Canada’s future role in UN peace operations

February 13, 2019

It has been almost three decadessince Canada was among the leading contributors of troops to United Nationspeacekeeping missions. In late 2017, the government announced Canada’s returnto peace operations and, in March 2018, Canada deployed an Air Task Force tothe UN mission in Mali. With the one-year period allotted for the Canadianmission coming to an end (although, we should note, a stable peace has NOT beenachieved in Mali), Canada is preparing to pull out.

Minimalist reengagement

Only partway through the deployment, somesecurity experts were disappointed to detect a lack of interest by the Canadiangovernment in what was happening in Mali—and in “peacekeepingin general.” Months ago, it was apparent that Canada did not intend toextend its stay in Mali.

Roland Paris, aprofessor at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy advisor toJustin Trudeau, tweeted in response to the news that Canada’s short stint inMali would be ending, “And thus ends the biggest piece of Canada's minimalist ‘re-engagement’with UN peace operations. Check - done.”

The news that Canada would not extendits stay was not a surprise to most observers. For decades, analysts have observedrepeated Canadian promises to support UN peace efforts—and the subsequent lackof significant follow-through. In 2007, journalistMichael Valpy noted that Canada’s commitment to maintain a Standby HighReadiness Brigade for United Nations Operations to provide a rapid deploymentof troops for up to six months was a mere “will-o'-the-wisp.” Not much haschanged.

And so, on January 31, GlobalAffairs Canada announced that Romania will take Canada’s place in Mali,supplying the same number of troops and transport helicopters. It is not clearwhether Romania will be providing the same medicalairlift capabilities.  

Canada, like most developed countries,has stepped back from UN peacekeeping. We’ll provide money, but developingcountries can supply troops and police.

What should Canada do now?

Canada has made “smartpledges” to UN peacekeeping, but has not apparently developed anyguiding vision to fulfill them. Perhaps Canadian citizens can help!

Canadians generally support a greaterinvolvement of the Canadian military in peacekeeping. In a 2016poll, 70 per cent supported the deployment of Canadian Forceson UN peacekeeping missions.

But it is true that peacekeeping has changedand not everyone is eager to send our forces into harm’s way, especially whenthere is no obvious Canadian interest to serve.  In the leadup to the Mali mission, somecommentators said that Mali was too dangerous, with little peace to keep. Most notedthat peacekeeping is simply more violent these days; contemporary UN missions ofteninvolve combat.

Yes, contemporary peacesupport missions are more complex and involve a more active role for UN troops.Canadian service men and women who have taken part in peace missions know alltoo well how difficult and dangerous their jobs are when they must deal withweak mandates, a lack of resources and support, and complex on-the-groundsituations. The reality is that the need for peace support almost always outstripsthe resources and personnel available.

However, the Canadiangovernment can and should engage more in UN peace support missions. First, Canadiantroops and support staff need more knowledge and training in peacekeeping. As WalterDorn and Joshua Libben explain, less Canadian engagement  with UN peace operations has resulted in adecline in the appropriate training. To support UN missions, our military,police, and mission-employed civilians need deeper knowledge about the UNsystem and the skills required in peace missions.

Canada is already aleader in some relevant areas. In 2017, Canada launched the ElsieInitiative for Women in Peace Operations to “help overcome barriers”to greater “meaningful” participation of women in peace operations. Canada’smilitary is also the first to have guidelineson child soldiers. Canada can work with the UN to ensure greater support anddevelopment for such initiatives on a global scale.

Canada can also help to shapea contemporary UN approach to peace operations and support ongoing reforms. Researchersin peacebuilding have long argued for a change to the usual top-down, elite-orientedapproaches of UN peace operations. Local actors must be empowered and structuresbuilt that will help to ensure sustainable peace after UN forces have gonehome. As Columbia University professor Severine Autesserre pointed out in arecent ForeignAffairs article, there is a need to support more bottom-upapproaches and to “devote money to local conflict resolution.”

And, yes, there will still be times when well-equipped and well-trained UN peacekeepers are necessary to protect civilian populations. Canada should participate, in all the ways in which it can, in pursuing and keeping the global peace. Not only for ethical and humanitarian reasons, but because global security is, ultimately, a chief security concern of each and every nation on Earth.

Photo: In August 2018, members of a Canadian medical team prepare to carry two simulated casualties during a medical evacuation exercise in Gao, Mali. Marco Dormino/UN

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