The Trudeau government should consider increasing its contribution to the ongoing peacekeeping operation in the world's youngest nation as it faces catastrophic famine, says Canada's ambassador to South Sudan.
"It's a very important mission and something worth considering," Alan Hamson told CBC News in an interview in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Hamson also said the famine that is expected to threaten the lives of 5.5 million South Sudanese by July is "man-made."
Canada has a contingent of 10 soldiers serving on the ground as advisers to the UN mission to South Sudan (UNMISS), which was established in 2011 after the country voted to break away from Sudan after decades of deadly conflict.
Canada's ruling Liberals announced in 2016 they would commit $450 million to peace operations and up to 600 troops and 150 police officers to various peace support missions worldwide, including a mission to Africa. A decision about exactly where those troops would go was expected in January, but hasn't yet been announced.
The ambassador's comments come as the representatives of three of Canada's largest religious denominations issued a public letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, urging the government to increase humanitarian assistance funding to South Sudan.
Famine follows conflict
Conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013 between rival forces backing the country's new President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, prompting the United Nations to ramp up its peacekeeping mission.
Years of escalating conflict followed, plunging the country into a state of civil war and economic collapse, prompting nearly two million people to flee their homes. Severe food insecurity spread.
In February, the United Nations formally declared famine in parts of the country, calling the conflict-driven crisis in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria the "largest humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War."
But it warned at the time that "there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in absence of meaningful peace and security."
Global Affairs Canada announced in March it would provide $36.9 million in humanitarian assistance to South Sudan.
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Tuesday the government is monitoring the situation in South Sudan closely. It's expected to worsen in the upcoming rainy season, she said, and Canada may increase funding if conditions deteriorate further.
Aid groups, calling the situation in South Sudan "unprecedented," say Canada must do more immediately.
Canada should not only ramp up funding, but use the upcoming G7 meeting in Italy as an opportunity to press other world leaders to commit to greater humanitarian funding for the region, said Oxfam Canada.
More Canadian troops needed
In addition, Canada should consider playing a greater role in conflict resolution in South Sudan, including possibly more peacekeepers on the ground.
"Ultimately, the only thing that will allow South Sudanese people to go home and resume their lives is peace. We need to see an end to the conflict," said Melanie Gallant, head of media for Oxfam Canada.
More troops would be especially welcome, Gallant said, given the scale of the conflict and the horrendous level of rape and sexual violence women and girls are facing in camps for internally displaced people within South Sudan.
Bibeau referred peacekeeping mission questions to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, but said that in addition to humanitarian funding, Canada is actively supporting the peace process in South Sudan.
A background document provided to CBC by Bibeau's office said Canada is participating in the peace process by imposing targeted sanctions against individuals seen as supporting hostilities, raising concerns directly with parties on both sides of the conflict and providing a small contribution of Canadian Armed Forces members to UNMISS.
Hamson said that small contingent of Canadians has made a difference on the ground in South Sudan.
"They've [UNMISS] taken long distance patrols because there was a Canadian with the team, [the Canadians] have helped to troubleshoot and find a way forward, pushing for a robust response to a protection challenge, so I've seen what kind of impact Canadian officers can have on a mission."