Liberals courting risk with upcoming peace mission
by Bruce Campion-Smith (feat. Jack Granatstein)
December 27, 2016
OTTAWA—The stark monument, titled “Reconciliation,” features the statues of two men and a woman on a parapet, their gazes fixed in the distance.
This depiction of three peacekeepers is unique in the world, the federal government says. Set near Ottawa’s ByWard Market, the monument is meant to honour the more than 110,000 Canadian soldiers who have served on peace missions since 1948.
A short walk away stands the National War Memorial, which pays tribute to Canadian soldiers killed in conflicts dating back to the Boer War. This site serves as the heart of the country’s commemoration on Remembrance Day.
The fact there are two monuments suggests that peacekeeping is not combat, that the two roles are distinct and easily separated. Except that’s not reality. Not today. Not, in fact, for many decades.
And not, one expert says, in Mali, where Canadian soldiers could soon be headed, deployed by a Liberal government keen to underscore its claim that Canada is back on the world stage.
The looming deployment promises to stir debate not only on the merits of the mission but how the operation should be even characterized.
“What’s clear is that peacekeeping is no longer the appropriate term,” said noted military historian Jack Granatstein.
Yet he cautions that deep-seated nostalgia for the blue beret peacekeeping role risks blinding Canadians to the real dangers of peace deployments.
“That’s the problem. You have a public that believes that you put on a blue beret and you go out and everybody sings ‘hallelujah’ and it’s all fine,” Granatstein, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said in an interview.
“These are really wars we are getting into and we’re pretending it’s peacekeeping. That’s a bad mindset for the public. Soldiers know what they are doing. . . . They know it’s dangerous but the public is still 40 years in the past in its thinking.”
There’s good reason for the nostalgia. The notion of peacekeeping is deeply ingrained in Canadians’ sense of country and their place in the world, said Walter Dorn, a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and the Canadian Forces College.
“The image of the peacekeeper is key to the Canadian identity. . . . . It’s not just rose-coloured. It speaks to a reality about this country,” Dorn said.
It is a concept that Canada helped pioneer, thanks to Lester B. Pearson, who served as external affairs minister and prime minister. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts to persuade the UN to deploy a large force to defuse the Suez crisis the previous year.
“That was a major achievement, one of Canada’s greatest achievements in its foreign affairs history,” Dorn said.
Canada remained a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping forces, with upward of 2,000 soldiers deployed overseas. But in recent decades under both Liberal and Conservative governments, Canada’s presence on UN peace operations has declined. Today, Canada has just 112 personnel serving with the UN, including 84 police officers and 19 troops.
The Liberals pledged in the 2015 election to “recommit” to supporting UN peace operations and make specialized capabilities, such as medical teams and aircraft, available on a “case-by-case basis.”
Now the Liberal government is weighing the deployment of up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers to make good on that pledge.
The Star has reported that the mission is probably headed to Mali, where a multinational force of 10,579 troops currently serves under a UN umbrella to help stabilize the country threatened by militants with links to Al Qaeda.
The Canadian contingent could be split up and dispatched to more than one location. The government is expected to make a decision at a cabinet retreat in January.
Yet Granatstein said there are no good locales for a Canadian mission in Africa.
“The reality is if we’re going to Mali, we’re going into what is effectively a war zone against a well-armed Islamist group of rebels,” he said.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan are also in the midst of civil wars. “Wherever we go in Africa is not where we should be going and is dangerous. We will have dead Canadians and frankly achieve nothing,” he said.
Granatstein said a peace mission requires a “credible” chance of success, a firm end date, the ability for people to get in and out easily, right weapons for the job and “orders that let us use them.”
Yet the conflicts across Africa are “jumbled, messy, confusing” and Canada’s contribution will not “matter a damn,” he said.
But Dorn argues that Mali is exactly the kind of place where Canadian troops need to be. “It’s these places in the world that require attention so they don’t blow up and become big problems for us,” he said.
“These so-called forgotten areas of the world are key to establishing longer-term peace. I would also add that we deploy troops not just for national interest but also for our national values and peacekeepers can make a big difference in showing that Canada has national values that aren’t purely selfish.
“What’s our identity and what could be more important to a nation’s identity, it’s what we are on a world stage. Are we a selfish nation or are we a generous one?”
He said a mission to Mali would fulfil a number of objectives for the government, helping the United Nations, Africa and Mali itself, a place where he said “there is some peace to keep.
“It’s a place where there is a terrorist threat, where the French are trying to fight and the Americans are trying to fight the terrorist threat in the Sahel region and this will make a major contribution,” Dorn said.
Dorn makes a distinction between a peace mission and combat operation. A peace mission implies that soldiers use force only in a defensive role, not offensive, he said. He cited the “trinity” of peacekeeping principles — consent for the deployment, impartiality in their actions, and defensive use of force.
“It implies that you don’t have enemies but that like a police officer you use force when there is an imminent threat,” Dorn said.
But he, too, acknowledges that peace missions carry real risks.
More than 3,500 soldiers have been killed on UN missions over the years, including 122 Canadians.
Pollster Frank Graves expects there will be public backing for the mission, partly because of that nostalgia Canadians have for peace missions and a desire to see Canada play a role in the world.
But he said Canadians are wary about military deployments in the wake of the long mission in Afghanistan, where doubts linger whether it produced lasting differences.