Number of Canadian soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions hits new low

Just over four months after the Liberal government renewed its commitment to United Nations peacekeeping, the number of Canadian troops deployed on such missions has hit an all-time low.

Foreign policy expert says UN has 'given up' on waiting for larger deployments

A Canadian Forces soldier waits to board a C-130 aircraft to join a UN peacekeeping force in the Persian Gulf, August 13, 1988, in Trenton, Ontario. Canada's troop commitments to peacekeeping operations have hit an all-time low. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

Just over four months after the Liberal government renewed its commitment to United Nations peacekeeping, the number of Canadian troops deployed on such missions has hit an all-time low.

New figures released by National Defence show that there were 22 Canadian soldiers taking part in four missions authorized by the UN Security Council at the end of February.

The UN has a slightly higher count — 41 — because it includes other staff assignments.

Regardless of which set of figures you adopt, the numbers are the lowest since Canada first became involved in modern peacekeeping in 1956, according to defence experts.

Separately, Canada has 70 peacekeepers involved in a non-UN mission in the Sinai Peninsula as part the Multinational Observer Force, which was set up in 1979 to enforce the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

The new numbers landed in the same week Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was meeting with UN officials in New York, talking up Canada's commitment to increasing the participation of women in peacekeeping through the Trudeau government's 'Elsie Initiative'.

Announced at the same Vancouver ministerial conference where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the UN troops, trainers, helicopters and transport aircraft, the initiative is a response to the world body's repeated calls for the full participation of women in maintaining and promoting peace.

A Security Council resolution passed in 2015 called for a doubling of the number of women involved in military and police peacekeeping operations within five years.

"While nobody expected that to happen overnight, progress has not come nearly fast enough," Freeland said in a speech delivered Tuesday.

She noted the number of women in UN peacekeeping missions has risen by a "paltry" 0.2 per cent.

"At this rate, it will take 37 years to achieve the stated goal," Freeland said.

Deployments nowhere near meeting Liberal promises

Under the UN banner, Canada currently has three women taking part in UN peacekeeping missions. There are 12 serving as part of the non-UN Sinai mission.

Both the Canadian military and the RCMP are "working to ensure that more Canadian women are deployed on peacekeeping missions abroad," Freeland added.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined the Canadian government's commitments this week at a peacekeeping summit in Vancouver

But the newest federal numbers pale in comparison to what was promised initially by the Liberals in August 2016: up to 600 troops and 150 police officers for UN peace support operations.

The RCMP, which administers the pool of policing peacekeepers known as the Canadian Police Arrangement, confirmed there are 46 civilian officers deployed on missions in Haiti, Iraq, Ukraine and the West Bank.

A foreign policy expert in New York said most diplomats look at the promises made by Canada as "ancient history" — and as commitments that will take an awfully long time to be fulfilled.

UN giving up

"To be honest with you, the UN has given up waiting for these guys," said Richard Gowan, who teaches conflict resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

The UN understands the "political sensitivities" surrounding peacekeeping contributions — primarily a fear of casualties — but Gowan said the UN has come to accept that "there will always be some sort of obstacle to the deployments happening."

Last week, CBC News reported on how the Canadian army had trained 19 peacekeepers to take part in the relatively benign Colombian ceasefire observer mission — only to see the government drag its feet long enough for other nations to fill up the roster.

Canada's fading role in UN operations is a shame, Gowan said, because Ottawa has made positive policy contributions such as the Elsie Initiative, and has been making all of the right rhetorical noises. But those positive aspects are being "overshadowed" by Canada's failure to deliver, he added.

Low deployment unlikely to affect Security Council bid

Still, Gowan said he doesn't think peacekeeping will be the deciding factor in Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat in a few years.

Norway and Ireland, which are both competing for the same seat, are only modest contributors to international missions.

Documents obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation show federal officials have been concerned about keeping up with the rising level of requests for police peacekeeping operations.

Briefing material, prepared for the commissioner of the RCMP in July 2016 and released just recently, noted that the RCMP's ceiling on the number of officers that can be deployed on international peace missions at any one time — 150 — could be tested regularly.

For example, federal officials were anticipating, at the time the briefing material was written, that as many as 149 officers could be in the field within the year.

Then-RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson was told such a circumstance "leaves little room for new missions without reallocation" of personnel and budget resources.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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