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Before Canada considers sending troops to the UN’s military mission in the DRC, it should first engage in serious debate about its international role and ‘the usefulness of a serious Canadian military presence’, argues Gerald Caplan. ‘With a disturbing presence of Western – including Canadian – resource giants and a history of “white” interference, social responsibility is an essential part of the discussion that must happen before any decision is made to dispatch troops to another conflict zone,’ Caplan writes.

The role of the Canadian military has undergone a sharp shift from tradition without corresponding debate and justification for the change – a troubling reality as Canada now faces potential military participation in the UN-led mission in Congo, writes Gerald Caplan. The conflict in Congo presents a complex challenge not only militarily but also morally. With a disturbing presence of Western – including Canadian – resource giants and a history of ‘white’ interference, social responsibility is an essential part of the discussion that must happen before any decision is made to dispatch troops to another conflict zone.

Just as Jean Chrétien and then Stephen Harper shipped Canadian troops to Afghanistan with no debate or rationale beyond pleasing Washington, so we can now heedlessly take the plunge into the Congo. But that would simply be to repeat the Afghanistan error. It's not that I oppose the UN request for Canadian troops to join the military United Nations Organization Mission in DR Congo (MONUC). In fact, I'm quite ambivalent.

What I am certain of is that it shouldn't be done without a serious debate about Canada's international role in general and in particular the usefulness of a serious Canadian military presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire and New Democratic Party MP Paul Dewar have made a constructive beginning with a thoughtful argument for intervention. But one newspaper column does not a debate make.

In fact, we need two separate conversations. The DRC's the second; the first is larger. It's been a long time since Canada's place in the world was scorned and ridiculed as much as it is today by non-partisan Canadians with established international reputations.

Here's Louise Arbour, straight-talking jurist and human rights and peace advocate:

‘Is Canada punching below its weight? Is it punching at all? Ottawa is largely absent on the international scene. It's very difficult to capture any kind of message, position or form of engagement these days ... It mattered [once] what Canada thought. On issues of justice and ethics, it mattered what the Canadian position was. There was a sense that you would get an honest well-thought-out approach. Not just a raw pursuit of ideological or national interest.’

Or Robert Fowler, who served as foreign policy adviser to generations of Canadian prime ministers. Even though Harper’s Conservative government helped bring about his release from his Al Qaeda kidnappers, Mr Fowler felt impelled to tell the recent Liberal Party policy conference of the ‘wanton squandering of Canada's reputation’ as a respected voice in the world.

He went on:

Domestic political posturing ‘by politicians of every stripe in Canada as they compete to corner the “ethnic vote” [ has led to] a small-minded, mean-spirited, me-first, little-Canada, whatever-the-Americans-want foreign policy. The scramble to lock up the Jewish vote [has led the Harper government to] sell out our widely admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice in the Middle East in particular, for the cause of just settlement for the Palestinian people.’

It must be killing Jason Kenney, the prime minister's zealous machete man and minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, that he can't just bury Ms Arbour and Mr Fowler by slandering them as anti-Semites. But even Mr Kenney knows it won't wash. The need for a public discussion of Canada's role in the world is a national priority.

So should Canada jump into the Congo mess? Maybe. But it surely needs a hard look. Already those who know little about either Afghanistan or Congo are weighing in: we must not jump from the quagmire of one into the quagmire of the other. But Congo is not Afghanistan, and its plight, while appalling, is of an entirely different nature, with entirely different causes. And that's the first critical task – to understand who's been responsible for Congo's deplorable state.

Congo in fact was not the heart of darkness until rich white interests made it so. The title of Joseph Conrad's iconic 1902 novel actually referred not to the Congolese but to the white men who invaded to plunder the country and terrorise and slaughter its citizens.

For this has been the role of most whites in Congo for the past 125 years: from King Leopold of Belgium's elimination of 10 million of the area's 20 million inhabitants, to the murder by the Belgians of the country's first elected president (just beating the Americans to the punch), to the West's multi-billion dollar support for the tyrannical kleptomaniac President Mobutu Sese Seko, to the French army's release into Congo of armed, unrepentant leaders of the Rwandan genocide, to the depredations of most of the foreign mining companies who have bribed their way into the country.

Congo is the perfect example of Africa's tragic ‘resource curse’, as Western corporations (Canadian mining companies very much included), backed by their governments, do whatever is necessary, literally, to extract its precious metals. This largely unregulated struggle for minerals is at the heart of the country's brutal wars. It's a perfect storm of betrayal for the Congolese people: governments like Canada's protect mining companies that collaborate with venal Congolese elites in looting and hollowing out the country, if necessary colluding with raping, murderous militias to do so.

So the first key truth to recognise is that the West, including Canada, doesn't simply have a responsibility to protect the citizens of Congo. It has a responsibility to atone. We have a huge debt to pay to the Congolese people. If we join MONUC, it should be not as great humanitarians marching off to save the poor Congolese. It's as partial repayment for our contribution to Congolese suffering.

At this very moment, Canadian mining companies have perhaps US$5 billion of assets in Congo. But libel chill is alive and well in Canada. Don't question how these companies operate in the Congo, even though several UN reports have made nasty accusations. In fact, if you even try to ask you risk being sued by some of these companies, which – as University of British Columbia professor Philip Resnick has pointed out – are known to threaten legal action to keep nosy parkers out of their business.

The real question, then, is not our obligation, which is clear; it's our capacity to make a difference in Congo, which is a more complex matter that should not be oversimplified. This requires a careful assessment of our capabilities, of the situation there, the nature of the violence, the ability to contain the many insurgent gangs, the attitude of the government, the role of civil society, the role of neighbouring countries, the problems with the Congolese army and all the other obvious issues that must be weighed before committing our troops.

Luckily, Canada is choc-a-bloc with experts in the field, NGOs that have dedicated decades to the Sisyphean task of improving the lives of Congo's citizens. A sensible government given to transparency would open the discussion before making an irrevocable decision either way.

PS: I inadvertently did a disservice to HEAL hospital in eastern Congo in my recent column on the governor-general's visit there. I should have emphasised that it is among the very best hospitals in the entire country, its all-Congolese staff is remarkably dedicated, and it does an essential job in treating the endless victims of atrocious wounds, especially women. My point was to make sure that Michaëlle Jean and her party had no illusions that HEAL is in any way typical of health care in Congo, especially in the wretchedly neglected public sector.


* This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.
* Gerald Caplan is a Canadian academic and a public policy analyst and commentator.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.