Op-ed: What we’ve learned in 65 years of peacekeeping

Steven Staples and Joshua Libben
Ottawa Citizen
May 28, 2013

Decades after its first mission in 1948, United Nations peacekeeping is as controversial today as it was back then.

Sixty-five years ago this week, on May 29, 1948, officers were sent to monitor the truce established following the First Arab-Israeli War. Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting “peacekeeping,” as it came to be known; a project that helped to define our national identity and character. Today more than 100,000 peacekeeping personnel operate in 15 missions in the most dangerous parts of the globe.

Despite this landmark Canadian achievement, there are many figures on both ends of the political spectrum who bristle at the idea of Canadian troops participating in UN peacekeeping missions today. Most Canadians, however, still support our forces joining the UN in peacekeeping operations.

How do we decide? Here are three ways in which UN peacekeeping has changed over the years, and three more ways it hasn’t:

1. Peacekeepers are prepared to use force.

In the early days, peacekeepers were unarmed observers and mediators. Today most missions have well-armed troops, which are authorized to use force to defend themselves, protect civilians and, as in the recent deployment of an “intervention brigade” in the Eastern Congo, even disarm and neutralize paramilitary groups by force.

2. Peacekeepers use modern technology.

Those first UN peacekeepers had little more than binoculars and walkie-talkies on hand in case of trouble, but peacekeeping forces today rely upon armoured personnel carriers, attack helicopters, surveillance aircraft, and modern communications technologies. This July, unarmed “flying camera” drones will be available to peacekeepers, helping them do their jobs.

3. Peacekeepers come from all parts of the world.

Peacekeeping troops used to largely come from the West; in the early 1990s Canada was one of the largest contributors to the UN, sending more than 3,000 troops.

Today, the vast majority of peacekeepers are sent from countries in Africa and Asia, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India — the top three contributors. On this week’s anniversary, Canada remarkably will be contributing only 19 peacekeeping troops to UN missions, one of the lowest levels to date.

Despite these important differences, some aspects of peacekeeping have not changed since the initial years of peace operations:

1. Many old threats to peace remain unsolved.

Six and a half decades later, the first UN peacekeeping mission in the Middle East is still active. Other long-standing missions in Cyprus, Kosovo, and between India and Pakistan show that, in the world of peacekeeping, there’s little chance of seeing a “mission accomplished” banner within a few short years.

2. Global powers in the UN disagree over the authorization of missions.

The lack of trust among the privileged member states of the UN Security Council still prevents the UN from authorizing some missions. For example, in 1948 the old Soviet Union was suspicious of UN missions, seeing them as a mask for American imperialism, and it blocked the deployment of peacekeepers to crisis zones.

More recently, Russia and China expressed concerns about missions like the controversial UN-authorized attack on Libya, and the powers continue to be wary of any operation in Syria (a reluctance shared by Canada).

3. Peacekeeping remains a dangerous undertaking.

Eight peacekeepers died in that first year of peacekeeping. Since then, more than 3,000 more have died serving the United Nations, including 121 Canadians: a sober reminder of the risks faced by every soldier wearing the iconic blue helmet.

What should Canada’s role be in the future of UN peacekeeping? As the last rotation of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan nears, peacekeeping missions are gaining prominence in the international stage, such as the new peacekeeping mission in Mali. The time may be ripe for a Canadian re-engagement with UN peacekeeping.

Canada has the capacity to greatly improve UN peacekeeping. Many peacekeeping veterans still serve in the Canadian Forces, and Canada’s ability to train new peacekeepers from less experienced countries around the world is unparalleled. Our equipment, especially large transport aircraft purchased to supply the war in Afghanistan, is needed desperately by the UN for its global missions.

Our reputation is waning in the international community — demonstrated by our recent loss of a coveted seat on the UN Security Council to Portugal. Now is the time for Canada to return to the United Nations through international diplomacy, backed by a renewed commitment to United Nations peacekeeping.

Steven Staples is president of the Rideau Institute. Joshua Libben researches peacekeeping in the doctoral program at the University of Ottawa.

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