The Truth about Peacekeeping Today
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

Peacekeeping is one of the most visible and ostensibly celebrated United Nations activities, with more than 125,000 personnel currently serving in 16 missions on four continents. The nature and scope has evolved significantly since the inaugural UN Truce Supervision Organization mission in 1948.

Oct 2016 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Canada’s Defence Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan.
Oct 2016 – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Canada’s Defence Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan.

Today’s peacekeepers do more than monitor ceasefires and separate warring parties; they manage conflicts within fragile states and facilitate peacebuilding and development. However, the results of these multi-dimensional missions is often mixed, as evidenced by experiences in Rwanda, South Sudan, and the Congo.

UN member States pledged last year to modernize peacekeeping and provide an additional 40,000 troops in an operational landscape ripe for change. Mali is understood to top the list of priorities as Canada examines its potential UN contributions. Lending credence to this was Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s recent visit to Mali and Senegal (Nov. 5-8) for talks with senior government officials, foreign ambassadors, representatives from the UN, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It was a follow-up to his visits to eastern and central Africa in August and to UN headquarters in October.

On the eve of Sajjan’s latest trip, the Centre for Security Governance, based in Kitchener, Ontario – in collaboration with the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa – offered some unsolicited advice in an eSeminar that FrontLine attended. Key points follow.

Jane Boulden, head of the department of International Relations and Security Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, started off with a focus on “trends” she says are impacting on the government’s decision-making process.

The use of force, the nature of other partners in UN operations, protection of civilians, and the fundamental question of peacekeeping’s success or failure, are all “key contextual considerations for the Canadian government,” she says. “These issues also relate to the overarching question of whether, and how, UN operations actually contribute to […] and may in some instances complicate or even prolong conflicts.”

Boulden points out that the use of force by UN peacekeepers has become an “important” trend in post-Cold War operations as well as an increasingly ad hoc approach. The Netherlands’ decision to reduce its contribution in Mali by withdrawing its helicopters (which may be replaced by German aircraft), is a recent example of this “patchwork” effort in peacekeeping deployments. “The piecemeal nature of the enterprise means that the need for troop contributors to be able to work together on the ground is crucial, but it’s also simultaneously something that’s extremely difficult to achieve.”

She says this complexity is exacerbated by the fact that individual states often have caveats on what troops can or cannot do, regardless of what the UN mandate authorizes. Then there is the reality that not all troops are well-prepared for a dangerous operational environment, including the potential use of force.

According to Boulden, important considerations for Canada are not only its own competence on the ground in a UN mission, but also its level of confidence in the other mission partners. She points to egregious violence during the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) last July. Confirmation by UN investigators that UNMISS troops refused to respond when Sudanese soldiers attacked an international aid compound and a UN facility in Juba, prompted the October 31st dismissal of the Kenyan mission commander, LGen Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Investigators found that the peacekeepers “did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders to the four troop contingents. This included at least two instances in which the Chinese battalion abandoned some of its defensive positions.” Also, a Nepalese police unit had “performed inadequately” in its efforts to stop looting. The attack on the camp, they reported, included “gross human rights violations, including murder, intimidation, sexual violence and acts amounting to torture perpetrated by armed government soldiers.”

Protection of civilians, like the use of force, has become an “almost automatic” mainstay of UN operations. “But it can create tension or work to undermine some of the other objectives of the mandate,” she cautions. “This is especially the case when […] force is used to protect civilians.” It could create a new dynamic by undermining the overarching process of political negotiation and might even “de-legitimize” the UN presence or the perception of impartiality.

She notes growing involvement by “regional actors” in UN peace operations, especially in Africa. They are “consistently the first responders” and often asked by the UN to do the heavy lifting, incurring highest risk and costs in peace operations. “It’s important to bear in mind that these are generally states who are at the low end of the weak-state spectrum of the […]. human development index, and they are themselves struggling with their own domestic challenges.” This raises fundamental questions about the first-responder role and effectiveness.

“For Canada, this is an element in the peace operation equation that has definitely changed since we were last involved in any significant way in blue-helmeted operations in Africa, and it’s something we need to take onboard regardless of where we end up.”

Arthur Boutellis, director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the New York-based International Peace Institute, told the eSeminar audience that the requirement for “host” country to consent to a UN presence remains one of the most frustrating challenges facing the UN. The overall need for impartiality and the occasional use of force to protect civilians were often in tension with each other, notably in Africa in recent years. There have been cases where the “host” refused consent (Sudan in 2007) or withdrew it (Chad in 2010) and, in the Congo’s case (1960-1964), there had been indications of intent to push out peacekeepers. 

Having worked with UN missions in several African states (most recently Mali as part of a mediation team), Boutellis says there is no questioning the need to reform all elements of UN peace operations. “Despite all these challenges, peacekeeping is still one of the primary tools, if not the primary tool, used by the Security Council.” Moreover, despite rising costs, he considers peacekeeping to be “a fairly cheap tool” when measured against the cost of multinational combat operations such as in Afghanistan.

On the issue of reform, Boutellis suggests that Ban ki-moon, a former South Korean career diplomat, has focused more on preventive diplomacy and political missions during his decade in office (which ends on January 1st). His successor, António Guterres, the former socialist prime minister of Portugal, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005 to 2015), seems to be following in Ban’s footsteps. While being considered for the post, Guterres said he will try to create conditions for consensus […] in a world where we see a multiplication of new conflicts” when “there is a clear lack of capacity in the international community to prevent and to solve conflicts.”

UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh arrive at the Niger Battalion Base in Ansongo, eastern Mali.
UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh arrive at the Niger Battalion Base in Ansongo, eastern Mali. (UN Photo: Marco Dormino)

Boutellis did credit Ban, albeit in his final year in office, with appointing the UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), and tasking it with the most comprehensive review of its kind in 15 years. That report in 2000 by a panel headed by Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, was prompted by the genocidal civilian crises in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. The panel called for renewed political commitments by the UN membership, significant institutional change, increased financial support and appropriately-resourced and equipped missions with credible mandates.

“This time around, I think the challenges are more diffused,” Boutellis says, adding that Ban’s panel, headed by José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate journalist and peace activist, is more of an evolutionary approach to the context of peace operations. While the HIPPO initially was mandated only to examine peacekeeping, that role has expanded to cover the full spectrum of peace operations. He particularly likes the concept of more political support for peacekeeping, and disputes suggestions of committing 4,000 more troops to South Sudan.

Among the challenges going forward is that the HIPPO, which presented its report in June, is a Ban initiative. This has prompted questions about how Gutteres will proceed. There also are divisions among UN members, between regions, and within the Security Council to consider. “Really, there needs to be more trust in order to advance some potential reform in peace operations,” Ramos-Horta says.

Tatiana Carayannis, deputy director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in Washington, D.C., rounded out the eSeminar. Having led the SSRC’s Africa programs with a personal focus on the Congo region and served as rapporteur for then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Resource Group on the Democratic of Republic of Congo in 1998, she describes herself as a “convert” to the  HIPPO’s full-spectrum approach to peace operations as opposed to peacekeeping in and of itself.

Carayannis is convinced that the emphasis nowadays should be on violence generically rather than armed conflict specifically. As an example, she notes that “armed groups […] in the Congo are not fighting a war, they are extortion or protection rackets.” Peacekeepers increasingly face a wide range of actors in their various deployments, which is just one element of the many challenges facing Guterres when he takes office in January.

Sajjan’s latest visit to Africa was essentially a fact-finding mission, and is expected to be the focus of a long-promised parliamentary debate when, or if, the government decides to deploy military and police to the region as part of a $450-million commitment to the UN.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in late August that more homework and consultation with allies would be necessary before deciding which UN missions would receive Canadian troops, leadership or equipment. “It is important that when we go into engagements internationally that we be clear-eyed around what we hope to deliver, about what kind of support and outcomes we can offer, at how we are going to achieve those, and about how we will continually evaluate whether we’re making the best contributions,” he told reporters.

A couple of days before leaving for Mali and Senegal, Sajjan had a taste of how that parliamentary debate might unfold when Manitoba Conservative MP James Bezan said in the House of Commons that the Liberals seemed “hell-bent on sending 600 Canadian troops into harm’s way.” The party’s defence critic  pressed Trudeau to “admit that sending troops to Mali serves no Canadian interests other than [Trudeau’s] own vain campaign to win himself a seat at the UN Security Council.” Sajjan took the question, saying that his latest trip, like the earlier one, was an opportunity to develop a “whole of government” approach to peace operations, and he promised to share his findings with Parliament and Canadians.

April 2013 – Security Council members unanimously adopt resolution 2100 to establish the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
April 2013 – Security Council members unanimously adopt resolution 2100 to establish the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Quebec Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus, a former Canadian Army reservist whose career included a stint with the UN peace operation in Cyprus, then pointed out that 32 peacekeepers had died and there have been more than 70 other casualties during the Mali mission to date. “If the minister discovers that the mission is too dangerous for our troops and that it does nothing serve our national interests, will he stand up to the Prime Minister?” he asked.

Defence Minister Sajjan replied that “as we look at all aspects of conflict in Africa, we will be selecting a place where Canada can make a meaningful contribution.” He pointed out that the Canadian Armed Forces had been recognized for its contributions to UN peacekeeping over the decades. “Canada has a role to play in conflict reduction and conflict prevention, and we have a responsibility to the world to be a responsible partner.”

Senate Committee Findings
Despite the insistence that Canada is obliged to play a role, can it really afford, financially or otherwise, to make good on the commitment to an as-yet-unspecified United Nations “peace support” mission in Africa? Conversely, can it afford not to? 

A report unveiled on 28 November 2016 by the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, has tackled those very questions. At Defence Minister Sajjan’s request this past Spring, the Committee reviewed the peacekeeping issue as an element of the government’s ongoing Defence Policy Review

Noting that peacekeeping is clearly “a laudable goal,” the Committee suggests that Canada cannot ignore the reality that its military resources are “stretched thin” by its NORAD and NATO commitments. Yukon Senator Dan Lang, the Committee chairman, met with FrontLine after the report was released. He admits those NORAD and NATO commitments are not being fully met. “In fact, our defence spending is below one percent [which is] approximately $20 billion short of our two-percent commitment.” 

Citing testimony by several military experts during its hearings, the committee acknowledged that Mali is one of the UN’s most dangerous missions – claiming 97 military and at least nine civilian UN lives since it began in 2013. “That has been described as the most dangerous peace operation that the UN has been involved in,” Lang says, suggesting that if the government can’t secure majority support in Parliament for an African mission, “then maybe they shouldn’t go.”

The word “re-engagement” has frequently popped up during the months-long discussion of a mission (implying that Canada had disengaged from the UN), but Lang notes that Canada has never stopped contributing to the UN – approximately $1.5 billion annually. In addition, more than 1,000 military personnel are deployed on NATO coalition missions in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, more than 100 elsewhere, and 450 are set to deploy to Latvia in 2017.

A common question the committee encountered during its review was whether there are “deficiencies” in how the government is meeting its military obligations. “We found that […] we are not meeting our obligations; yet, at the same time, we’re expecting our military to go out and do what we ask them to do.”

Pointing out that the top Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) priorities are domestic security and defence, Lang highlights shortcomings in recruitment, training, and strategic capabilities. “These are essential requirements which must be addressed. The government must fulfill our current national obligations before committing new resources, military or otherwise, to a dangerous and costly UN mission in Africa.”

In addition to the statement of justification, the committee also recommended:

  • Clearly-articulated rules of engagement;
  • Inclusion of more women in missions, in keeping with Resolution 1325 as adopted by the UN Security Council (Oct 2000);
  • Better support for francophone personnel and their families;
  • Adequate financial and other support for personnel returning from dangerous deployments;
  • A plan for conflict prevention and capacity building with organizations in regions where Canadians are deployed;
  • A Peace Operations Training Centre for military, police and civilians from all countries deploying troops on behalf of the UN; and
  • Implementation of a framework for prosecuting sexual exploitation and assault, human trafficking, abuse of minors, and prostitution, all of which have occurred during recent UN peace support operations.

The committee also recommends a specific “end date” for any mission. On the question of what Canada might do if another country wasn’t willing to continue a mission, Lang explains that the committee was told during a visit to UN headquarters in New York that it’s the UN’s responsibility to find a replacement. “Whether or not they’re capable of doing that, is another thing altogether.”

Canada must ensure that it is not led, unknowingly, into a situation where “all of a sudden we have a 10-year commitment,” warns Senator Lang. “We have to be very clear and unequivocal what our commitments are.”

MINUSMA FPU officers from Rwanda speak to the population as they patrol the streets of Gao, North of Mali.
MINUSMA FPU officers from Rwanda speak to the population as they patrol the streets of Gao, North of Mali. (UN Photo: Marco Dormino)

In addition to looking into finances and the capability of fielding enough trained military and civilian personnel in a region that has been variously described as a “quagmire” and a “cesspit” rife with political, religious and tribal conflict, the committee urges the government to table a “statement of justification” in Parliament before committing “scarce resources” to any UN mission. 

Lang says that Mali will be less a peace operation and more about counterterrorism, which, he notes, “we really have never been involved in to the degree that perhaps we could be getting into.”

In calling for debate and votes in the House and Senate, Lang says it could be time-limited, which is virtually guaranteed to spark Opposition complains about the government “stifling” debate. He looks at the  opportunity for Canada to clearly put its intention on the record to explain “why we’re doing it, why it’s in our national interest, and what our commitments are.”

The Liberals, despite having pressed for debates while they were in Opposition, remain non-committal about a vote. When pressed, Sajjan told the Commons only that he was still getting “all the necessary information” and developing a “whole of government” approach with cabinet colleagues. “The goal is to have this information before the new year, and I look forward to sharing all this information with the House and Canadians,” he said

However, with the Commons adjourning from December 16 until nearly the end of January, a debate and vote, if held, could not be possible until at least February, barring an unlikely early recall.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose had no immediate response to the Senators’ report, but did promise in an earlier interview that the Liberals must better define and justify their plan. “There is no peace to keep, and the areas are incredibly dangerous,” she told The Canadian Press.

Ambrose also suggested that the Prime Minister’s real motivation is to underpin Canada’s bid for one of the temporary Security Council seats, a bid her former administration withdrew in 2010 when it became clear it did not have the support of a number of countries disaffected by Conservative policies. “Do we have to send our men and women into harm’s way to reach Mr. Trudeau’s goal?”

In the House, shortly after the committee’s report was released, Manitoba MP James Bezan, the Official Opposition’s defence critic, accused Trudeau of being “dangerously naïve about […] global threats and how to address them,” and warned that Canadians in Mali would be up against “jihadi terrorists.” Sajjan replied that “we know the risks” and would “make sure that our Canadian Armed Forces have the right tools and the right training.” 

New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair was dismissive of the Committee’s report, pointing out that the Senate is “unelected” and, hence, should not play “a role in any way, shape or form to do with our military.” Even so, he agreed there had to be a vote. “The question is: are we going to be allowed to have that full debate and express ourselves as we do? During the summer, out of nowhere, we found out that we were going to become a tripwire in Latvia, one of the Baltic states […] A tripwire is usually something that is used to detonate, to make something else go ‘ka-boom’. I don’t want Canadian troops being used as a tripwire in Latvia without a full debate in Parliament.”

The same applied to a deployment to Mali or anywhere else in Africa. “What’s the definition of the mission? What’s its scope? What’s the timeline? What are the strategic goals? Why are we there?” he asked. “If it’s for show purposes, then we should be able to denounce it, and if it has a serious purpose and can produce a positive result on the world stage, then the government will be able to make that case. But the rest of us should be allowed to have that debate and vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on any military deployment.” 

Ken Pole is FrontLine’s Contributing Editor.