‘Absolute atrocities’ committed in Africa can’t be ignored: Harjit Sajjan

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Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan knows how many troops he wants to send to Africa, but says he has no clear direction from cabinet on where to place them. Sajjan told reporters in a conference call on Monday, at the end of a five country tour in the troubled region, that an announcement on Canada’s renewed United Nations peacekeeping commitment will be made shortly.

He wouldn’t say what the number might be.

There has been a lot of speculation about a possible Canadian contribution to existing missions in Mali, and perhaps even Congo.

  • Defence minister hints at closing legislative loophole in overseas arms deals

The UN Security Council recently approved a beefed-up protection force of 4,000 troops in South Sudan, which has been torn apart by civil war. But the government in that nation has said it won’t co-operate.

When asked if any country had been stricken off his list as a result of the fact-finding mission, Sajjan did not rule out South Sudan, or any nation in the region.

He rejected the notion Africa is somewhat off the beaten path when it comes to Canada’s security interests, saying peace support operations and de-escalating conflicts are concepts that have been raised repeatedly in the Liberal government’s defence policy review.

“I think it’s very important for Canadians — and the rest of the world — to know the challenges and the absolute atrocities that are being committed in Africa,” he said. “They can’t be ignored.”

Complicated region

But there are few countries — or UN missions for that matter — without some messy political or humanitarian aspects that could threaten to derail the good intentions that underpin the Liberal election promise to make Canada a player in peacekeeping again.

A new international report, released Monday by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, says the militant group al-Shabab, like the Islamic State, has been able to recruit young men and women from countries beyond its power base.

In West Africa, UN peacekeepers have been involved in an increasingly dangerous stabilization mission in Mali, a country that’s also facing an Islamic insurgency.

Countries in the centre of the continent are beset with corruption and bloody tribal feuds.

Prior to his trip, Sajjan told that a current special forces mission in Niger was being considered for conversion to a regular army training mission to help build the capacity of local security forces.

He said Monday that the notion was still on the table and such a mission should be viewed within the context of the Liberal government’s overall commitment to the region — meaning it could fall outside of the peacekeeping commitment.

“We are going to be announcing our general contribution about what we’re going to be doing in Africa shortly,” he said. “No decision has been made in terms of all the resources. That decision will also be taken into account with the overall contribution that we in Canada will be announcing.”

Separately and in another part of the world, the Trudeau government has been asked to contribute toward a UN ceasefire observer mission being assembled for Colombia.

Since there is no shortage of options, it’s expected the Liberals will outline their strategy at a major peacekeeping conference in London next month.

Sajjan, who visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and Uganda, hinted on Saturday during an interview with CBC Radio’s The House that the Liberal government might be prepared to close a legislative loophole that has allowed a Canadian company to sell armoured cars in countries gripped by civil wars.

He was responding to stories CBC aired last week about the activities of the Streit Group, which faced UN criticism for selling the vehicles in Libya and South Sudan.

On Monday, Edmund Yakan, a prominent South Sudanese activist, told CBC’s The Current that Canada must take action to hold the company accountable.

“A Canadian-owned company is fuelling the violence more … I think the company has to be held accountable,” Yakan said.

The Global Affairs Department said last week the Streit deals fell outside of Canada’s arms export regime because most of the vehicles were shipped from the company’s branch in the United Arab Emirates.

The Streit Group was asked repeatedly for comment last week, but didn’t respond directly to CBC.

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