OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shrugged off calls Friday for a decision on whether to send troops to Mali, saying his government will take the “appropriate” time needed to decide on a peacekeeping mission.
Diplomatic sources have expressed growing impatience and frustration with what they call foot-dragging by the government after the Liberals promised last August to make up to 600 troops available for peacekeeping.
The government was leaning toward a deployment to Mali, where the UN has been charged with stabilizing the country after the central government and Tuareg rebels signed a peace agreement in 2015.
The UN was hoping Canada would contribute transport helicopters as well as intelligence capabilities and even a force commander to the endeavour, considered the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world.
Several cabinet ministers visited the West African country last year, as did military planners, development officials from Global Affairs Canada and others to see how Canada could contribute to the UN mission.
But nine months after touting Canada’s return to peacekeeping, the government still hasn’t decided whether to send Canadian troops to Mali — or anywhere else, for that matter.
Two Western diplomats interviewed by The Canadian Press this week said their countries have not received any explanation for the delay, which they say has caused problems on the ground in Mali.
The UN had hoped Canada would replace a squadron of Dutch transport helicopters that one diplomat said had to be withdrawn from Mali because of technical issues.
Canadian officials, meanwhile, asked the world body to hold off on announcing a commander for the UN mission, known as Minusma, until they could consult with the Trump administration.
Germany and Belgium stepped into the breach when the Liberals continued to equivocate, committing both helicopters and a Belgian general to lead the UN mission, until Canada could make a decision.
“They bought time, so to speak,” one of the diplomats said of Germany and Belgium. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the relationship between Canada and their respective countries.
“We hope (Canada) will decide now after assessing all they needed to assess. There is a certain expectation that Canada will come back.”
The other diplomat put it more bluntly, saying: “Just make a decision. Even if it’s a no, we need a decision.”
Complicating matters is the fact the government sent invitations to different countries this week for a major peacekeeping event in Vancouver in November.
Asked about the delay Friday, Trudeau reaffirmed his belief that Canada has “a strong role to play around the world in promoting peace, security and stability.”
But he sidestepped questions on whether Canada would send troops to Mali, and insisted the Liberal government would not be rushed into any peacekeeping mission.
“Any time we’re making a decision about sending the extraordinarily brave women and men of the Canadian Forces potentially into harm’s way, we have to make sure that it’s the right approach, that it’s the right mission, that they have the right training and equipment,” Trudeau told a news conference in Brampton, Ont.
“We are taking the appropriate amount of time to reflect on how best to engage Canadians in international peacekeeping operations.”
Various reasons have been cited for the government’s indecision, including uncertainty about the Trump administration’s priorities and concerns about the potential dangers to Canadian troops in Mali.
More than 100 peacekeepers have died in the country since 2013, many in terrorist attacks perpetrated by rebel forces as well as extremist groups such as Ansar Dine and al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
One senior government official said many Canadians don’t realize the nature of peacekeeping has changed, and that the increased danger is something that has to be publicly explained.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also linked the delay to the fact the Liberals’ new policies on both defence and international assistance are still under wraps.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press