The Fall of Canadian Peacekeeping: Should It Be Revived?

In April 1993, there were 3336 Canadian peacekeepers deployed on UN missions. As of July 31st 2019, there are only 150. What has led to this extreme decline of Canadian peacekeepers? Should the practice of Canadian peacekeeping be revived or completely abolished? In this special report, I look at the history and present situation of Canadian peacekeeping and argue that the amount of Canadian peacekeepers should be massively increased.

Background on Peacekeeping

The organization that is most responsible for implementing peacekeeping missions is the United Nations. Peacekeeping generally refers to activities which intend to create conditions that favor sustainable and lasting peace. Research usually finds that peacekeeping decreases civilian and battlefield deaths and reduces the chance of renewed warfare. It is important to keep in mind that peacekeeping has changed a lot over the years. To quote the official UN stance on peacekeeping: “Today’s multidimensional peacekeeping operations are called upon not only to maintain peace and security, but also to facilitate the political process, protect civilians, assist in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants; support the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights and assist in restoring the rule of law.” As of today, there are 14 UN peacekeeping missions.

History of Canadian Peacekeeping

The first peacekeeping operations consisted of unarmed UN observers who were determining if parties were respecting a cease-fire or peace agreement. These observers could assist in local dispute settlement but this was the extent of their role. However, the 1956 Suez Crisis changed this initial approach: Canadian Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Lester B. Pearson proposed the formation of the UN’s first interposing peacekeeping force (UN Emergency Force) so that France, Great Britain, and Israel could peacefully withdraw from Egypt. For his efforts, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

This event began the era of Canadian domination of peacekeeping. Canada ranks first in the amount of peacekeepers provided during the Cold War. During this time, Canada was also the only country to be a part of every UN peacekeeping operation. Canada provided 80,000 peacekeepers (10 percent of the UN total) before UN peacekeepers won the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize. All these accomplishments show that Canada used to be a world leader in peacekeeping.

In April 1993, there were 3336 Canadian peacekeepers. However, in May 2018, there was a record low number of only 40. There are three main reasons for this sharp decline.

The first one has to do with three unsuccessful peace operations in the 1990s which buried traditional peacekeeping. Firstly, the mission in Somalia was marred by the huge scandal of two Canadian peacekeepers torturing and killing a Somali teenager. In a second instance, during the UNPROFOR mission to Croatia and Bosnia, Canadian peacekeepers were held hostage in Serb facilities to act as a shield against NATO bombings. Canadian peacekeepers were frustrated with the weak Rules of Engagement (ROE) that the UN had given them, and the world realized that it was not possible to “keep the peace” in Yugoslavia without stronger action and engagement. Finally, the inability of Romeo Dallaire’s Rwandan peacekeeping mission to stop the genocide of ethnic Tutsis served as the final blow to the global reputation of peacekeeping.

In addition to these three incidents, two other practical factors have undermined Canadian peacekeeping. In the mid-90s, Canada’s defence budget was cut by one third, reducing the resources available to peacekeeping forces. Finally, the increased focus on the war in Afghanistan from the early 21st century onwards has caused peacekeeping to fade from the mainstream.

Peacekeeping Myth

Even though Canada has been minimally engaged in peacekeeping ever since the late-1990s, many Canadians still believe that peacekeeping remains the main military and foreign affairs tool of Canada. This is the so-called peacekeeping myth. For example, in 2012, the annual Focus Canada survey asked Canadians to name the most positive contribution that Canada, as a country, makes to the world. Surprisingly, peacekeeping was the answer of 20% of Canadians. The explanation for this cognitive dissonance between perceptions and reality is that many Canadians remain poorly informed on this issue.

However, the author and journalist Dan Gardner goes even further. He asserts that peacekeeping has never been the main military tool of the CAF, writing, “Peacekeeping is not the ‘primary role’ of Canada’s military. It never has been. The military’s primary role is, and always has been, fighting wars.” Similarly, General Lewis Mackenzie wrote in the Toronto Star: “Peacekeeping was always a sideline activity for the Canadian Armed Forces. At the height of our reputation as the UN’s lead nation in peacekeeping during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we had at any one time around 1,500 soldiers deployed under the UN flag. At the same time, we had up to 10,000 troops, some armed with nuclear weapons, stationed with NATO on the central front in Germany and France prepared to take on any aggression by the Soviet Union.” Romeo Dallaire made a similar point as well: “Canada’s soldiers are first and foremost specialists in combat. A background paper on the history of Canadian peacekeeping prepared for the Somalia Inquiry put Canada’s UN missions squarely into perspective. After Lester Pearson received the Nobel Prize in 1957, peacekeeping began receiving enthusiastic public and political support, although it remained a low priority within the Department of National Defence. All defence white papers and intervening policy statements rank the maintenance of a combat force capable of protecting Canada’s sovereignty as the primary function of the Canadian Forces, with peacekeeping as an ancillary function.”

Current Situation of Canadian Peacekeeping

Even though there were record low 40 Canadian peacekeepers stationed around the world in May 2018, there has been some major movement in creating a larger peacekeeping force ever since the Liberals came to power in 2015. The biggest result of the current government’s effort has been the peacekeeping mission to Mali and an increase to 150 Canadian peacekeepers as of July 31st, 2019.

Discussing the topic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote the following in his mandate letter to the Minister of Defence: “Work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations. This includes: making Canada’s specialized capabilities – from mobile medical teams, to engineering support, to aircraft that can carry supplies and personnel – available on a case-by-case basis; working with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to help the United Nations respond more quickly to emerging and escalating conflicts and providing well-trained personnel to international initiatives that can be quickly deployed, such as mission commanders, staff officers, and headquarters units; and leading an international effort to improve and expand the training of military and civilian personnel deployed on peace operations, while insisting that any peacekeepers involved in misconduct be held accountable by their own country and the United Nations.” 

A major development in increasing the size of Canadian peacekeeping forces occurred in the summer of 2016 as Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s Minister of Defence, declared: “Today, the Government of Canada announced the launch of a new Peace and Stabilization Operations Program by Global Affairs. This program pledges up to 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel – including engineers and medical units – to be available for possible deployment to UN peace operations. In addition to personnel, the government is also committing $450M over three years to projects promoting peace and security throughout the world.” Additionally, in 2017, Justin Trudeau promised a future deployment of a quick reaction force of 200 Canadian peacekeepers.

In March 2018, Canada announced that it will send 250 peacekeepers and eight helicopters to Mali to perform aeromedical evacuations and transport missions as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission. However, there were some critics that didn’t like this decision. James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, commented: “Mali is a war zone. This is a combat mission, and there is no peace to keep.” At least 170 UN personnel have been killed since the mission’s inception in 2013, making Mali the UN’s deadliest operation. The mission is being pulled in different directions as the line between peace operations and counterterrorism is blurred.

Shortly before Canadian peacekeepers’ deployment to Mali, Justin Trudeau acknowledged that Canada’s peacekeeping efforts in Mali will be very different from its peacekeeping efforts during the 1957 Suez Crisis: “Canadians are rightly proud of the history we have around peacekeeping but we know that the nature of peacekeeping has changed. No longer are you lining up peacekeepers between two warring states that are meeting on the border. We’re now talking about failed states, we’re talking about counter-insurrection, we’re talking about counter-terrorism.”

Canada’s peacekeeping mission to Mali lasted from July 2018 to the end of August 2019. Canadian peacekeepers performed 11 aeromedical evacuations and transported approximately 2,800 peacekeepers from other UN partners and 370,000 pounds of cargo. The UN asked Canada to extend its mission until mid-October when the Romanians would take over, but Canada rejected this request, creating a gap in providing lifesaving medical evacuations for injured UN peacekeepers until October.

Canada’s next peacekeeping mission will be conducted in Entebbe, Uganda, where 25 Canadian peacekeepers will operate aircraft which will be transporting troops, equipment and supplies to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

In September 2019, a CBC report detailed recent sexual abuse made by six Canadian police officers deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Haiti. Shockingly, all six Canadians have not been punished for their actions as it is up to individual police forces in Canada to impose any sanctions. There needs to be a legal framework which would hold Canadian peacekeepers accountable in case they commit crimes during UN missions. Chrystia Freeland declared that such a legal framework should be set up as soon as possible.

The future of Canadian peacekeeping depends on the outcome of the October federal elections. Even though the Liberals have fallen short on their two promises of deploying 600 Canadian peacekeepers to UN peace operations and forming a quick reaction force composed of 200 Canadian peacekeepers, this political party is dedicated to increasing the amount of Canadian peacekeepers and eventually fulfilling all its promises. If the Conservatives win the elections, the future of Canadian peacekeeping will be grim as it is likely to languish much as it did during Stephen Harper’s rule from 2006 to 2015.

Why should Canada increase the numbers of its peacekeeping forces?

As mentioned before, there are only 150 Canadian peacekeepers deployed on UN missions. I will argue that Canada should increase the amount of its peacekeeping forces to 1000 military personnel. This would surpass the 2016 Liberals’ pledge of Canada having 600 peacekeepers. Firstly, it is logistically possible to do so. Through his calculation, the academic Walter Dorn contends that Canada could deploy about 1000 peacekeepers, writing, “The benchmark for what’s sustainable for a Canadian Forces mission is essentially 3,000 military members deployed abroad at any given time. A pool of 3,000 was needed for any given rotation to Kandahar in recent years, while a record 3,300 Forces members served in UN peacekeeping missions in the early 1990s. Canada already has about 400 troops in Ukraine and Poland, and another 800 military personnel in Iraq and Kuwait. That means Canada could supply up to 1,000 troops to a UN mission and not be stretched too thin. Numbers up to 1,000 are sustainable for many years. Peacekeeping missions, or peace operations as the government now calls them, would likely draw heavily from the regular army.”

However, this number could be achieved only in a gradual way since the training capabilities of new peacekeepers are currently low in Canada. In his 2016 report, which is worth quoting at length, Walter Dorn wrote the following: “Over the past decade, Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have experienced a major decline in training and education for peacekeeping operations (PKOs), also known as peace support operations (PSOs) or simply peace operations. This development occurred in parallel with a major decline in Canadian military contributions to such operations. Canada is currently far behind other nations in its readiness to support the United Nations and train for modern peacekeeping. A thorough review of contemporary training shows that the CAF provides less than a quarter of the peacekeeping training activities that it did a decade ago. The decline in peacekeeping training and education in the CAF is readily apparent when looking at the primary training institutions that prepare Canadian officers for service. The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, which used to provide cutting-edge peacekeeping education to over 150 Canadian military personnel a year was shut down in December 2013 following the loss of federal funding. With that closure, Canada lost its main peacekeeping facility to train military personnel, police and civilians together. To this end, this report recommends the reinstatement and updating of the many training programmes and exercises that have been cut, as well as the introduction of new training activities to reflect the increasing complexity of modern peace operations. Only through such a significant increase in training can Canadian personnel be truly prepared for peace.”

There are three main reasons why peacekeeping is such a critical component in Canada’s defence policy and why Canada should increase the numbers of its peacekeeping forces. The first and most straightforward reason is that increasing these numbers would have a direct impact on improving Canadian and global security. By ensuring stability and peace in war-torn countries, peacekeeping forces can reduce the ability of terrorist groups to use these states as safe havens from which to plot international attacks.

For example, the UN determined that the situation in Mali represents a threat to international peace and security. Rebel armed groups continue to threaten the central government, which is in turn weakened and cannot monitor the whole country, making it easier for global terrorist networks to operate in certain areas of the country. There are also other forms of threat that could affect the security of Canada and the rest of the world. Romeo Dallaire said that the “many conflicts the UN is trying to manage will have an impact on Canada in the form of refugee crises or pandemics, and that only by returning to peacekeeping can Canada help strengthen the world body’s ability to respond.”

Secondly, peacekeeping operations are safer than multilateral military interventions and cause less casualties. From 1948 to the present, Canada has deployed 125,000 peacekeepers. 130 of these peacekeepers have been killed. While tragic, this death toll is lower than the 158 Canadian Forces members killed during the 11-year combat mission in Afghanistan.

Finally, the suffering of civilians in war-torn countries is an affront to Canadian values, meaning that Canadians have a moral obligation to help maintain those values abroad. The Canadian peacekeeping mission in Mali has helped to give the Malian people more decent lives, a goal that is surely worthwhile in its own right. 

Addressing Issues of Peacekeeping

There are three main counterarguments that could be made against increasing the amount of Canadian peacekeeping forces. The main counterargument focuses on the lost lives of Canadian peacekeepers. The second one asserts the notion that Canadians abroad might repeat the mistakes made in Somalia and engage in abuses of civilians again. The third one looks at the many soldiers that come back home with serious mental health issues such as PTSD, which leads to disproportionate rates of suicide and self-harm.

The first concern could be addressed by not putting any boots on the ground. During the 1991 Gulf War and 2011 Libyan Intervention, no Canadians fought on the ground and there weren’t any deaths of Canadian soldiers in these two missions. In Mali, there weren’t any peacekeepers on the ground as well, and this could be repeated in all the upcoming Canadian peacekeeping operations.

The second concern has been addressed by enforcing rigorous training so that nothing similar to the Somalia Affair happens again. After this tragic event, the Department of National Defence recognized the need for specialized training which was implemented with success between 1995 and 2005 while the army went into Kandahar.

The final counterargument looks at the bad state of returning soldiers’ mental health which makes their lives very hard. The most known case of this is the story of Romeo Dallaire who tried to take his life multiple times while suffering from PTSD which he developed from his experiences in Rwanda. As of 2017, 70 Afghanistan veterans had committed suicide, and mental health struggles remain a real and serious problem for many veterans today. Fortunately, in their newest defence policy paper, the Liberals outlined new strategies of how to help soldiers who have mental health issues such as PTSD and might have suicidal tendencies. The paper explains the strategy as follows: “In particular, we must and will do a better job in providing adequate care and treatment for personnel suffering from critical stress response injuries, running the gamut from mild battle stress to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Canadian Armed Forces members also face challenges with Operational Stress Injuries (OSI). Recognizing this, the Canadian Armed Forces provides a wide range of programs and services focused on the prevention and treatment of mental health issues, including seven specialized operational trauma and stress support centres across Canada that provide evidence-based medical treatment for OSIs.”

Conclusion

The amount of Canadian peacekeeping forces has drastically fallen in the last 25 years. In this special report, I argued that the amount of Canadian peacekeepers has to be massively increased from 150 to 1000 as the practice of peacekeeping improves Canadian and global security, helps disadvantaged populations around the world, and causes less casualties than military interventions such as in Afghanistan. Additionally, the training of Canadian peacekeepers needs to be improved. In conclusion, future Canadian peacekeeping operations should not include any boots on the ground to minimize casualties, Canadian peacekeepers need to be continually trained to treat civilians respectfully, and returning peacekeepers need to be offered comprehensive mental health services.


Featured Image: “Peacekeeping Memorial Ottawa” (2012), by Ken Banks via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Sedrik Pocuch

About Sedrik Pocuch

Sedrik Pocuch has recently finished a Master of Global Affairs at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. In 2017, Sedrik completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Minnesota where he double majored in Political Science and Psychology. In the summer of 2018, he did an internship at World Vision India at its national office in Chennai, India. As part of the research team, Sedrik contributed towards the creation of the first comprehensive study on child well-being in India in which the team ranked all of the 29 Indian states based on four selected components of child well-being such as health or education. Sedrik’s interest in global security began while taking a course on Canadian defence policy headed by professors John English and Bill Graham. In the future, Sedrik intends to work in the fields of human rights or security. In addition, his hobbies include playing sports, exploring new places, or engaging in various outdoor activities. He can be contacted by email at sedrik.pocuch@gmail.com.