The Canadian peacekeeping monument stands on an island in the midst of busy traffic opposite Ottawa’s National Gallery. It commemorates a Canadian ideal. Three peacekeepers — two men and a woman — stand as a symbol of hope over the broken debris of war. But today the monument is hardly noticed and its meaning has slipped from the minds of most Canadians.
Peacekeeping was invented in 1956 in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. Then-Canadian foreign minister Lester Pearson proposed a United Nations-led force to oversee the truce between Israel and Egypt. For his vision and leadership, Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize. This seemed to confirm to Canadians that the world now looked to us as champions of a more peaceful planet. Today, Pearson’s legacy remains firmly embedded in the conscience of a generation of Canadians and of today’s Liberal party.
From the 1950s into the 1990s, Canadian soldiers, police and officials were active in UN-sponsored peace operations. But over the years, peacekeeping became messier, more complicated and more dangerous. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide brought home to Canadians the harsh realities of modern peacekeeping. Gen. Roméo Dallaire watched, horrified, while 800,000 Tutsis, along with his own Belgian peacekeepers, were slaughtered because UN members refused to reinforce him. A year later, Dutch peacekeepers stood helplessly by as thousands of Bosnian men and boys were massacred by Serbs at Srebrenica. These tragic events highlighted the failings of traditional United Nations peacekeeping when confronted by parties who simply ignored resolutions passed by diplomats in New York.
As a result of these tragic events, the UN commissioned the 2000 Brahimi Report that recommended serious structural reforms and UN peacekeeping forces did have limited successes in places such as East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Burundi.
Changing the military ethos
For Canada, a major consequence of the peacekeeping era was its effect on the combat readiness of the Canadian Forces. Successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, often supported by public opinion, fostered the ethos of the Canadian soldier as a peacekeeper, not a warrior. To their credit, the military leadership tried to preserve the armed forces’ fighting skills, but the long years of neglect had their effect. According to authors Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson in their 2008 book, The Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission, as early as 1993, a battle by Canadian peacekeepers in the Medak Pocket in Croatia demonstrated that “peacekeeping forces… had to be trained, equipped, and prepared for combat just as much as they were for peacekeeping.” But the Medak battle was largely ignored by the media and it had little effect on the perception of most Canadians that peacekeeping was benign and well-suited to Canadian soldiers.
The Canadian deployment to Afghanistan in 2002 revealed a lack of proper equipment and training to cope with the sharper edge of peacekeeping. Hard lessons were learned and by the time the Canadians moved south to Kandahar, things had changed. The hard-fought Canadian victory during Operation Medusa, in Panjwai in September 2006, highlighted the transformation. The Canadians were once again a real combat force. An increased defence budget, better equipment, more people and greater public and government support underlined the change. The Conservative government distanced itself from Canada’s peacekeeping past and Canadian contributions to UN peacekeeping missions (a process that had already begun under earlier Liberal governments) dwindled to a handful of soldiers.
But all this changed after the federal election of 2015. A new generation of Liberals led by an idealistic young leader campaigned for a return to multilateral co-operation and especially renewed support for the UN and UN peacekeeping. Now back in power, the Liberal government sees its renewed commitment to peacekeeping as a clear demonstration that Canada is back in its rightful place in the world.
The trouble with peacekeeping
Idealism aside, the Liberals seem to be under no illusion about the dangers of modern peace operations. It knows that blue helmets have long ago replaced blue berets and that even those won’t stop a high velocity bullet. Few peace operations are danger-free. This is especially true in Africa, where the bulk of UN missions are concentrated. There are no easy choices and the government has yet to announce where its promised contingent of 600 Canadian peacekeepers will go.
Cynics point to this commitment as the price for winning a seat on the UN Security Council. But there are true believers within the Liberal party and the general public who staunchly support Canada’s return to peace operations as an important part of regaining our rightful place in the world. They also argue that unless we take joint responsibility for world problems, they will eventually affect us.
Another more practical consideration is that peacekeeping is relatively cheap. All overseas military deployments are expensive, but peacekeepers don’t need expensive tanks, artillery, combat aircraft and warships. With deep budget deficits and numerous other spending priorities, equipping the military for peacekeeping has its attractions, although the new U.S. administration may not be as understanding as the current leadership of our bottom-of-the-league defence spending.
UN reforms notwithstanding, peace operations still have serious endemic problems: member states’ reluctance to provide people and money; weak and inexperienced commanders in the field; language difficulties; differing standards of training; questionable logistics; scarce modern equipment; poor mobility; lack of common procedures; communications and intelligence capabilities; diverse military cultures and standards of discipline; conflicting political priorities; caveats; dual chains of command and a reluctance to give control to UN commanders.
Perhaps most important, peacekeeping forces often refuse to enforce their Chapter VII mandates (use of force to restore international security), especially the protection of civilians. Recent massacres of men, women and children under UN protection in Congo, Darfur and South Sudan are examples of a lack of political will on the part of the troop-contributing countries.
In June 2015, the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO) made more than 100 recommendations for transforming UN peacekeeping. But with no evidence that members are prepared to increase their support or funding, it’s doubtful that many of these will be implemented.
So Canada could be left out on a limb. The last thing the government wants is peacekeepers coming home in body bags, or even worse, to be associated with such disasters as Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Congo or Sudan. It’s no surprise that most of our traditional allies have shied away from UN peacekeeping.
The government has so far not identified the national interest of sending Canadian soldiers and police to dangerous places, probably in Africa. Even a little security is better than nothing for vulnerable people, but how do we decide which country should be the priority and why?
Whistling in the Dark?
Vladimir Putin is on a roll. From the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine to the ruins of Aleppo, a resurgent Russia is showing its teeth. Notwithstanding president-elect Donald Trump’s probably brief infatuation with the Russian leader, most of our allies have awakened to the fact that the threat is real. Should Canada put its scarce resources at the disposal of the UN at a time when the West is gearing up for a possible confrontation with Moscow?
The ongoing defence policy review is unlikely to propose a significant increase in the defence budget or in military manpower and there are only so many soldiers to go around. Deploying and training a 600-strong peacekeeping battalion for a long-term rotation requires at least two more dedicated battalions. Canada has only nine regular infantry battalions; one is largely committed to training in Ukraine and the best part of another will be deployed to Latvia early next year to support the NATO deterrent brigade (the result of some very public arm-twisting by President Barack Obama.) And our special forces are heavily engaged in Iraq.
At a time when the armed forces, regular and reserve, are thousands of servicemen and women under strength, committing a third of our infantry to UN peace operations for no compelling reason cannot be in our national interest. A return to peacekeeping may be attractive for ideological reasons, to strengthen long-term global security and as a way of reducing defence costs, but the growing challenge of an aggressive Russia and numerous other pressing strategic dangers dictate that we equip, train and deploy our soldiers to where they are most needed. In today’s world, Africa is not that place.
Richard Cohen was a professor of European security at Germany’s George Marshall Center and served in the British and Canadian armies.