In The Media

Peacekeeping has evolved — is Canada ready?

by Amanda Connolly (feat. George Petrolekas)

November 11, 2015

Throughout the election campaign that swept the Liberal Party into power, one question came up again and again: what is Canada’s place in the world?

For many, the answer reflected Canada’s history as a peacekeeper, a leader in multilateral peace operations and a nation that punches above its weight in courage, valour, compassion and steely nerve in the face of fire. First as soldiers at Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, the Somme and Dieppe, then as peacekeepers in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, to name a few, Canadians walked willingly into Hell in the belief that their sacrifice would make the world a better place. Today, their memory is cherished and a new conversation is taking shape about what role Canada will play in making the world a more peaceful place.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a pledge to return Canada to the peacekeeping nation it was before the Harper era, focused less on combat and bombing and more on missions that work in conjunction with multilateral partners to create and enforce peace. He’s not alone. “A U.N. peacekeeping renaissance is in the works” but the types of missions Canada will likely participate in under that renewed focus will not reflect the conventional notion of blue-hat peacekeeping that Canadians remember.

“The collective memory is an older memory as opposed to how peacemaking, peace enforcement has evolved,” said retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas, who served in Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. “I would describe it more in terms of peacemaking or peace enforcement.”

Traditionally, there are several components to peace operations: peacemaking, peacekeeping, peace enforcement and peace building.

Collectively, they are often referred to as peace operations but peacekeeping is frequently used as an umbrella term to describe activities including peacemaking and peace enforcement.

When talking about peacekeeping as a separate activity from peacemaking or peace enforcement, Petrolekas says it usually refers to an activity whose main function is to separate the combatants and defuse the situation, while trying to ensure parties adhere to an agreement.

In contrast, peacemaking usually involves negotiating that agreement while a conflict is still in progress. The U.N. secretary general can get involved in this capacity, as can foreign diplomats, NGOs and regional stakeholders.

Peace enforcement usually refers to the use of coercive measures, including military force, to restore international peace and requires explicit authorization from the U.N. Security Council.

Peace building is the long-term process of laying the foundation for sustainable peace and development, with the aim to “reduce the risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities at all levels for conflict management,” the U.N. describes on its website.

However, the UN has acknowledged that the boundaries between the activities are “increasingly blurred” and peace operations often require the different approaches be implemented together.

“So much conflict [now] is not between states or not between identifiable state-like groups,” said Petrolekas. ” It’s almost in between insurgents or imposing some sort of peace within a civil war context.”

One of the more famous examples of U.N. peacekeeping that Canada took part in, and the one that, for many, brought a reckoning between the idea of peacekeeping and the reality of stopping war on the ground, was the 1994 operation that Rwanda.

The mission began as an effort to help implement the Arusha Accord, a peace agreement intended to end the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis.

Instead, the mission become infamous as an example of how peacekeeping operations without offensive — or even clear defensive — mandates can be hamstrung when fragile peace shatters.

As Canadian General and U.N. Commander for the Assistance Mission for Rwanda Roméo Dallaire indelibly described in his autobiography, Shake Hands With the Devil, the combination of indecision in Washington from the Clinton White House and lack of a clear mandate to stop the killing militarily left UN peacekeepers impotent in the face of mass slaughter.

The Rwandan genocide resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in the space of 100 days, including roughly three-quarters of the Tutsi population in the country.

In 15 years since, there has been a gradual shift towards allowing peacekeepers to play a more proactive and engaged role in stopping violence.

“Peacekeeping operations now have mandates to protect civilians, which can often involve using force to prevent attacks, to stop attacks that are in progress,” said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College specializing in peacekeeping and a former training advisor with the U.N.’s department of peacekeeping operations.

The first peacekeeping operation with a mandate to protect civilians was the U.N.’s mission to Sierra Leone in 1999.

Since then, the peace operations in Afghanistan (2002) and South Sudan (2011) were also granted mandates to protect civilians.

The U.N.’s mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo went one step further — for the first time in U.N. history, a peacekeeping mission was given a clear mandate for offensive combat.

The Security Council approved the one-year mandate unanimously in March 2013, allowing the so-called “intervention brigade” to target, neutralize and disarm the 23 March Movement, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as other rebels and armed groups disrupting peace efforts.

Although some critics argued the move would jeopardize the ability of the peacekeepers in Congo to act as honest brokers, it has also been seen by many as a success.

In March 2014, its mandate was renewed for the first time and then for a second time in March 2015. The current mandate will expire, unless renewed, in March 2016.

“It’s the direction that’s already begun and it’s a direction that will continue,” Dorn said. “There needs to be some backbone behind peacekeeping operations to make sure they can achieve their mandates.”

The challenge that lies ahead will be getting Canadians to reconcile their collective memories of peacekeeping with the modern realities of the practice, complete with its possibility for greater engagement with combatants and mandates to protect civilians.

After a decade-long combat operation in Afghanistan and the inflamed rhetoric of the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Petrolekas says Canadians are war-weary and less inclined to want to intervene in international conflicts in a military role — so how to balance out the desire to engage in more peacekeeping with a strong hesitation to engage in combat?

“I think that’s exactly the quandry we face,” Petrolekas said.

One example of that is the apparent decrease in willingness to observe international principles such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

R2P was adopted by the U.N. in 2005 and essentially stipulates that sovereignty is a charge of responsibility for the welfare of a state’s citizens — if a state cannot or will not act to stop genocide or mass atrocities, the international community has a duty to intervene.

The international intervention in Libya was, as the Economist describes, the “first full-blown test” of the principle.

I think Responsibility to Protect was born and died in Libya,” Petrolekas said, noting he isn’t yet sure of how Canada will decide over the coming years which peacekeeping missions to take part in. 

Ferry de Kerckhove, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former diplomat who worked in Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt, agrees.

 “I think there will be a deep rethink of the concept of  Responsibility to Protect within the context of a foreign policy review,” de Kerckhove said. 

Instead, the decision of when to engage in peacekeeping will likely be made more in concert with multilateral partners, such as NATO and other Western states.

“I could see us sending troops to a U.N.-approved mission in Africa,” de Kerckhove said, pointing to ongoing operations in Mali or Central Africa as an example of where Canada could engage.

Petrolekas agrees, saying there could be clues in where the French or Dutch are going.

“I don’t think we would unilaterally go into anything, so there would have to be a mission that first of all has allies — preferably ones that are already in some way shape or form in NATO so we have a common operational language and a common understanding of how things are done,” said Petrolekas.

Just talking about peacekeeping won’t be enough. If the Trudeau government is serious about wanting to pivot Canada’s missions abroad to peacekeeping, it will have to make significant investments in renewed training for Canadian soldiers.

Dorn says peacekeeping has been pushed aside as a focus of soldiers’ education over the past decade and that making sure they are trained to work with police and civilians, deal with U.N. administration, act impartially and respect humanitarian space will be critical for getting them back into shape for peace operations.

“We have a whole generation of soldiers who haven’t had experience in peacekeeping,” Dorn said.

He stressed that he believes the Liberals will follow through on their commitment to make peacekeeping and the associated training a central part of the military’s role. 

“It’s a highly skilled level of activity and ingenuity and innovation can make a big difference for peace in the field,” Dorn said. “If you just stick to the regular basics of soldiering, you won’t be able to get the nuance required for peacekeeping.”


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