Trudeau government taking a long look at precarious peacekeeping options: Brian Stewart

It's not surprising the Liberal government is having a difficult time deciding where and how best to fulfil its election pledge to lead Canada back into significant peacekeeping — there is simply no shortage of potentially life-or-death factors to consider.
One of Justin Trudeau's campaign promises was a new focus on peacekeeping. He's still looking at possible missions. (Reuters)

It's not surprising the Liberal government is having a difficult time deciding where and how best to fulfil its election pledge to lead Canada back into significant peacekeeping — there is simply no shortage of potentially life-or-death factors to consider.

This country has been a minor player in peacekeeping in recent years. But now the government intends to sign on to a major United Nations mission somewhere in this troubled world at a time when the global body is desperate for our help and dangers for peacekeepers have never been more deadly.

It's a good time to ask questions.

This is not to say the likelihood of suffering casualties should deter Canada from undertaking a risky mission for the UN, but we need to be very aware that peacekeeping today is nearing a high-stakes crisis of confidence. 

Many of the most crucial missions are battered by soaring casualties, inadequate resources and poor planning, according to UN reports.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is in need of help. (Reuters)

The most strained missions, usually 10,000 to 14,000 strong, are guarding relief supplies and refugee camps in some of the most violent spots on earth, including African operations in Congo, Darfur, South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic.

Peacekeeping vs. peacemaking

While the old term "peacekeeping" is still used in delicate preference to the more robust "peacemaking," many missions have morphed into counter-insurgency operations against Jihadist guerrillas and, in danger zones like Mali, anti-government militias and bandit gangs as well.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has clearly indicated Canada is considering sending a mission to help UN troops stop the advance of Islamist jihadists in Africa. Either Mali or Central African Republic are rumoured as likely destinations.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said Canada is considering sending forces to help UN efforts in Africa. (Canadian Press)

"Certain parts of the world ... haven't gotten the right amount of attention, and that's why we're looking at Africa," he told reporters.

UN and U.S. officials have been quietly lobbying the Trudeau government to consider missions in Africa to help prevent peacekeeping disasters like those in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s.

Urgent warnings

UN headquarters in New York receives urgent warnings from the field that peacekeeping casualties are soaring with no end in sight: 51 UN personnel killed in deliberate attacks last year, 230 in just the past four years. Many others die in accidents and from disease.
The UN says 230 of its personnel have been killed in deliberate attacks in the past four years. (Reuters)

UN reports show troops are frequently pinned down in local conflicts they can neither defeat nor control, by rebels using "improvised explosive devices, rocket, artillery and mortar fire, landmines, suicide attacks, targeted assassinations and armed ambushes."

The escalating risk has left many UN humanitarian workers feeling increasingly unprotected because many of the military units are staying hunkered down within sandbag-protected fortresses rather than taking on emergencies in the countryside.

Easy missions are full

It's a great mistake to view peacekeeping through rosy historical glasses, as Canadians are prone to do. The easy missions where peace agreements have lasted generations are oversubscribed with volunteers; it's the dangerous ones that desperately need help.

Consider that 15 years ago, 40,000 UN troops and police served in missions from the former Yugoslavia to East Timor. 

Today, there are 125,000 UN forces deployed in more than a dozen missions around the world who are struggling to protect 125 million people at risk.

This makes combined UN missions the largest overseas troop deployment in the world.

Still, at the world summit on peacekeeping last fall, the urgent need for reinforcement led countries to pledge a combined 40,000 more personnel. Current missions are also short of helicopters, armoured vehicles, field hospitals and proper command centres.
Canadian peacekeepers prepare for a parade at Maple Leaf Camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1997. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to get Canada back into peacekeeping. (Daniel Morel/Associated Press/Canadian Press)

It's not at all clear what form or strength any new Canadian mission would take because the military is still studying the options. But it's possible we'll put more emphasis on supplying headquarters staff, logistics and medical services rather than a great many boots on the ground.

Whatever shape the mission takes, retired colonel George Petrolekas, military analyst and veteran of both peacekeeping and the Afghanistan mission, feels our troops are far better prepared for the demands of peacekeeping than in the past — thanks to the Afghan experience and extensive training.

"Before any deployment, units undergo months of mission-specific training that includes cultural awareness, reinforcement of Geneva conventions, negotiating skills and incident simulations while practising time and again protection measures and controlled escalation," he wrote recently in the Globe and Mail.

'A cancer in our system' 

The threat of attacks isn't the only difficulty a Canadian mission would face. UN morale has been badly rocked in recent years by allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation involving peacekeepers in several UN missions, including in Mali and Central African Republic. 

The UN secretary general has called it "a cancer in our system" and major reforms are underway.

UN forces are also often limited by poor training and discipline. For years, wealthy countries avoided serving, leaving it to the poorest nations to rent out ill-equipped troops to the UN. Some served brilliantly and heroically; others, from repressive regimes, were human rights disasters. 

There's growing agreement among wealthy nations that they need to do more, despite the risks. Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and others have joined Canada in pledging a new emphasis on peacekeeping.

Clearly defined mission

For many years, peacekeeping fell out of fashion in the West, but the obvious need to prevent more failed states from descending into unimaginably destructive internal wars has revived support for a more efficient and muscular UN.
A Canadian UN policeman patrols a volatile street in Port-Au-Prince in 2004. (Reuters)

A highly trained Canadian unit would be a useful addition, so long as any mission receives adequate equipment, clear rules of engagement to help protect civilians and, a must these days, a well-considered Plan B should things go horribly wrong.

Canadians don't need to hear that boosterish "can do" optimism so often paraded out at the start of missions.

Instead, they need to know what we're getting into, our objectives, the possibility of casualties and the likely duration of the challenge ahead.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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