George Petrolekas served with the military in Bosnia, Afghanistan and NATO and is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
With a federal defence review in the offing, perspectives on peacekeeping have increased, as the Trudeau government promised increased Canadian participation in UN-led peacekeeping during the election.
Delivering on that promise is challenging, in part because UN peacekeeping is often viewed through a distorted lens – crystallized by Canada’s own peacekeeping monument in Ottawa showing a soldier in a blue beret armed with nothing but a radio, quelling violence by sheer moral presence. Even in the heyday of Canadian participation in UN-led peacekeeping there was little truth to that image – and even less so today.
The mythology of peacekeeping distorts views on how Canada should prepare, train and conduct UN operations – an image supported by a recentanalysis. The paper by the Rideau Institute makes two major arguments: One, that the Canadian experience in Afghanistan has rendered our country ill-prepared to participate in UN missions; and two, that Canada has forgotten the basic principles of peacekeeping.
The study’s main thrust is exemplified by this statement: “War-fighting and COIN [counterinsurgency] are enemy-centric, usually non-consensual missions that primarily involve offensive tactics, whereas peacekeeping is based on a trinity of alternative principles: consent of main conflicting parties, impartiality and the defensive use of force.”
The truth is that Canada’s military has never been more ready to undertake peace-related operations.
Canadian Forces certainly fought battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan but, overall, the Canadian approach to counterinsurgency was population-centric; in other words to protect and engage the population – not only from a security standpoint but in rebuilding civic structures and institutions.
Canada invested in people and projects: training the Afghan Army and police; building schools, roads, and infrastructure. Images of Canadians sitting for hours in village shura’s, sipping tea while negotiating, educating, and helping local populations were regularly shared with the media.
Secondly, if the UN were to undertake a peacekeeping mission in Syria, would Islamic State consent be needed? That would confer legitimacy on a terrorist organization and its crimes. The UN clearly recognizes a distinction through what are termed Chapter VI and Chapter VII mandates for UN forces.
Chapter VI mandates are applied in situations such as Cyprus, where two parties have achieved a form of truce and need UN assistance to monitor and de-escalate tensions. These mandates are few and far between. Chapter VII mandates recognize that there is a serious threat to world or regional peace and a UN force is charged to impose a peace by whatever means possible. There is no consent of conflicting parties needed or sought.
Nevertheless, mission mandates change, they are not static. Conflicts are dynamic and mission locations are inherently unsafe. In 1993-94, I served in Bosnia, outside Sarajevo. At the beginning, our task was to protect UN aid and food convoys from attack. Though we had no role in mediating the conflict we nevertheless had to be consistently prepared to fight in case the unarmed convoys were threatened. Our equipment was often found wanting.
Whether Canada is at war or in a war zone the difference is moot when it comes to protecting our soldiers. In Bosnia we circulated in open-top jeeps, passing through firefights and in a place where mines were ever present. Equipment acquired for the mission in Afghanistan was better, and has made us more capable.
In the middle of the Bosnia mission, a mortar exploded in Sarajevo’s central square, and our focus suddenly changed. Our tasks expanded to impose a total exclusion zone around Sarajevo, in part by seizing belligerent artillery which had rained up to 2,000 shells a day into the city. We negotiated, cajoled, reasoned and threatened – the threat of force was ever present. Near the end of my tour, the United Nations Protected Area of Gorazde was attacked, requiring a full-scale war-fighting response, including air strikes. Without that pushback, the UN’s promise to protect threatened civilian populations had no meaning.
Canada will never place soldiers in the untenable position that Dutch soldiers found themselves years later in Srebrenica. There, because the Dutch themselves were not under attack, they were considered to be complicit spectators to one of the largest war crimes of the last two decades after thousands of innocents were massacred. Strict adherence to impartiality and defensive fire has consequences.
For Canada’s military therefore, the premise has always been to have combat-capable soldiers and equipment, particularly when UN missions occur in conflict zones. Before any deployment, units undergo months of mission-specific training that includes cultural awareness, reinforcement of the Geneva Conventions, negotiating skills and incident simulation while practicing time and time again protection measures and controlled escalation.
The foundation, however, is and has always been for Canadians to retain the ability to escalate if conditions require, with the equipment to do so. In that sense, Canada’s Forces have never been better prepared for UN operations if Canada so wishes.