Dangerous UN Missions Ahead
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 6)

At the time of publication, nobody knows for sure where the Canadian troops are headed. There has been a lot of speculation that the present government is considering a mission in Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan or the Congo. 

Canadian soldiers learned lessons from the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and know how to operate in hostile environments and connect in meaningful ways with the locals they encounter. 

I met Corporal Castro Gonzalez with the Royal 22nd Regiment in Nunavut this summer, and learned that he had served for seven months in Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. “I was there to protect civilian engineers reconstructing Kandahar city,” he explains. “It was a combat situation, but I did learn from the Afghani people. They are really good people – I was learning to talk Pashto and Farsi. Here in Rankin Inlet, I talk to the Rangers and learn about their culture and language. They were both new experiences in a different kind of way.”

Harsh Realities of Peacekeeping 
Prior to the mid-1990s (before the Rwanda and Somalia mission disasters) Canada participated in most UN missions. At the time of publication, according to the UN website, there are 112 Canadians (84 police, 9 military observers, and 19 troops) wearing the distinctive blue berets or helmets on UN peacekeeping missions. The total UN force is just over 100,000 individuals and the top four force contributors are: Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, and Rwanda.

According to peacekeeping expert Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston: “Seventy-five percent of UN peacekeeping now is from the developing world, and that has been true since the turn of the millennium, but now Europe is starting to re-engage.”

Sept 2006 – A CAF engineer bulldozer clears away rubble in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar Province. Task Force Afghanistan was part of Canada’s mission to help Afghans rebuild their lives and their nation by providing a secure environment in which to do so.
Sept 2006 – A CAF engineer bulldozer clears away rubble in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar Province. Task Force Afghanistan was part of Canada’s mission to help Afghans rebuild their lives and their nation by providing a secure environment in which to do so. (DND Photo: Sgt Lou Penney)

He points out that there are essentially no direct wars between countries anymore. Today’s peacekeeping missions are often dealing with internal conflicts within a country and one or more semiconnected rebel groups. The traditional role of acting as a buffer between two formerly warring nation states is pretty much dead. Peacekeepers will now need to be deployed within countries fighting terrorist insurgencies. But that is not really peacekeeping is it? Keeping the peace in today’s world requires a new assortment of skills as soldiers have to deal with rebel groups and terrorist groups inside a country rather than “traditional” armies. 

As is the case in many conflicts, the war in the Congo has both a political and economic side to it. Fighting has been fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of total anarchy to plunder natural resources. Some militia continue to fight on in the east, where a large United Nations force is trying to keep the peace. 

In August 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $450 million, 600 troops, and 150 police for international peace operations over three years. Some say this is a political manœuvre to gain a seat on the UN security council in 2021.

Current Peackeeping Ops
The nine UN peacekeeping operations in Africa have cost the lives of almost 700 peacekeepers to date.

  • UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)
  • UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA)
  • UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)
  • UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO)
  • African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID)
  • UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)
  • UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS)
  • UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL)
  • UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI)

According to Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, Canada will also be looking to mobilize pilots, communications specialists, doctors, military engineers, mine clearers, development advisors, and legal experts. An article published by the Canadian Press quoted Dion explaining that “asymmetrical conflicts also call for military intervention undertaken in close co-operation with local authorities such as NATO, the European Union, the African Union and others. That is why Canada wants to re-engage with these institutions, the UN first and foremost among them.” 

More than 130 Canadians have died on UN missions to date, and some people have questioned the Liberal government’s emphasis on peacekeeping given that many UN missions involve dealing with terrorist groups and other non-state actors. 

There have also been concerns that the military, which also has a large mission in Iraq and will be soon going to Latvia, is being stretched thin.

At present, more Canadian soldiers are participating in NATO missions than UN peacekeeping operations. The same holds true for many other Western states, including the United States of America and Great Britain.

According to Professor Dorn, “the Europeans are starting to re-engage [in UN missions] but certainly Canada isn’t. The fact that we are at the lowest rank than we have ever been in the history of this country in peacekeeping, that is shocking for me, especially with this new [pro-UN] government.”

He further points out that NATO does not have a civilian mandate, “it is a military organization that protects Western power interests.” Dorn believes that “true peace operations must be civilian-led to include a genuine partnership between the military and the police and the civilians.” 

Chadian UN peacekeepers escort a military delegation from Bamako to the Chadian Base in Tessalit, North of Mali.
Chadian UN peacekeepers escort a military delegation from Bamako to the Chadian Base in Tessalit, North of Mali. (MINUSMA Photo: Marco Dormino)

He criticizes NATO for being “hesitant to go to many areas of the world where conflict is.” Still, he sees NATO as having a role, but suggests it should be reduced in favour of a stronger United Nations. “That was the vision after the Second World War, but the Cold War warped our sense of what was needed,” he says. “If we are truly going to create a greater peace, we’ve got to get in a more operational and stronger UN.

“The UN achieves universality. It represents the governments of the world and the countries of the world. It is at an all time high in the number of deployed peacekeepers in its operations. It’s involved in more of the global problems than ever before in terms of deployment issues, in terms of peace and security issues. The Security Council is more active than it ever was during, even after, the Cold War. The Secretary General has played a role in so many different areas of the world, so many different themes.” He likes to paraphrase Voltaire: “If the UN didn’t exist, you would have to create it.”

NATO’s “expansion” in Eastern Europe
Canada has committed to leading one of four NATO forces in eastern Europe. Soon, 450 Canadian troops will deploy to Latvia in 2017, reportedly to form the core of a 1,000-strong battle group that will include soldiers from Italy, Albania, Slovenia and Poland. As Moscow fumes about NATO’s plans to move forces close to Russia and expand its global reach, the reality is that the Alliance has been growing for years. Croatia and Albania, the newest additions, joined NATO in 2009. In December 2015, NATO foreign ministers agreed to invite the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro to begin accession talks to become the 29th members of the Alliance.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro have all joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. This is the first step towards membership. 

Then there is the NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC): the end goal being cooperation between Georgia and NATO in addition to current international security issues.

UNMISS peacekeepers assist displaced civilians in South Sudan by providing protection, building sanitation and providing medical support.
UNMISS peacekeepers assist displaced civilians in South Sudan by providing protection, building sanitation and providing medical support. (UN Photo: UNMISS)

According to a NATO fact sheet: “The Substantial NATO-Georgia Package (SNGP) is a set of measures and initiatives aimed at strengthening Georgia’s defence capabilities and developing closer security cooperation and interoperability with NATO Members.” This includes the Joint Training and Evaluation Centre (JTEC). Professor Dorn sees it as a potential flashpoint that “would be too hot for NATO to handle.” 

Alexander Moens is a professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and Eisenhower Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2015.

He believes that Russia could use the threat of war or provoke an actual conflict in order to fracture NATO and its commitment to defend eastern Europe. “This is now a military and a political threat. It is now an acute challenge because we have watched Russia taking much more risk, so our calculation is now more difficult.” He uses a future Russian military incursion into the Baltics as an example: “There really is no NATO response that could stop, deter, or reverse that at the moment. So there is a great vulnerability there and this is a source of quite a bit of concern,” he says, adding that such a vulnerability is a “much greater than there has been in more than 20 years.”

The annexation of Crimea has been widely described as a “very risky move” because it was in violation of all of Russia’s agreements with Eastern Europe and the West, as well as the UN Charter, and other organizations for European cooperation and security. “We haven’t seen that level of risk taking since the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979.”

Russia has a more complex relationship with the West than the Soviet Union ever did, and Dr Moens admits that there is “no specific evidence that Russia is doing anything amiss in the Baltics”, but the vulnerabilities have been exposed. “NATO has no tools, no good policies in place (at present) to prevent it, or to react to it, or to make that decision much more difficult on the part of Russia, and that’s where people are uncomfortable. That’s why you see Sweden putting troops back into Gotland; why you see Finland concerned. NATO troops are constantly doing little exercises in the Baltics, moving people in and out; this may well go away, or it may not – we can’t tell what Russia’s intentions are at the moment. It is uncertain.”

UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh ready to deploy for a patrol of the Niger River in Ansongo, in eastern Mali.
UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh ready to deploy for a patrol of the Niger River in Ansongo, in eastern Mali. (UN Photo: Marco Dormino)

The topic of nuclear weapons is almost a taboo subject, but changes in Russia’s foreign policy makes it a realistic concern. In the last couple of years, Russia has talked about nuclear weapons publicly, which it seldom did before. “I might be wrong on this,” admits Dr Moens, “but I think the way the Putin government has talked about nuclear weapons is something we haven’t heard since [Nikita Sergeyevich] Khrushchev (who said ‘we will bury you’)” – that was a long time ago, and neither side has talked so crudely or openly about nuclear weapons since. “What does it mean when Russia threatens Sweden with nuclear weapons? The second question is what would NATO do? Many members of NATO including Germany are hesitant about doing anything regarding nuclear weapons. “So as far as I have seen, NATO has not done anything regarding nuclear weapons,” he concludes.

Keeping the Peace
Who is ultimately responsible for keeping the peace? And is the sacrifice worth it? All “peacekeeping” missions come with innate dangers. What would a world without NATO or the UN look like? And if we don’t keep the peace, what then? 

Discussing failed states, Professor Dorn says “these countries hemorrhage problems,” whether it be terrorism or disease or refugees. “If you don’t find a way to help create the peace in these areas, the problems will come back to haunt you. Like any human activity, UN peacekeeping is not perfect, and the levels of corruption are not higher than experienced in the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the end, however, peacekeeping is a much more effective and efficient use of funds than invading forces.”  

Jane Kokan is an independent writer, filmmaker educator, and frequent FrontLine contributor.