One of the most intriguing aspects of being Canadian is our national reverence for UN peacekeeping, an ideal that exists almost entirely now in our imagination.

Polls show most Canadians now insist that combat operations end with our term in Afghanistan in 2011 and want our high-quality army to be limited to peacekeeping only.

In short, we appear to want our military restricted to the kind of duties first envisaged by former prime minister Lester Pearson in the 1950s and then celebrated through the decades by government publicity posters of blue-helmeted soldiers protecting women and children from violence and anarchy.

The hard reality, of course, is often very different, as most soldiers, humanitarian workers and foreign correspondents know only too well.

Yes, some peace missions have worked — where there is an actual peace that's agreed upon by the parties involved.

But history suggests there are few types of military mission more likely to end in failure, frustration and searing shame than what passes for peacekeeping today.

Think of Rwanda, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Haiti, among many examples.

Protecting civilians

Since Pearson's time, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been slaughtered while a UN peacekeeping mission stood idly by, either crippled by UN bureaucracy, national caveats against taking risk, confusion over mandates, or simple incompetence and even indifference.


A Ghanaian peacekeeper stands guard in front of the local port where rebels came onshore on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, as part of an attack that took over the airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northern province of Mbandaka. Congo's government said 36 people died, including three UN workers in the attack, which originated over a fishing dispute. (Katrina Manson/Reuters)

Around the world, millions of people have come to think of UN peacekeeping missions not as saviours but too often as hollow promises of protection that vanish in a crisis.

This is why anyone thinking of a new Canadian peacekeeping mission — as Ottawa seems to be doing as it contemplates what to do with our military post-Afghanistan — should carefully read the details of an independent study commissioned by the UN's own Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Affairs department.

The title may be bland "Protecting Civilians in the Context of UN Peacekeeping Operations." But the substance makes for chilling reading.

The bottom line: A decade ago, a chastened UN, reacting to past failures, set out to make "protection of civilians in armed conflict" a priority mandate, but still hasn't found the collective will, means or strategy to bring this about.

The reality, the report finds, is that too often peacekeeping troops are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and even ill-informed about their roles and the country they're supposed to help.

What's more, they're usually tightly restricted by their own nations as to what risks they can run to protect the civilians they are pledged to look out for. Too often, it turns out, the answer is "no risk."

Almost incredibly, the study finds that even UN commanders in the field "often serve without a clear understanding of what protection of civilian mandates mean, how it is addressed and whether it is a priority."

Whether it is a priority? Did Rwanda and Srebenica fail to even register?

Wording so vague

Let's be clear. The kind of "threats to civilians" we're talking about cover almost every horror the human mind is capable off: mass rape of women by armed gangs, child sex slavery, the punitive amputation of limbs, and even massacres of whole communities.

In the kind of failed states we are looking at, armed factions build terror upon terror to further their aims.

But the main fault lies not just in the field but right at UN headquarters itself.

The study finds that the UN Security Council often fails to even consider protection of civilians when it orders up a blue-helmet mission. The wording of mandates is so vague that civilian well-being just falls through the slats.

Back in the mid-1990s, when then Canadian general Romeo Dallaire was informed by Ottawa that he had been picked to head the Rwanda peacekeeping mission, he had no idea where the country was in Africa and had to go out and buy his own map.

One wonders if anything has changed.

Nearly 15 years later, the report still finds serious "gaps" at the top of the UN in setting out a mission's goals. These lead, it says, to "the extremely limited training that senior mission leaders and uniformed personnel receive on protection of civilians prior to deployment."

Specific guidelines

The UN, of course, is not a government and member nations are responsible for its failings.

This study suggests nations may yet reform peacekeeping at the top, but I've been reading upbeat UN reports long enough to want evidence before I believe it.

So should our government.

Canada, which is trying to win a long-coveted permanent seat on the Security Council, is rumoured to be courting votes among member nations by dropping suggestions in New York that it might consider a future peacekeeping mission.

A big mission to Haiti would make sense. Canada has a peacekeeping history there and, as a top aid donor, would have influence on ensuring a civilian-protection mandate.

But some other possible missions — one to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo has been rumoured — should only be considered with extreme caution.

Jumping from Afghanistan to the Congo would truly be a leap from the frying pan into the fire.

If we do take this on, Canada's military leaders should first establish, at the very least, that any peacekeeping mission will have clear guidelines to be honoured in the field, at UN headquarters and by Ottawa itself.

That involves ensuring proper arms and support, and having significant military backup in case of emergencies.

What's more, officers should insist on establishing very clear guidelines for the serious use of force, the so-called rules of engagement, to advance the mandate of the mission.

No Canadian troops should ever again have to stand by helplessly while civilians are massacred before their eyes, as was the case in Rwanda, and even on occasion in the former Yugoslavia.

And Canada should not lend its name to any mission that only promises to protect the innocent, but then fails to act when courage is required.