Peacekeeping is not as simple as you thought


by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
November 19, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is half way through its mandate and yet the much-promised peacekeeping mission it campaigned on has not yet materialized. No real explanation from this government has been forthcoming, yet the reasons why Canada appears no closer to a peacekeeping mission today than on the day the Liberals were elected are not difficult to discern.

The promise the Liberal party made about renewed participation in UN peacekeeping operations was bogus in the first place. As is the case with other promises the Liberals made with little thought that they might win government and have to find ways to keep their promises.  The Liberals were third going into the election and were attempting to steal every NDP vote they could both in Quebec and in British Columbia. So, conveniently forgetting that they themselves had committed Canada to a war in southern Afghanistan in 2005, they had to differentiate themselves from the war mongering Tories while they brought “Canada back” to its traditional peaceful, peaceable ways.  Once they achieved office and looked around for a peacekeeping mission that Canada could do, they had second thoughts.

There is plenty of peacekeeping going on in the world today, plenty of troops wearing blue UN helmets, but the concept of peacekeeping that Lester Pearson championed during the 1956 war between the Egyptians, the British, the French and the Israelis has long disappeared.  Still championed by those Canadians who had little use for armed forces or worse, war, while Canada was fighting in Afghanistan, the ideal of the Canadian peacekeeper was upheld as a shining example of what Canada ought to be doing in the world instead of what it was doing – fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now that the realities of today’s peacekeeping have intruded into the dreams of yesterday, we hear virtually nothing from those same people about getting back into peacekeeping.

Why? Because virtually all the peacekeeping that the UN is supposed to be doing today is not the peacekeeping of Pearson's time – it is peace enforcement – and, in most cases, even that is not working. There are virtually no geopolitical situations in the world today that demand a lightly armed force, with a limited mandate to use violence only in strict self-defence, sitting between two antagonists who need help to keep them apart instead of at each other’s throats, as in Cyprus. Today, those who wear the blue helmet are invariably attempting to keep insurgents away from civilians (who would otherwise be murdered, raped, and enslaved).

In other words, the UN intervenes in violent conflict today, not with the permission of two antagonists (as traditional peacekeeping specifies), but almost always in the face of opposition from at least one party which seeks to impose its will on innocent civilians. And this is the case in Africa as well as other world trouble spots. This means that sending Canadian soldiers to one of those trouble spots would invariably mean young Canadian men and women will be returning to Trenton in coffins – something this government – or in fact any government – has little wish to do after Afghanistan. 

That is one bloody reality. Another reality – not so bloody, but equally unpalatable to any government in Ottawa – is that a large proportion of the UN peacekeeping being done in the world today is done by poor countries with under-trained and undisciplined militaries who rent their soldiers to the UN to earn cold hard cash. Many of these soldiers have been involved in sexual abuses and crimes against civilians, and the Canadian government is well aware of the figures – 145 allegations in 2016, 103 in 2015 with some 50+% involving “egregious forms of sexual violence and abuse including sexual activities with minors and rape.” (CBC News, 1 Nov 2017).

This is not to say that the Canadian Armed Forces would engage in such activities, but that the UN seems incapable of permanently handling such matters, raising the question of why Canadian soldiers would want to be under the command of an authority that constantly shows it is incapable of running well-administered operations.

No doubt the UN does not want such crimes to continue. But there is also no doubt that the Canadian government is simply not interested in committing Canadian troops to an organization that has great difficulty staying out of trouble.

The two-day UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial wrapped up in Vancouver on November 15th. Other than generalized platitudes in support of peacekeeping and recognizing the gaps, nothing has been announced by this government.

Lester Pearson’s dream – and the legacy of peacekeeping that followed it until the end of the Cold War – is no more.  The government’s silence on the matter is proof enough of that.

David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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