"Canada's Back"ing Away: A Call for Renewed Commitment to Peacekeeping

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Sgt Jonathan Carson, The Royal Montreal Regiment


Since the end of the Second World War, Canada has laid claim to the status of a middle power, a medium sized country that punches above its weight on the world stage (Chief Warrant Officer Osside Profession of Arms Institute, 2020, p. 19). An integral part of this identity is derived from the significant and consistent Canadian contributions to United Nations peacekeeping operations (Blanchfield, 2020). However, Canada’s participation in peacekeeping has waned in recent years, reaching an all time low in August 2020 with a mere twenty-two Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel deployed on UN missions (Dorn, 2021, Table 1). This lack of participation is a blight on our national reputation and a hindrance to achieving wide ranging foreign policy objectives. Canada, for both moral and practical reasons, must renew and expand its commitment to peacekeeping operations.

Canada needs a rules based system

Fundamental to Canadian security and stability is the maintenance of a “rules based international system” (Chief Warrant Officer Osside Profession of Arms Institute, 2020, p. 11). Respect for international order and norms regarding diplomacy afford Canada a degree of certainty in the otherwise chaotic, unregulated world of statecraft. However, that stability is contingent on other states recognizing and participating in the rules based system. While Canada has determined that the maintenance and preservation of this system is in their national interest, this is not necessarily true of other countries. As such, efforts to strengthen and expand the system from which we benefit should feature heavily in foreign policy calculations. However, beyond this self interest, Canada should aspire to enact a foreign policy that is morally and ethically sound. Canadian foreign policy often relies on so-called “soft power,” which is based on an ability to “persuade through culture, values, and ideas” (Hawes, 2010). Much of our soft power is derived from the perception that Canada can act as an “honest broker,” in international affairs, allowing Canada to play a larger role than our military strength or economic influence would otherwise suggest (Hawes, 2010). Actively assisting other countries in maintaining stability and security for their populations in the broader pursuit of defending human rights should be a policy factor, even if it does not directly benefit Canada’s strategic position in terms of hard power. Peacekeeping, when properly implemented as a tool of foreign policy can improve Canada’s international standing and support other policy goals.

Active participation and encouraging it in others

Critical to the ongoing efficacy of a rules based international system are tangible examples of multilateral cooperation. Collective participation in forms of multilateral cooperation strengthens this system, which further ensures Canada’s ongoing security (Hawes, 2010). By participating in UN peacekeeping missions, the CAF contributes personnel and resources and helps to normalize multilateral cooperation. Since Canada benefits so clearly from this norm (a rules based system), it is in our national interest to reinforce it when possible (Marjan, 2019). Furthermore, ongoing participation in multilateral cooperation through peacekeeping can lead to other benefits in both hard and soft power, allowing Canada to encourage participation by setting the example (Martin-Brûlé & von Hlatky, 2017, p. 4). Participation lends credibility to Canada’s position when calling on other nations to contribute, thereby, increasing the likelihood of contributions from other countries (Hawes, 2010). Canada’s recent failure to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council underscores the link between active participation and our ability to exert influence (Harris, 2017). The gap between the current Liberal government’s rhetoric and the tangible contributions was seen by many as a factor in the defeat (Cecco, 2020, para 16). Clearly, it is not enough to merely announce Canada’s return - concrete contributions are also required. The two countries that beat out Canada for a UN Security Council seat, Ireland and Norway, currently have more peacekeepers deployed than CanadaNote de bas de page 1, despite a combined population smaller than that of Ontario (Dyer, 2018, para 8). As these two nations demonstrate, the model of middle powers punching above their weight can work, but it requires consistent hard and soft power contributions. Returning to the broader concern of strengthening the norm of multilateral cooperation, consistent contribution to peacekeeping and other UN operations makes seeking UN approval more valuable to countries who could otherwise go it alone. If UN approval comes with meaningful contributions from allies, military powers such as the United States would be more likely to value and seek out that approval, as opposed to seeing it as a largely symbolic nice-to-have. The recent trend of populist politicians rejecting international agreements on issues that necessarily require international cooperation, such as climate change or refugee resettlement, highlights the urgency for reasserting the value of adherence to international norms and treaties. A meaningful commitment to UN peacekeeping operations would be a tangible way of demonstrating the value of such cooperation and signalling Canada’s commitment to an international approach. By increasing the value of UN support and approval, Canada can encourage nations to go through UN channels whenever possible, further strengthening the rules based system on which our national security relies.

Objections, definitions, and reality

A frequent objection to many proposed peacekeeping missions is that the situation on the ground would require ‘peacemaking’, rather than peacekeeping and that new missions are considerably more dangerous than previous peacekeeping missions (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p. 1278). However, this objection ignores the historical reality of peacekeeping missions, refuses to learn lessons from past failures, and offers a definitional objection as a rebuttal to what is ultimately an ethical question. It also ignores the wide range of security levels that CAF personnel have encountered across peacekeeping missions. Examples frequently cited in Canada when arguing against participation in UN operations, such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, betray the outdated perspective on which these arguments are based (Pocuch, 2019, para 6). Standing orders for UN peacekeepers were updated in 2002, precisely to incorporate the lessons learned from these missions (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p. 1279). The Battle of Medak Pocket, in which small arms fire and artillery were directed at Canadian troops, was no less of a peacekeeping mission, despite the outbreak of fighting that resembled a conventional conflict. Furthermore, robust rules of engagement, allowing UN forces to engage in what critics would call peacemaking, has been a recommendation of veterans of UN operations, including General Romeo Dallaire (Marley and Nelson, 2018, para 9). Beginning in 2009, a distinction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement has been codified, with the level at which force is used being the factor which “distinguishes peacekeeping (limited to tactical-level force) from peace enforcement (operational-level force)” (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p. 1281). Considering peacekeeping or peace enforcement means that, rather than the kind of operational `bait and switch’ that critics allege, doctrine for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has been updated to reflect the varied strategic and tactical approaches that may be required, depending on the situation and objectives (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p. 1280). Rather than turning peace operations into war by another name, these changes allow UN missions to fulfill objectives that the public often assumed were built in, such as a right to self defence or a mandate to protect civilians (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p. 1279). While it is true that the approach applied to Suez in 1956 would not be appropriate in Mali in 2021, this fact is cause to adjust the approach, not to reject participation outright.

How operations have changed and what Canada can offer

The historical shortcomings of peacekeeping operations have often been due to doctrinally imposed limitations, problematic rules of engagement, and structural challenges born of units composed of personnel from different countries (United Nations High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations, 2015, p. 51 - 59). Changes in doctrine and mission composition have addressed some of the underlying issues which have seemingly handcuffed UN forces on previous missions. CAF personnel should never be deployed in situations in which they are primed for failure, and concerns raised about specific missions or tasks should not be dismissed out of hand. The process to determine how and when CAF personnel are deployed should examine external impositions, insist on robust Rules of Engagement (ROE), and be cognizant of the problems that can arise from command of Canadian troops being given to foreign militaries; a call to increase meaningful participation does not mean that legitimate concerns should be ignored or minimized.

The 2013 deployment of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in support of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), suggests that such concerns are being addressed. In MONUSCO, an offensive capability was given to the UN mission and a number of hostile organizations were identified as ones that could be actively engaged (Peter, 2015, p. 354). Both the offensive capability and the designation of specific opponents were firsts for UN peace operations, which had previously not allowed for offensive operations, nor had they designated specific hostile opponents in order to maintain a perception of neutrality for UN personnel. These expanded capabilities have already had a positive impact, as the FIB was cited as a key component in the military defeat of M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), forcing them to return to peace talks and strengthening the negotiating position of the DRC’s government (Peter, 2015, p. 365). The deployment of a similarly structured French force in support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), albeit with a less aggressive operational posture, suggests that these changes will be mimicked on future peace operations (Bellamy and Hunt, p. 1282). This kind of standalone force, which can be deployed as a coherent unit under a single command, presents an opportunity for Canada to contribute a meaningful capacity to a UN peace operation while also avoiding the potential pitfalls of an international chain of command or issues arising from multinational operations, at least at the tactical level. While these concerns are not invalid, and deserve careful, realistic examination, they are actively being addressed through changes in ROE, mission scope, force constitution, and operational objectives. To say that Canada should ignore direct requests to participate in UN peace operations because of the problems that arose in the 1990s and early 2000s would ignore two decades of development of peace operations doctrine and operational success, as seen in the DRC.

The future and our legacy

These aforementioned objections, even if they had more merit, miss the fundamental point. To ignore conflict because it is beyond our borders is ethically indefensible and strategically short sighted. The assistance of countries who are struggling with security issues or ethnic tensions is good for its own sake, as it preserves the lives and livelihoods of those in danger. Ignoring the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, suffer the impacts of war is a tacit acceptance of that suffering. Beyond the immediate ethical concerns, a position of non-engagement in the world, ignoring instability simply because it does not directly or immediately affect Canada, is simply passing the burden on to other countries. The ongoing refugee crises across the world underscore the negative effects of unchecked instability, both in terms of human suffering and damage to international cooperation. Relying on European allies to contribute more resources to UN stabilization efforts while also expecting them to accept exponentially more refugees than Canada strains the alliances and international ties which are crucial to our national security. To act like we are disconnected or immune from these issues rejects the reality that, as General Dallaire puts it, “there isn’t a conflict in the world that will not knock on our door” (Marley and Nelson, 2018, para 25).

The terminal inability, or cynical unwillingness, of the current government to make any meaningful commitment to UN peacekeeping missions weakens the international order on which Canada’s security depends, reduces Canada’s standing in the world, and fails to live up to our national morality (Keddie, 2018, para 4). Our current level of participation is not meaningful enough to make a lasting impact on the ground or our international standing (Berthiaume, 2019, para 9). By failing to provide consistent, tangible commitments to peacekeeping operations, we are undermining the international system and alliances on which we as a country rely for security; we are making it less likely and valuable for other countries to participate in that system; and we are failing to live up to our own ideals (Pocuch, 2019, para 24). Political rhetoric, in this sphere, is only valuable as a precursor to action. The lack of such action harms Canada’s geopolitical standing and turns a blind eye to those who look to Canada for aid. For practical and principled reasons, Canada should renew and expand their commitment to UN peacekeeping operations.


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Biography Notes

Name: Sgt Jonathan Carson, The Royal Montreal Regiment

Overseas deployments: Op UNIFIER, 2016, Ukraine and Op PRESENCE, 2019, Senegal and Mali

Domestic deployments: Op LENTUS 2017, Montreal Op LENTUS, Montreal, 2019

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