Canada: The Once and Future Peacekeeper?

This is the second in a two-part series of articles on Canadian peacekeeping

By Walter Dorn | 2006-10-01 12:00:00

Many Canadian soldiers view the peacekeeping experience in Bosnia as a watershed -- in a negative way. During the 1992-95 Yugoslav wars, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) proved ineffective, as ceasefires were constantly violated while "ethnic cleansing" and mass slaughter raged on. The UN Security Council produced over 70 resolutions that the beleaguered UNPROFOR could not possibly implement. Canada deployed over 2,500 soldiers to the former Yugoslavia. Only the UK and France provided more boots on the ground. While these contributions helped in the short term, it took much patience and perseverance at the negotiating table, as well as casualties in the field, to produce a workable peace agreement.

The problem was: How to practice peacekeeping when there is no peace to keep? In an early attempt to put its foot down and enforce compliance, Canadian forces serving in the Medak Pocket put a halt to an aggressive Croatian advance, though they could not prevent the vengeful killing of civilians during the Croatian retreat. At the time, the Department of National Defence did not want to publicize this combat action by Canadian troops lest it antagonize the peace negotiations taking place, so official recognition of the battle did not come for many years.

In 1995, things actually became worse when UN peacekeepers were held hostage. Canadian soldier Capt. Patrick Rechner, an unarmed UN Military Observer, was chained to an antenna at a Serb ammunition bunker and this image was broadcast around the world on television. Rechner was released about three weeks later, but the image of helplessness endured.

By late 1995, after the Srebrenica massacre, the frustration was palpable in Canada. The conservative leader of the opposition Reform party, Preston Manning, even said: "The time has come to bring our peacekeepers home so they might better serve the cause of peace another day." But Canada stayed on. Soon, NATO/UN enforcement action was undertaken, with some Serb sites bombed.

After Dayton

The precarious experience in Bosnia from 1992-95 led many to believe that peacekeeping must be made more robust. When the Dayton Peace Accords were finally signed in December 1995, NATO was asked to replace the UN as the peacekeeping force provider, though in partnership and under the authority of the world organization. NATO managed to do well, having more troops, and a greater enforcement capacity than the UN, but still using a sensitive, sensible, and non-aggressive approach. The peace held.

Having kept over 1,000 troops in NATO service in Bosnia until 2000, the Canadian Forces heard complaints from soldiers as they were sent back for their fifth or sixth tours (six months each). The Canadian government then implemented a policy that no soldier or group should go out on a tour until after 18 months at home for training, pre-deployment preparations and rest.

The new confidence in NATO and enduring resentment towards Serbia's arch-nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic led Western nations to respond forcefully to "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo in 1998. In a move that created much debate, Canada's military assisted in the bombing of Serb targets in a war that did not have the sanction of the UN -- no resolution was introduced by Western nations because it was sure to be vetoed by Russia. Later, after the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, Russia joined Canada and others within NATO to form a peacekeeping force under UN auspices.

This task was immense. The world organization found itself with its most ambitious project yet: governing a war-ravaged territory that was ethnically divided and tension-filled. It had to take responsibility for everything from elections to education, from transportation to telecommunications, from banking to policing, from health to border patrols. Many Canadian civilians found jobs there, even after Canada withdrew its troops in 2002. So far the mission has been successful, with elections and a general peace, though violent acts are still committed by both the Serb and Kosovar (Albanian) groups and the final status of the territory has yet to be determined.

East Timor

The role of "Transitional Administration" was also given to the UN in East Timor. First, in the summer of 1999, the UN organized a referendum in the former Portuguese territory, which had been under Indonesian occupation since 1975. Canadian civilians (this author included) served as electoral officers, political affairs officers, and civilian police. When the reign of terror ensued after the pro-independence vote was announced on September 6, 1999, UN personnel were evacuated, leaving some of them with a deep sense of regret. The mission as a whole had "betrayed the Timorese people," according to the front-page headline in The Globe and Mail. The UN had promised it would remain after the vote but it withdrew at the hour of greatest need. Fortunately, Australia stepped up to lead a robust coalition mission, which Indonesia accepted under threat of economic sanctions.

Starting as an enforcement operation, it soon became a peacekeeping mission under the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). Canadian troops were posted near Suai, a tension-filled area close to the Indonesian border where there had been a church massacre. As in Kosovo, the UN's Transitional Administrator in Timor possessed the powers of a benevolent dictator, but acted only after significant local consultation. Parliamentary and presidential elections were held, and power was turned over to the elected representatives. In 2002 Timor Leste became the 191st member of the UN. Despite problems in the Timorese army, the peace has held in that small half-island.

Re-Thinking Peacekeeping

With the tough experience in the Balkans, Africa and Asia in the 1990s, the Canadian Forces and many other militaries felt the need to rethink peacekeeping. "Peacekeeping" was replaced with the term "peace support operations" (PSO), though peacekeeping (in its classical Pearsonian sense) remained as one type of PSO. "Peace support" was a more realistic description, since the troops could only support the peace. They could not be certain they could "keep" it. It meant that soldiers would not raise expectations to a level that would be doomed to fail if one of the parties started fighting again.

Despite the Canadian Forces and NATO terminology shifts, the UN and the general public continue to use the term "peacekeeping," and it seems to be a descriptor that is here to stay. It has become part of the common -- as well as official -- language of a great many countries. Besides its rich heritage, it has a pleasant sonorous quality, something that has unconscious value. It also provides a greater sense of underlying strength and commitment to the goal.

Current Status

As in other Western countries that passed through the trying days of the 1990s, Canada's military prefers missions run by NATO as opposed to the UN. In NATO, the military structure is better defined, the number of troops deployed is larger, the level of support is greater, and partner nations are generally better equipped and trained than in typical UN missions. Western nations, including Canada, let their support for UN missions decline as NATO took on new peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and the Kabul region of Afghanistan. Fortunately, the developing world was able to provide tens of thousands of troops to the UN. But it still leaves a gap, both in representation -- since the UN should represent the world -- and in capability.

During the Cold War, Canada was a top peacekeeping contributor. By the time the Nobel Prize was awarded to peacekeepers in 1988, Canada had provided about 10% of all troops -- more than any other nation. During the first half of the 1990s, this began to fall, especially as larger UN missions were established. But Canada remained in the top 10 list until 1997. Within less than a decade, Canada had dropped to a rank in the mid-thirties. It was this year, however, that the steepest decline came.

Repatriating Peacekeepers

In March 2006, the Conservative government repatriated its peacekeepers from the Golan Heights. After 32 years of service to keep a fragile peace between Israel and Syria, some 190 logistics and other personnel were withdrawn. Canada now has only 55 soldiers serving in UN missions! They are scattered in small numbers across the UN's operations, with the largest number (32) in Sudan. Canada's rank has plummeted to 52nd. Canadian police in UN missions are now more numerous than soldiers.

At the same time, Canadian civilians are present in even greater numbers. In fact, they are the second largest group of civilian employees (after the Americans) in UN missions. (Civilians serving in peacekeeping operations are recruited individually, not sent by the Canadian government.)

Canadian diplomats at the UN frequently hear complaints that Canada's contribution is meager, especially given the nation's long tradition of strong commitment. They reply that more than 2,000 Canadian soldiers serve in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, first in Kabul and later Kandahar, as part of the national contribution to peace. But that excuse holds less value with member states at the UN (excluding the US and some European allies) because the mission in Kandahar is increasingly perceived as more akin to "war-fighting" than peacekeeping.


The Canadian government has a strong mandate from the Canadian public to contribute to UN peacekeeping and a long-standing heritage to uphold. Unfortunately, Canada can no longer be called a prolific peacekeeper. It is time to reinvigorate the Canadian forces and rededicate them to Canada's strong tradition of peacekeeping, among other important tasks. During the Cold War, Canada used the planning figure of a 2,000 personnel ceiling for UN peacekeeping deployment (in addition to 10,000 troops in Europe). Canada is nowhere near that now. The low number of 55 troops total in UN operations is shameful. Certainly the Canadian Forces could better balance its commitments so as to provide at least 500 soldiers to serve the peace.

With Europeans now contributing generously to a strong UN force in Southern Lebanon, there is a new opportunity for Canada. That mission is crucial not only for peace on the Lebanese border with Israel but also for international peace. Violence by Hezbollah and Israel only fuel the fires for resentment, counteractions and terrorism worldwide.

But our government is not seizing the opportunity to contribute. In fact, Canada is imposing unnecessary constraints on the UN, informing the world organization that the six Canadian soldiers currently serving in the Middle East in the truce supervision mission (UNTSO), with its important observation role in Lebanon, are not permitted to go to Lebanon. Is this not a case of "cut and run," coming after Canada suffered a fatality from Israeli bombing in Southern Lebanon in July? The government's excuse for not contributing to UNIFIL, as in Sudan and other UN missions, is the current commitment in Afghanistan. Is the Canada Forces becoming a "single mission military"?

But even if the provision of 500 troops is unlikely in the near future, there are other ways that Canada can contribute. Canada could specialize in areas where smaller groups of well-equipped soldiers would help meet current UN needs. An excellent example is advanced monitoring technology, which is lacking in current UN operations. Canada could provide advanced remote sensing and positioning expertise to complement its long tradition of communications. These technologies have become much cheaper and much better in recent years and are eminently suitable for UN operations. Sensors can increase the range and accuracy of observation, and permit continuous monitoring over much larger areas. It is now possible to spot a person walking at night 10 kilometres away using ground-based radar. Much greater ranges can be obtained from planes and unpiloted aerial vehicles. Infrared viewers on the helmets of peacekeepers can greatly increase the effectiveness of patrols at night, when most of the nefarious activities, such as ceasefire violations and arms/contraband shipments, take place. Technology not only makes peacekeepers more effective at their jobs, it can also make them safer. They are better able to protect themselves from intruders and those who might sabotage the peace process. A Canadian contribution of a Coyote reconnaissance vehicle and a dozen specialists could be more meaningful than a hundred boots on the ground.

In the 1990s Canada strengthened its peacekeeping training capacity, not only for Canadian soldiers and civilians but also for visiting soldiers and civilian students from around the world. The military-civilian Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (PPC) was established in 1995, and the Army's Peace Support Training Centre was set up a year later. Thousands of people have gone through the wide-ranging courses sponsored by these institutions, with some of the courses being conducted abroad, in Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, PPC spearheaded the establishment of the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centres which has drawn together over a hundred training, research and educational centres in 50 countries. Unfortunately, the momentum of the PPC training program, which needs continuous support, is at risk by funding cuts. An expansion of training programs, especially new or prospective peacekeepers like Mexico, would be welcomed in the halls of the UN and around the world.

The developing world provides the backbone of modern UN peacekeeping forces. South Asian countries alone provide almost 30,000 of the UN's 65,000 military personnel. Canada could contribute to the development of peacekeeping by sharing its knowledge and experience though joint exercises, training soldiers before and during missions, and by sharing the skills needed to utilize advanced technologies.

The Standby High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG) came out of a Canadian-Danish initiative in the late 1990s. The multinational brigade of peacekeepers is the most progressive development in peacekeeping in a generation. It answers decades of Canadian calls for a rapid-reaction standby force. But SHIRBRIG is being allowed to languish, with insufficient troops to make it effective or rapidly deployable. Canada has a special opportunity to improve the speed, efficiency and proficiency of SHIRBRIG.

UN missions are becoming more robust, as well as more numerous. In the Congo, the UN uses Indian attack helicopters to provide security for its personnel and threatened villages. In Haiti the UN is using proportionate force to build law and order. The mission in Lebanon is expected to become not only robust but also highly technological. UN headquarters in New York is better able to supervise operations in the field than ever before, with more staff and better support mechanisms. Thus, the earlier complaint of Canadian soldiers about the lack of backbone in UN operations is loosing its validity. Ironically, it is at this time of surging UN peacekeeping that Canada is at its historic low as a contributor.


During the Cold War, politicians of all stripes proudly boasted that Canada had contributed to every UN peacekeeping mission. A "perfect record," Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy wrote. "Unsurpassed by any other nation," noted Chief of Defence Staff John de Chastelain in 1989. Canada can no longer make such claims. It is currently surpassed by over 50 troop contributors. While Canada still contributes something to peacekeeping, it is not providing the troops, the equipment, or the leadership (intellectually or on the ground) that it once did. For supporters of the UN and of Canadian peacekeeping, there is an urgent need to re-invigorate and rededicate the Canadian Forces to live up to its rich legacy.

Although the critics of peacekeeping may cite the difficulties and challenges of UN peacekeeping, the reasonable response has been articulated over the years, including by External Affairs Minister Paul Martin Sr. in the 1960s:

"Instead of belittling peacekeeping because of the problems which the United Nations forces have encountered (for example in the Middle East), critics should devote their energies to suggesting ways to strengthen the United Nations' ability to discharge its primary responsibility for peace and security and to ensure that future UN forces will have better terms of reference for carrying out their mandate. ... I am convinced that Canadians want us to go on making a contribution to UN peacekeeping in spite of the undoubted difficulties."

Canada will always bring its traditional strengths to peacekeeping: a largely bilingual multicultural force, well trained and well equipped, ready to reach out to partners and to engage the local public in conflict-ridden areas, while also able to apply force when necessary. Canada can now explore new ways to use its soldiers, sailors and air personnel to add new dimensions to operations, whether to stop conflicts or build the peace afterwards.

Peacekeeping has been shown to be a proud Canadian tradition but its current contribution is meager. Will it once again rise to prominence? There is every hope that Canada will be a top contributor once again in the future, not only because the nation's foreign policy relies heavily on multilateralism but also because of the popular demand for Canadian contributions to peace. One thing is certain: In our conflict-ridden world, there will be a great need, much scope, and many opportunities for Canada to try to live up to its peacekeeping tradition.

Dr. Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, is currently on sabbatical preparing a study for the Peacekeeping Committee of the UN General Assembly.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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