Time to revive Canada’s role as a peacekeeper

Americas, Defence & Human Security, News

By Branka Marijan

On September 28, 2015 U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a summit on peacekeeping on the sidelines of the annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations (UN). Held while the world wrestles with a growing number of humanitarian crises—including the on-going conflict in Syria—the summit was forced to recognize that inaction is no longer an option.

Obama called on the international community to increase its support for peacekeeping and to provide the necessary resources and troops for UN-sponsored missions. In response, many nations made new pledges, resulting in the commitment of some 40,000 additional troops and police. China alone pledged 8,000 troops, along with $100-million to the African Union for an emergency response unit and $1-billion over the next 10 years to the UN for a peace and development fund. Conspicuous by its absence in these discussions was Canada.

The lack of a new pledge by Canada is striking, though not unexpected. Canada has traditionally been a leader in peacekeeping missions. From 1956 to 1992, Canada was the top contributor of UN peacekeepers. Moreover, Canada is widely acknowledged as a peacekeeping pioneer. As a result, Canadians tend to see Canada’s role in the world as that of a peacekeeper. However, a recent study published by the Canadian International Council points to the disconnection between perceptions of Canada at home and its role abroad. In the last 20 years, Canada, the study’s authors suggest, has become a global free-rider, not contributing its fair share to solving the world’s problems.

In the last few years, political analysts have warned that Canada’s influence on international affairs is waning. In 2010, Canada lost its bid for a temporary seat at the UN Security Council to Portugal. This loss was expected to be an important wake-up call for the Canadian government. After all, Canada had not lost a bid before in six previous successful campaigns for a seat. Yet, a leaked government presentation shows that attitudes have not changed; the belief that Canada’s international standing is “under threat” persists.

Nowhere is Canada’s drift from the global stage more visible than in peacekeeping. Currently, the UN has more than a 106,000 military, police, and civilian personnel on the ground, and the demand is greater than the supply. Not so long ago, Canada led the world in providing uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions. As of August 2015, Canada ranked 68th out of 124 countries in its uniformed personnel contribution to UN peacekeeping. Eighty-eight of the 106 total are police officers.

A more general Canadian withdrawal from peacekeeping is visible. For example, in 2013, the Pearson Centre, a peacekeeping hub created in 1994 as part of the former Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, closed down. The Pearson Centre is perhaps best known for training more than 18,000 Canadian and international peacekeepers for UN-sponsored missions. As Kenneth Epps, a policy advisor at Ploughshares, puts it, the closing of the centre was a sign of the erosion of Canada’s peacekeeping capacities.

Canada’s declining role in peacekeeping reflects a broader trend in which most of the peacekeeping is done by poor countries. For example, Bangladesh contributes 9,432 personnel, Ethiopia 8,309, and Pakistan 7,533. In comparison, the United States, which provides approximately 30 per cent of the UN peacekeeping budget, contributes only 82 personnel—fewer than Canada. However, at the recent summit, Obama pledged to double the number of U.S. military personnel serving in peacekeeping missions and provide more resources and training for UN peacekeepers.

This pledge by the United States should serve as a great incentive for Canada to reclaim its role as a peacekeeping state. Working with the United States on peacekeeping missions would strengthen an already important relationship. Canada’s stepping up its peacekeeping contribution would also help to revitalize its reputation at the UN.

Peacekeeping, as Canadians know well, is not without its problems. Peacekeepers are sent to areas where there is often little peace to keep. As Canada’s own experiences show, missions are often under-equipped, lack necessary resources, and operate under “weak rules of engagement.” Individual peacekeepers often lack contextual knowledge and have occasionally been criticized for exacerbating already difficult situations. Recently, peacekeepers in Central African Republic were accused of sexual abuse. Still, the UN, as shown by a recent report to the Security Council, is attempting to reform and improve peacekeeping efforts to address weaknesses and improve overall efficiency.

Canada should contribute to these UN efforts and resume its traditional leadership role in peacekeeping. Its international reputation would greatly benefit from this reengagement. Recipient nations would benefit as well. As Walter Dorn, Professor of Defence Studies at Canadian Forces College, stated, “If Canada returned to UN peacekeeping, it could have a real and lasting impact on peace and security in many of the world’s most dangerous regions.” That, in turn, would also ensure Canada’s security. As Obama observed at the summit, “This is not something we do for others; this is something we do collectively because our collective security depends on it.”

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