Why Canada’s New Peacekeeping Initiatives Must Include Disaster Risk Reduction

Pioneering thinking is needed to link the stability, peace, and disaster risk reduction fields.

by May 7, 2018

Destruction of UN mission HQ in Haiti by earthquake January 10, 2010. UN Photo/L Abassi

Canada set ambitious goals for itself to reengage in UN peacekeeping when it sponsored the November 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial in Vancouver. Among its initiatives, Prime Minister

Trudeau promised innovative ways to enhance the protection of children, increase the participation of women in peace operations, and provide specialized capacities for the UN. With Canada’s latest announcement of a helicopter and aeromedical contribution to Mali, more innovation is needed.

According to the latest Global Report on Internal Displacement, disasters triggered by natural hazards cause more displacement than conflict and violence. In fragile and conflict-affected states, UN missions need to manage and reduce multi-hazard risks for both the mission and the local population. In Vancouver, there was no discussion of disasters, natural hazards, climate change — a favourite Canadian theme otherwise — for UN peace and stability operations (PSOPs). Indeed, continual innovation is necessary as the nature of peacekeeping evolves. One needn’t look further than a staggering fact:

The largest single-day loss of UN peacekeepers was not the result of an attack or armed conflict, but from a natural disaster. The earthquake in Haiti on Jan 12, 2010 resulted in the death of 102 UN officials including the Head of the mission, the Acting Police Commissioner who was Canadian and five other Canadian officials. In this great tragedy, over 200,000 Haitians were killed.

The 2010 earthquake may have been regarded as a high-intensity, seemingly low probability (”black swan”) event; however, in the context of fragile and conflict-affected countries with marginal or no coping capacity for disaster relief let alone disaster risk management, the changing nature of the Earth’s climate is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of such catastrophic occurrences. PSOPs have not been known to adopt disaster risk reduction (DRR) protocols within their missions. Should and can DRR strategies and tools be operationalized? Would the promotion of DRR strategies in missions be viewed as a bridge too far to cross or an operational necessity?

Answers to these ignored questions lie within a larger context. In 2015, all UN Member states endorsed the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–30 through a resolution in the General Assembly. The 15-year agreement is voluntary, non-binding, and recognizes that ‘the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders’. The goal is clear: ‘The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.’

In order to avoid the ‘politicization’ of a DRR agenda and to gain a maximum number of signatories to the final version of the text, the language of the framework omits the terms ‘conflict’, ‘peace’, ‘stabilization’ and ‘security’. Thus the framework comprises broad targets related to DRR for states to voluntarily undertake by 2030 (at the latest!). But in examining any lessons learned from the UN mission in Haiti in 2010, would it be prudent to ask: can and should Canada offer any of its best practices to reduce the vulnerability of the local population community and the UN mission infrastructures themselves from eroding, collapsing or flooding alongside? The mandate to protect, which is included in all modern multidimensional missions, should include protection against such hazards. But what measures do PSOPs missions take for DRR?

When the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) terminated in the fall of 2017 and transitioned to the smaller Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), resources were allocated to support the country’s efforts to strengthen rule-of-law institutions, develop a national police force and engage in human rights-related work. While making reference in the UNSC Resolution 2350 (April 2017) ‘to the significant humanitarian challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’, unfortunately there is no directive for the mission to support any disaster risk reduction efforts.

In good conscience of the humanitarian imperative, actors such as UN military engineers and information communication technology (ICT) specialists should be equipped with state-of-art early warning systems for various security threats as well as multi-hazard safety precautions.

Though states hold primary ownership for DRR under the Sendai Framework, fragile and conflict-affected states have little capacity, investment, or ‘buy-in’ to carry out adequate DRR measures. For these countries, there are few champions in DRR, fragmented communities of practice specialized in the field, spotty insurance practices, and paltry investment for programs compared with developed countries. UN missions seem to be much more reactive than preventive. However, specialists within PSOPs contingents could serve as entry points for promoting and transferring aspects of DRR, along with other bodies like the World Bank and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Canada’s PSOPs can and should promote elements of at least two targets of the Sendai Framework to National Disaster Management Authorities (NDMAs) and other stakeholders in fragile and conflict-affected states: that is with (1) reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, and (2) increasing the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to people.

Similarly with these targets, they can also support aspects of two priorities for action of the Sendai Framework that is, to promote for the state (1) the better understanding of disaster risk in dimensions such as vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazards characteristics and the environment, and (2) the enhancement of disaster preparedness for more effective response, in an effort to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

DRR policies and frameworks can be used in PSOPs. But the academic literature and the institutional practice is severely lacking. Some pioneering thinking is needed to bring fields together: stability, peace (or conflict), and disaster risk reduction.  Identifying and acknowledging root causes of natural hazard-induced disasters can help with some of the most urgent needs and responses from aid communities, as witnessed in Haiti in 2010, and in subsequent events caused by hurricanes or other natural catastrophes. Before a disaster strikes another ongoing UN mission, we should see more language related to DRR in forthcoming UN efforts. In this new domain Canada can help immensely.

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Danielle Stodilka
Dr. Danielle Stodilka is a researcher on complex emergencies and peacebuilding. She is a trainer for the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, certified by UNISDR. Her professional experience includes work for both public and private sectors in research and development, including hazardous materials management and materials synthesis and characterization. She provides expertise relating to science and technology for non-scientists, risk analysts and policymakers. Dr. Stodilka serves as an independent subject matter expert for NATO, with service in Ukraine and Georgia. She was a visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and has a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Florida.