Peacekeeping pledge broken
Before committing troops to the current Afghanistan mission, Paul Martin exacted a promise the military now says it's too overworked to keep: Fighting the Taliban in Kandahar wouldn't stop Canada from peacekeeping in Darfur.
Martin, then the Liberal prime minister, set that condition at an extraordinary March 21, 2005 meeting with his top defence and diplomatic advisers. Originally skeptical of the rationale for another Afghanistan tour of duty, Martin finally agreed only after chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier confirmed Canada would prepare itself to help in Sudan, where a 3-year-old civil war has killed some 200,000 people and displaced 2 million more.
Hillier was ordered to ensure Canada would be ready within about a year to respond positively if the United Nations was able to form a Sudan peacekeeping force and, more immediately, to help Foreign Affairs develop a broader Darfur strategy. It was the second of those plans that led to the deployment of about 100 support troops along with badly needed, if obsolete, armoured vehicles.
According to sources who attended the Parliament Hill meeting, Martin alone made a passionate argument for enough military strength to fulfill Canada's traditional humanitarian role.
Stressing the "moral imperative" of intervening to protect the vulnerable, he told Hillier, as well as the then-defence and foreign affairs ministers, that Canadians want and expect their military to make a difference in places like Sudan and Haiti.
A year and an election later, that perspective — along with readiness to join a potential United Nations Darfur force — is lost in logistics.
Conservative Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor told a Senate committee this week that the Forces are now too consumed with Afghanistan and rebuilding their strength to make a significant contribution to another mission.
In question period yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more equivocal about the possibility of joining the UN force.
But it's true this government's decision to increase and accelerate the Forces' growth from about 62,000 to 75,000 is straining an organization "hollowed out" by decades of neglect.
There are also other defence and political considerations.
Shattering experiences in Somalia, Rwanda and Zaire make military leaders reluctant to return to Africa and they prefer operating with full U.S support in Afghanistan.
Co-operating with the Bush administration is also a Conservative priority and Harper's government is noticeably cool to the Responsibility to Protect UN protocol pioneered by Martin's Liberals.
Instead, Harper is tilting toward a long-term Afghanistan commitment even though public opinion is turning away from an effort that is increasingly dangerous, has no exit strategy and could easily drag on for many years. In that context, Martin's multilayered decision assumes more weight and subtlety
A Conservative prime minister can take some comfort — not to mention political cover — from a Liberal predecessor's assessment that the second, 2,200-strong Afghanistan deployment serves Canada's military, security and diplomatic interests.
At the same time, Martin's insistence that peacekeeping shouldn't be sacrificed to more aggressive foreign missions is consistent with broad Canadian opinion and resonates particularly loudly in Quebec, where Harper is hoping to secure a majority in the next election.
Martin's position was not shared, or even admired, by his advisers.
One who attended the meeting, and is no fan of the former prime minister's leadership style, says the meeting consensus was that Martin was naïve to predict the international community would eventually put aside differences long enough to end what some label the Sudanese genocide.
"He was prescient," the source says. "The whole government got it wrong and he got it right."
It's not yet clear that the fragile peace agreement negotiated in Nigeria last week will hold, that the UN will forge a coalition to support the undertrained and overwhelmed 7,000 African Union troops now on the ground there, or that Canada will be asked to contribute troops.
Still, Martin's reasons for insisting on the capacity to intervene are as compelling now as then. Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former UN ambassador, argues the responsibility to protect innocents now being raped and murdered in full international view is not diminished by other security concerns.
Despite the colonial hangover problems of putting white troops on a black continent, Heinbecker, who now heads Wilfrid Laurier University's Centre for Global Relations, Governance and Policy, says Canada should make a statement to NATO and other countries with sophisticated militaries by declaring its willingness to join a UN force. He's right.
Hidden in Darfur's horrors is an opportunity to make a new century more compassionate than the last.
By acting decisively, the international community can demonstrate its determination to stop atrocities even while it fights a war on terror.
Rebuilding the military is important and will give Canada more options in the future. But it's not important enough to excuse looking away now while so many are dying.
James Travers's national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. firstname.lastname@example.org.