It came down to a political decision by former PM Stephen Harper to avoid what looked certain to be a military and political quagmire for years to come.
Canada took a long hard look at sending a military commander and soldiers to lead international peacekeeping troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the request of the United Nations.
It was early 2010. And the Canadian government was angling — in vain, it would turn out — for a rotating seat on the powerful UN Security Council.
By May, the former Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper had turned down the request.
Canada would not send soldiers to lead or boost a UN mission that was struggling to stabilize a massive country where government and army corruption was endemic, rebel attacks rocked the east, and violence to control Congo’s vast mineral riches flared.
The government offered only a brief explanation: “Canada is fully engaged in Afghanistan until 2011. That is what we are concentrating on for now.”
However, with Africa back on the radar, the Star conducted interviews and reviewed nearly 1,000 pages of heavily redacted documents obtained under the Access to Information Act to put together a picture of why Canada gave the UN the cold shoulder, and to shed light on the looming decision facing the current Liberal government.
It’s clear that in 2010 it wasn’t simply a question of military resource constraints. The military said it had enough.
Instead, it came down to a political decision by Harper to avoid what looked certain to be a military and political quagmire for years to come.
Sources say Harper and his cabinet took the view that Canadian soldiers should not be sent to function as domestic or counterterrorism police in countries that were effectively at civil war where there was no end in sight.
Another source puts it differently. Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs at the time, said: “Let me tell you, the Harper doctrine was very clear on these things — if you’re not effective, he does not see why we should be going out there.”
Six years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boasts that “Canada’s back” on the world stage.
He, too, is angling for a seat on the Security Council, but he has decided to recommit Canadian troops to UN “peace operations.” Ministers and public servants are analyzing where to deploy up to 600 Canadian soldiers and 150 police.
Three ministers say a decision has not yet been made. But it seems several African hot spots beckon: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic.
All present opportunities, challenges and risks from Canada’s perspective.
Last time around, that is exactly what the public servants, deputy ministers, military leaders and government officials analyzed.
There had been at least three requests from the UN for Canada to contribute a commander to the Congo mission, according to the documents. The UN also indicated it needed 13 helicopters, “intelligence assets,” and a C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft for a mission that was — and remains — the largest deployment of peacekeeping troops in the world, where some 20,000 military personnel wear blue helmets.
The UN asked Ottawa to send a deputy police commander for its police mission in Congo. In addition, the European Union, which also had a police operation there, asked Canada for a police commander and officers.
At least one senior Mountie, who had previously worked with the EU’s mission, urged the RCMP to accept.
However, an RCMP briefing memo was grim:
“The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been one of the bloodiest, longest-running struggles in the world, with a death toll surpassing that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
“Belligerents on all sides commit horrific human rights violations and use sexual violence as a weapon of war. The front lines of the conflict are blurred, with many actors with varying loyalties.”
The RCMP called the overall security situation in the country “stable, but unpredictable, particularly in the east”
Then, as now, Congo President Joseph Kabila faced elections and was fighting to keep power. He demanded the UN reduce its troops and he strong-armed his opposition critics.
Today, Kabila is defying a constitutional two-term limit and vying for a third. The UN reported last week that Congolese police, armed forces and the Republican Guard had used excessive — including lethal — force to quell demonstrations in September when at least 53 people were killed and 143 injured over two days, and more than 299 were unlawfully arrested.
The assumption in 2010 by military and foreign affairs officials was that a Canadian commander would need Canadian troops under his direct command. The lesson of retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire’s 1994 experience in Rwanda had been learned.
Officials urged that the request for a force commander and the possibility of a larger troop contingent in 2011 be considered separately.
According to Andrew Leslie, who was then the commander of Canada’s army, the Department of National Defence believed the deployment was not only doable, but easily managed and worth doing.
Now an elected Liberal MP and government “whip,” Leslie said the military had ample capacity to take on a new deployment, putting the skills honed in Afghanistan to work in another country that needed stabilizing. It could show allies that Canada was prepared to help in other global hot spots.
At first, Michael Kaduck, director of peace operations and fragile states policy at Foreign Affairs, wrote that the mission was “potentially an attractive offer” in line with Canada’s priorities in the region.
In a widely distributed memo, he nevertheless urged “a hard look” at what civilian, military and police support Canada could offer, what impact it would have on Canada’s engagement in UN missions in Haiti, Darfur and South Sudan, and what kind of political support such a mission would require and for how long.
“We need to consider the overall question of whether this is the right UN mission for Canada, now and in post-2011,” wrote Kaduck.
At that time, Canada had just 12 soldiers posted to the UN in Congo, mainly as legal advisers to improve the military justice system and the Congolese capacity to investigate and prosecute the rampant sexual violence.
For months, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade analyzed the UN request under criteria for when Canada should intervene in fragile states and conflict zones. It sought input from its many branches, Canada’s international development agency CIDA and from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Candice Dandurand, a civilian deployment officer at foreign affairs, “firmly” supported sending Mounties to the EU mission, according to a March 17, 2010 email. She said it dovetailed with Canada’s support of the UN mission to fight rampant sexual and gender-based violence, and had the backing of the department’s Africa branch and the Canadian embassy in Kinshasa, the capital.
Other advisers identified challenges: Canadian allies were represented at mission headquarters, but there were no “formed contingents” of allies on the ground. The bulk of the UN forces came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa.
Canada had already contributed more than $250 million on the Congo mission since its start in 1999, and had spent $124 million over the previous decade in humanitarian and development aid, and could build on its work.
There had been “progress” as a result of Canada’s efforts, but advisers said “much more is needed.”
“The DRC is a fragile but not a failed state.”
The analysis weighed more questions: whether Congo was a direct and/or indirect threat to Canada or its allies, whether it was a source of organized crime or terrorism, whether Canada had a major strategic interest, such as a key bilateral relationship, at play and whether engagement carried “implications under international law, including tribunals such as the International Criminal Court.”
The answers to those questions and others are blacked out.
Andrew Leslie fills in some of the gaps.
He says the Canadian Forces saw the region’s instability as a potential recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and were keen to help stabilize it. He says government officials also considered the extensive business interests of the Canadian mining industry, and the fact that China was increasingly influential in the country.
Leslie was dispatched in February 2010 — before the UN’s request was formalized in March — on a reconnaissance trip.
Leslie says the military had boosted its ranks of reservists and regular members by 3,000 members in the three years up to 2009. “I knew, and we knew, that we would have had capacity in 2010 . . . to launch into the DRC — not in the same scale as in Afghanistan but in a meaningful way . . . and we could have sustained it, of course.
“It was viewed as a mission that was definitely interesting. If the government of Canada wanted us to do it, we would do it.”
The military’s enthusiasm didn’t impress the Harper government.
In the view of two former senior Harper government officials, the military was always keen to deploy, no matter what.
The government insiders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about cabinet-level discussions at that time.
One told the Star that the UN’s request, like many that came to the Harper government, amounted to a dangerous mission that threatened to put Canadian lives on the line in a country where there was little peace to keep, and no clear end in sight.
The Conservative prime minister’s skepticism was a big change from 2006 when Harper first travelled to Afghanistan and told Canadian troops that they were, “serving in a UN-mandated, Canadian-led security operation that is in the very best of the Canadian tradition, providing leadership on global issues, stepping up to the plate, doing good when good is required.”
Others explain the government’s thinking differently.
Obhrai said in an interview the government had “no appetite” for the mission because it had concluded Canadian troops could not be “effective” in achieving Canadian goals. It was thought the “more appropriate” intervention would be to offer logistical support to African Union forces, which the Conservatives did. As well, given widespread human rights abuses, including by government forces, “it would have been absolutely disastrous,” said Obhrai.
“Who are you supporting? Which side are you going with? The side that you want to go with are (sic) also being accused of human rights abuses.”
Whatever misgivings Harper had were soon underscored.
At Foreign Affairs, plans for a team of department and RCMP officials to travel to Congo were put on hold because Canada’s then-governor general, Michaëlle Jean, was on an official four-country visit to Africa, including Congo and Rwanda — at Harper’s request.
Jean’s mid-April trip revealed just how much displeasure had been generated by the Harper government’s decision to reduce the number of African countries eligible for aid, and how little enthusiasm there was for Canada’s attempt to win a Security Council seat.
While she was there, a senior UN official in Congo made a direct public appeal to Canada to help. Soon after Jean returned to Ottawa, it was rebuffed. The government decided to turn down the request for a commander.
Late on April 29, 2010, Canada notified the UN of its decision, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay reassigned Leslie to lead a study of how to transform the Canadian Forces.
“I think they (the former government) were tired of the Afghan war,” Leslie now says. “That they were tired of either soldiers going overseas and getting hurt . . . or even worse. I think they were tired of spending money on these missions, and they were a tired team.”
Yet even after refusing the UN’s request, officials continued to study the possibility of deploying to Congo in the following year. The Foreign Affairs and RCMP team finally travelled to Congo in mid-May.
What the group saw there was eye-opening.
Handwritten notes from one unidentified official documented “a lack of infrastructure, starvation deaths in prison” and a dismal judicial system unable to keep pace with sex-crime investigations. Goma’s one judge faced a “backlog of 8,000 cases.” The country had fewer than 1,200 judges and needed “at least 5,000.”
It’s difficult, due to redactions, to say if the final recommendation to cabinet was in favour of a deployment of more Canadian military and civilian resources.
But Leslie believes the bureaucratic analysis shifted to accommodate the political signal that the government was averse to the mission.
Today, he still believes Canada should engage in an African mission, although as a member of the Privy Council, he will not say where he thinks Canada can be most effective.
Obhrai, one of the Conservative party’s leadership contenders, says the problems that were obvious in Congo in 2010 are evident to this day, and the same risks exist no matter what troubled nation in Africa Trudeau might be looking at.
He said his advice to Trudeau: “Don’t do it.”
- Former governor general Michaelle Jean arrives to the Presidential Palace to meet with president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 2010. In May 2010, Canada declined the UN’s request for a mission in Congo, saying it was "fully engaged" already in Afghanistan.