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Cannon leaves hustings to attend second round of Libya crisis talks

Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

After taking heat for skipping a major international conference on Libya to stay on the hustings, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon will globetrot this week to two major meetings aimed at finding a way around the impasse in the country.

With nations around the world looking for a way past what appears to be military stalemate and a divide over whether Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi must depart before a ceasefire can be struck, Mr. Cannon is leaving the campaign trail this time - but first asked for a blessing from opposition parties.

Mr. Cannon sent his top civil servant, Morris Rosenberg, to the March 29 London conference on Libya. With Canadian fighter jets conducting air raids and a Canadian general in command, the Foreign Minister was criticized for not leaving the campaign trail at the outset of a major military mission and breaking the tradition that typically sees foreign ministers stay home in campaign periods.

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This time, with meetings of both a "contact group" of countries involved in Libya and foreign ministers from the NATO alliance, Mr. Cannon's office contacted foreign affairs critics from opposition parties to ensure they had no objection if he attends.

More than 40 foreign ministers attended the London conference, held after the international military mission began to enforce a no-fly zone, giving broad endorsement to international intervention. It's not clear if this week's conferences will be more weighty, but they come at a crossroads, as the world must decide what's next, and risks splitting if it doesn't.

Although the contact group meeting will not be as broad or high-level - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will send an undersecretary - it is to be a smaller group of key countries on the Libya file. And the NATO meeting must provide direction for a mission that the U.S. does not want to be seen to lead.

The meetings are being held in a week when Canadian party leaders lock horns in televised election debates - and having a foreign minister skip the meeting when Canadians are flying missions overseas is probably not the best political image for Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"Maybe he realized he should have gone the first time," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "I think that when it comes to conflicts like Libya, it is vital that there's someone representing Canada at the political level."

The meeting of the contact group, to be held in Doha on Wednesday, involves representatives of a core group of countries involved in the Libya crisis, and Canada was presumably invited because of its significant military contribution to the intervention.

"Canada has been invited to attend this meeting because of our active role in Libya," said Mr. Cannon's press secretary, Lynn Meahan. "As well, having the Foreign Minister present for interventions and presentations will solidify Canada's strong commitment to Libya."

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But it comes just after South African President Jacob Zuma finished a visit with other African leaders that saw Col. Gadhadfi accept a ceasefire proposal - while rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi rejected it, insisting Col. Gadhafi must go first. Other countries, including NATO member Turkey, are making their own peace-plan proposals.

The question now is whether members of the contact group can bridge a divide: The United States and some European allies insist Col. Gadhafi must go before a peace can be struck, but other nations are more willing to broker a ceasefire with him.

After the contact group meets, NATO foreign ministers will hold a regular get-together in Berlin that will now be dominated by the Libya mission - where it will lead if there is no ceasefire. A no-fly zone now being enforced appears to have imposed an east-west split of the country, but Col. Gadhafi shows no sign he intends to relinquish power in Tripoli.

Mr. Dewar said it's clear that a ceasefire is still a ways off, but Canada has to press the international community to come up with a stronger plan to achieve the other elements approved in the UN resolution that authorized military intervention: a ceasefire and a political settlement.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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