In The Media

Burundi, the peacekeeping test case

by JL Granatstein

February 1, 2016

The new Trudeau government has given every indication that it intends the Canadian Armed Forces to do more peacekeeping operations.

The mandate letter to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan directed him to work with the minister of foreign affairs to renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations. This included:

  • "Making Canada’s specialized capabilities—from mobile medical teams, to engineering support, to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel—available on a case-by-case basis,"
  • "Working with the minister of foreign affairs to help the United Nations respond more quickly to emerging and escalating conflicts and providing well-trained personnel to international initiatives that can be quickly deployed, such as mission commanders, staff officers, and headquarters units," and
  • "Leading an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations, while insisting that any peacekeepers involved in misconduct be held accountable by their own country and the United Nations."

This mandate clearly is not a blanket commitment to put large numbers of Canadian servicemen and women into UN operations. Instead, it suggests specialists: commanders, staff officers, medical teams and other capabilities that the CAF can provide.

What is striking, however, is that only UN operations are specified. Will Canada now not do extra-UN peace operations? Not even NATO operations, as Canadians participated in during the operations in Former Yugoslavia? We shall see.

Not all UN operations are good or successful ones, of course, and Canada needs to apply a few rules before committing its soldiers abroad.

First, there needs to be broad political support at the United Nations and the will to act.

Second, the host nation or nations must agree to accept UN troops—and especially Canadians—on its soil and show good faith in wanting to resolve the crisis.

Third, fully-trained Canadian troops in the required numbers and with the weaponry necessary must be able to reach the conflict area quickly and be supplied readily, as assessed by National Defence Headquarters.

Fourth, Canada must have a withdrawal date stated in advance by the UN and/or the Canadian government and a clear exit strategy.

Finally, the mission must serve Canadian national interests and, if a substantial deployment is required, be approved in Parliament.

Why such requirements?

Some UN operations—as in Cyprus—last forever. Canada sent a battalion-sized force to the Greek-Turkish island in 1964 and maintained that commitment through an extraordinary 59 rotations to 1993.

The Canadians had to fight to survive the invasion by Turkey, a NATO ally, in 1974. Such a never-ending failed mission serves no Canadian national interest. Other UN missions, as in Rwanda, were so understrength and ill-supported by New York and that General Roméo Dallaire, the UN commander and his handful of Canadian staff officers, had no chance to halt the massacres that occurred in 1994.

In other words, simply putting Canadian troops in blue helmets into a conflict zone provides no guarantee of success. Canadians are not divinely-inspired peacekeepers, and the Canadian government should never make almost automatic and reflexive commitments.

Peace operations can be useful, to be sure, but only the well-planned, well-supported ones work and only if the contending parties genuinely want a peaceful solution. That does not occur very often, and if such a desire for peace is absent, peacekeeping becomes peace enforcement—or war.

If we commit to such an operation, we need to know that there likely will be casualties.

Now, the buzz in Ottawa is that the Trudeau government is considering sending CAF personnel to Burundi to bolster the tiny UN peace mission already in place. This might be a useful way of preventing a genocidal civil war from worsening, if the Burundian government would agree to accept such a force.

But a spokesperson for Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, has said the army and people will resist any expansion of the operation. "We will not allow foreign troops in Burundi. We don't need them," the president said. Ottawa will need to consider very carefully if Canadian troops can be effective in such a situation, which sounds more like war than a peace operation.

Minister Sajjan and the NDHQ staff should look at Burundi as a test case for the Trudeau government’s peacekeeping policy.

Peacekeeping, yes. But peacekeeping everywhere and every time New York asks? Not necessarily, and only if the auguries are favourable. In Burundi, they may not be.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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