Canada’s Cautious Return to Peacekeeping

Canada may be returning to peacekeeping, but it’s not the peacekeeping that we once knew. An event summary of PACS-Can’s inaugural workshop.

Oct 18, 2017

Canadian Peacekeepers. UN Photo

By Michael Lawrence, Jinelle Piereder, and Eric Tanguay (Balsillie School of International Affairs)

Last month, the Peace and Conflict Studies Association of Canada (PACS-Can) held its inaugural workshop Canadian Peacekeeping: Where Have We Been? Where Should We Go? Given the Trudeau Government’s promise that “Canada is back” in the field of peace operations, this timely event explored a range of challenges facing contemporary peacekeeping missions, innovations in peace practice, and the contributions that Canada could make to peacekeeping in the near future.

Canada may be returning to peacekeeping, but it’s not the peacekeeping that we once knew. Several conference presentations highlighted the changing demands placed on peace operations within very difficult contexts. Patrick O’Halloran observed that peacekeepers today contend not just with militaries and insurgencies, but in places such as Mali are also targeted by terrorists. O’Halloran thus argued that peacekeeping missions should incorporate ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE) programs and explained how they can be operationalized. Several participants, however, cautioned that CVE represents yet another complex task added to the mandates of overburdened peacekeeping operations, and that incorporating counter-terrorism could securitize peace operations in problematic ways.

As perhaps an even greater challenge, Jane Boulden explored the civilian protection mandates of contemporary peacekeeping missions, which authorize peacekeepers to use force against armed groups that are immediately threatening civilians. This mandate, Boulden argued, is in tension with the three core principles of peacekeeping: operating with the consent of warring parties, remaining impartial to their conflict, and using force only in self-defence. The imperative of protecting civilians can (in reality or appearance) render peacekeepers party to the conflict insofar as they engage other armed actors and, in so doing, shape the politics that ensue. What peace there is, therefore, is not so much kept as enforced. But when peacekeeping involves aspects of war fighting, as Edmund Pries emphasized in his presentation, it raises a host of issues for Just War Doctrine, particularly concerning whether or not peacekeepers qualify as combatants that can be legitimately targeted by other combatants.

Alongside these challenges, however, recent years have also seen growing attention to the importance of innovation in peacekeeping practice. Walter Dorn, for example, surveyed the vast and largely untapped potential of technology in peace operations, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles that today provide crucial information on the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Canadian peace educators and practitioners also show an increasing appetite for new forms of unarmed civilian peacekeeping. Gordon Breedyk and Evelyn Voigt discussed their own efforts to certify civilian ‘peace professionals’ to perform essential peacekeeping functions, particularly those requiring long-term engagement and in which military peacekeeping risks escalating tensions.

In addition to these technical and strategic innovations, workshop discussions emphasized the fundamentally ‘human level’ at which peacekeeping occurs. Surveying peacekeepers on their experiences, Patlee Creary found that it was often in seemingly trivial day-to-day interactions that they felt they’d made the greatest impact. Conference discussions additionally highlighted the challenges of intercultural understanding both between peacekeepers and host populations, and between peacekeepers of different nationalities. And participants further stressed the importance of women in peacekeeping both in terms of gender equality in the armed forces, and sustained engagement with women and their concerns in host countries. The sexual assault scandals that have plagued several recent UN peacekeeping missions (including in Haiti, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) underscore the import of these issues. As Creary and others explained, these and other “human-level” concerns have real impacts on the well-being of individuals and communities, on domestic and international support for peacekeeping efforts, and ultimately, on outcomes themselves. We ignore them at our peril.

Canada’s potential contribution to this new landscape of international peace operations remains uncertain. Indeed, the conference was just getting underway as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the UN General Assembly, making no mention of Canada’s 2016 pledge to commit 600 troops and 150 police officers to UN peacekeeping missions. The government still has yet to announce where, when, and in what capacity we may expect to see Canadian blue helmets dispatched. In his public panel presentation, Mark Sedra (President of the Canadian International Council) suggested Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and perhaps South Sudan as countries where Canada could make an invaluable contribution to ongoing peace operations. He also observed that such participation need not necessarily take the form of military contingents, but could also include military and police training, security sector reform, and/or logistical and air support.

Despite these opportunities, Walter Dorn warned that Canada’s “dithering” on the issue means that our government is “not leading by example” and is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, especially as it prepares to host a UN Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference in November at which it will encourage other countries to make peacekeeping contributions while it has yet to fulfil its own. Timothy Donais suggested that this foot-dragging may reflect a deeper level of ambivalence regarding Canada’s role in international peace and security. Though seeking a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, the Canadian government remains seemingly hesitant to commit the human and financial resources required to claim a leadership role in UN peace operations.

If such commitments were made, Canadian support could be a major boon to any of the aforementioned missions. Perhaps the more challenging question, however, regards whether and how Canadian peacekeeping (and peacekeeping in general) will adapt to new complexities, constraints, and opportunities. Indeed, Walter Dorn lamented that Canada’s recent absence from peacekeeping missions has produced an unfortunate loss of institutional memory that will hamper any return to peace operations. While the question of Canada’s peacekeeping future remained unresolved at the end of this particular event, the workshop certainly provided a forum for a diverse range of visions for “where we should go,” as reflected in the conference materials that can be accessed here.