the Rwandan genocide, but unwilling to do anything about the ensuing spillover into the Congo. Why bother advocating the Responsibility to Protect when we are not willing to practice what we preach? This is Canada’s chance to make good.

And success is possible. Turn back the clock to our very short but extremely productive term on the UN Security Council under Lloyd Axworthy’s guidance. During that 1999-2000 period, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Robert Fowler used his position on the UN Security Council to publish the Fowler report on Angola’s conflict diamonds. This report changed the political landscape and effectively led to the end of a 27 year war. It looked like an impossible goal for Canada given our two-year term. But what Fowler and Canadian diplomats like David Angell were able to achieve during that very short tenure was nothing short of miraculous in the eyes of the international community.

Can history repeat itself? Well, we have a few things working in our favour.

Canadian advantages

We do not have a colonial past as other major powers do. We have a relatively positive reputation on the continent. We have an experienced pool of experts who have been hardened by experiences in Afghanistan and Haiti. We have limited (but not insignificant) economic interests in the country (mostly in mining). We speak French. All of this may not sound like much, but it is a very strong start for establishing trust—which is more than most other countries who have been involved can say.

Of course, shepherding a political process for ending a conflict does not necessarily require boots on the ground. It is possible for us to deploy a substantial contingent of Canadian civilian staff through the UN mission (MONUC), our embassy,  CIDA, and Canadian NGOs. We can support MONUC without the need for more troops. This would certainly be less controversial. But I would argue that having boots on the ground, as part of the whole-of-government approach, along with a substantial long-term development program, substantially increases political leverage.

The bottom line

We have here an opportunity to distinguish ourselves on the international stage by bring an end to the deadliest war in recent memory. In spite of all my reservations, I think Canadians have the potential to make a positive difference in the Congo. We should support Andrew Leslie’s appointment. We should send him off with 250-500 troops.

And if, but only if, there is a constructive role for Canada’s troops to play in resolving the conflict in the Congo, then we should also support a more substantial deployment of peacekeepers after 2012.


Update: Insiders say that after the Congo visit by the Governor-General, the government had firmly decided that a substantial peacekeeping mission was off the table. Ultimately, even the Andrew Leslie appointment was turned down, which I found quite surprising.


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One Comment leave one →
  1. Called by the Congo permalink
    April 24, 2010 7:17 am

    By Bodia Macharia, President, Friends of Congo University of Toronto

    As Canada’s Governor-General Michaelle Jean visits the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), much speculation abounds regarding the new-found attention being paid to the DRC by the Canadian government. It appears that Canadian General Andrew Leslie is primed to head the 20,000 strong United Nations Mission in the Congo. There is speculation that the anticipated Canadian troops withdrawal from Afghanistan may result in Canadian troops presence in Congo.

    Canadian troops should stay home. The DRC does not need more militarization, it needs justice. Canada can help to advance justice, peace and stability in the Congo without sending a single soldier. Should the Canadian government and people in general do the following, it would go further to advance peace and stability in the Congo more than any number of Canadian troops:

    1. Call on the United States and England in particular as well as other nations throughout the globe to make Congo a top diplomatic priority.

    2. Call on the United States and England to pressure their allies Rwanda and Uganda to cease the destabilization of the Congo, open political space in their own countries and engage in sincere and earnest dialogue with their countrymen who are wreaking havoc in the Congo.

    3. Canada should also leverage its position with Rwanda to open political space inside Rwanda and engage in dialogue with Rwandan rebel groups inside Congo.

    4. Canada should call on its corporations and those raising capital on the Toronto Stock Exchange (an estimated half the mining capital in the world is raised on the Toronto Stock Exchange) to cease their exploitation of Congo’s riches. Companies such as Banro, First Quantum, Anvil Mining, Barrick Gold via its partner Anglo-Gold Ashanti and others have or continue to benefit at the expense of the Congolese people. A good start would be for the Parliament to pass Bill C-300. In addition, assure that the Canadian Investment Fund for Africa is used for its original purpose – African companies, not Canadian companies that have ready access to capital markets.

    5. Provide support to local institutions as opposed to authoritarian regimes that oppress their populations with the support of Canadian tax dollars.

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