Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Peacekeeping sure ain't what it used to be

A Liberal deals with realities those such as Prof. Michael Byers would prefer to ignore. Good on Eugene Lang (and note former PM Martin's desire to send the CF to Darfur):
Canadians fool themselves about modern peacekeeping
The 1950s ideal of non-violent missions for our soldiers flies in the face of current reality

Canadian Forces were involved in peacekeeping in Bosnia between 1992 and 2004.

Canada's involvement in United Nations peacekeeping missions has mythical status in this country. Our rich history in peacekeeping – a concept invented in the 1950s by Canadian diplomats, notably Lester B. Pearson – should be the cornerstone of Canada's foreign policy today, according to many Canadians.

Unfortunately, the allure of non-violent peacekeeping does not correspond to the realities of today's UN missions.

UN operations are routinely characterized as a reflection of Canada's values and consistent with our appropriate role in the world. They are portrayed as non-violent, and are contrasted favourably with combat-oriented operations, such as the NATO mission in Afghanistan, of which Canada is an integral part. The fact that Canada's participation in UN blue-helmeted missions is virtually non-existent today is often bemoaned.

Peacekeeping reminds us of an important post-war Canadian role in international affairs – symbolized by our innovative involvement in Suez in the 1950s, and in Cyprus in the 1960s and 1970s. Peacekeeping also helps with Canada's self-definition by setting us apart from the Americans. For many Canadians, a foreign policy anchored in peacekeeping equates with a defensive military, one that rarely if ever is engaged in violence, combat or war.

But today's peacekeeping operations do not resemble those of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Those earlier missions were comprised of forces interposed between previously warring states or groups that had achieved some measure of peace that could be kept. By contrast, today's UN missions are typically in the midst of regional or civil wars, insurgencies or genocide.

The largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world today is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The force has been expanded from an initial 5,000 troops to 17,000 today. It is a complex mission operating in a violent and unstable environment, involving a multitude of factions and states. Scores of UN peacekeepers have been killed since the operation began in 1999. Today the Congo is falling apart. This mission is anything but peaceful and non-violent.

We hear a lot in Canada about the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Some 200,000 civilians have been killed in Darfur since 2003 at the hands of a Sudanese government allied militia known as the Janjaweed. The Bush administration called the Darfur crisis genocide. The atrocities have continued virtually unabated, notwithstanding the presence of a significant African Union force, which has now morphed into this much larger combined AU-UN operation. Darfur is a war zone – there is little peace to keep.

In 2005, then prime minister Paul Martin wanted to deploy the Canadian Forces to Darfur if the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a mission [it didn't--and Sudan still will not let any significanct number of non-African--especially Western--forces be involved in the currrent mission]. Canada's military leadership assessed the situation on the ground at that time and advised the prime minister that it could be more dangerous for Canadian troops in Darfur than in Kandahar.

Those who argue for Canadian involvement in blue-helmeted missions on the grounds that they involve little violence and are basically exercises in military diplomacy also forget the experiences in the Balkans (where the Canadian Forces were deployed in significant numbers for nearly 15 years) and Rwanda during the 1990s.

The Dutch led a UN peacekeeping operation in Srebrenica in 1995 that witnessed the killing of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys by the army of the Republik of Srpska. Ask the Dutch if they think modern peacekeeping is non-violent.

Likewise the Belgians, who had 10 soldiers slaughtered in one day in 1994 in the ill-fated UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, which was led by Canadian general Roméo Dallaire. When all was said and done at least half a million Rwandan civilians were massacred in that conflict. Both of these UN missions took place in the middle of civil and regional wars where there was nothing resembling a peace to keep.

Today there is increasing talk, including from Condoleezza Rice, of sending UN peacekeepers to Somalia. The Canadian Forces know something of that country, having been deployed there as part of a UN effort in the early 1990s. That mission was withdrawn a few years later after the UN and the Americans suffered significant casualties at the hands of Somali militias. Today, according to the UN, Somalia is the world's worst humanitarian emergency – a country rife with factional violence, and in conflict with its neighbours. It is on the verge of total anarchy once again.

Canadians are rightfully proud of our peacekeeping history. In a world full of war, peacekeeping conveys an image of Canada using its military in ways other than fighting. It is an image that many Canadians cling to and even cherish. Canadians do not like the idea of our military killing people in wars. We do like the idea of Canada keeping the peace. Unfortunately, the allure of non-violent peacekeeping that is embedded in the collective Canadian consciousness is an illusion in the 21st century.

None of this is to say that Canada should rule out contributions to UN peacekeeping missions. But we should do so with our eyes wide open. Some suggest that if we stick to peacekeeping, we don't need to spend a lot of money equipping and training the Canadian Forces to fight – that we can have a military on the cheap because peacekeeping is not terribly onerous. The recent history of UN peacekeeping suggests nothing could be further from the truth.

Eugene Lang, former chief of staff to two ministers of national defence, is co-author (with Janice Gross Stein) of the bestselling and award-winning book The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Viking Canada, 2007) [see here and here].


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