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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Partners for Peace: Assessing Canada’s return to peacekeeping

Published by: Geoff Tasker, CDA Institute and Partners for Peace

CDA Institute Analyst Geoff Tasker recently attended the Partners for Peace seminar held at the University of Ottawa on17 May 2016. The following post takes a look at what was discussed at the event and assesses the challenges facing Canada’s return to peacekeeping.


Following the federal election, the new government wasted no time in announcing to the world that “Canada is back.” This re-​entry into world affairs reflected what many Canadians view as a staple of our national identity; a mandate for legislators to develop and implement policy around “UN peace operations.” For the time being, however, the details about this prospective commitment are largely unknown. It is one thing for Canada to say it once again wants an active role in the peacekeeping business and quite another to implement an updated policy which can convince a skeptical public, largely disillusioned after years of heavily reported failures, that this is something still worth investing in.

It is this idea of learning from both our successes and mistakes that motivated the recent Partners for Peace seminar held at University of Ottawa. Organized by the Embassy for the Kingdom of the Netherlands in partnership with Global Affairs Canada and the Centre for International Policy Studies, the event provided a venue for panel contributors and observers to openly discuss ideas and share experiences from the world of peacekeeping in hopes of aiding both countries as they re-​engage with the now significantly dated concept.

With approximately 130,000 personnel currently serving in missions around the world, UN peacekeeping has not vanished in recent years. With the nature and form of conflict ever changing, however, the question then becomes how can the UN be reformed to adapt peacekeeping to fit in the current world order and what role should Canada play in the process?

It is, unfortunately, no secret that UN peacekeeping has had its share of rocky endeavors over the past two decades. Incidents such as Rwanda and the current crisis in South Sudan linger in the minds of both the public and policy-​makers alike. Regardless, observers at the event were also quick to point out the multiple success stories which have helped stabilize regions and prevent countless deaths.

No one in attendance, however, was under the illusion there was not room for drastic improvement and adaptation. The question is how, in what way, and at what cost?

The most critical aspect highlighted in each of the event’s panels was the need for the UN to become more adaptive in how it views such operations and what can actually be achieved. Multiple presenters brought attention to the ever changing nature of conflict and warfare. Inter-​state violence is largely, for the time being at least, subsumed by intra-​state violence and terrorism/​criminality that do not respect conventional borders. While this shift in scope may have decreased the level of destruction and deaths in violent conflicts, it has also created untold sufferings, large displacements of people, and changed the game in regards to how interventions or mediations can take place.

The image of UN blue helmets standing between two warring nations is a thing of the past. Perhaps, in its place might emerge the idea of conflict prevention through continuous dialogue with all involved belligerents, if dialogue can be had. As the conflict in Syria has shown, combatants in today’s deadliest conflicts are diverse, multi-​regional, and often make for highly undesirable partners. Nevertheless, some form of dialogue with most regional actors and host nations is crucial if one hopes to achieve eventual stability. Many presenters stressed that focusing solely on the physical protection of civilians – a singular goal that has often fueled peacekeeping’s negative perception – is no longer enough. Creating a secure political, economic and social environment for civilians living in these conflict zones may be the only way to obtain some form of lasting peace; to achieve this, all parties need to be brought to the table.

Panelists were in agreement on the need for the UN to promote greater integration between the countries contributing to such efforts. The lack of communication and cooperation between member states fueled by their individual political objectives was identified by multiple panelists as the primary factor holding back the entire process. A more integrated approach, the panelists argue, allows for different states to assist in different capacities, moving command and objectives away from singular actors into a common UN mandate.

For Canada, currently assessing how its specialized “niche capacities” can be used most effectively, an integrated approach with other countries plays to our strengths. The idea is not without issues however. The more skeptical of the panelists endorsed the idea of an integrated approach, but stressed it could only work if all members had a clear idea on the scope and objectives of the mission. If intelligence is not shared, the result can be disastrous for both UN personnel and civilian populations.

Yet, while integration sounds nice on paper, how can individual state political objectives take a backseat to a UNmandate? The answer almost universally touched on by all panelists is, in theory, quite simple: training.

For Canada at least, the return to an emphasis on training carries great appeal – in light of its experience with peacekeeping, stability operations, as well the training expertise generated by the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre that only ceased operating in 2013. Peacekeepers being trained under a set curriculum would not only ensure a standard for personnel and better guarantee appropriate conduct in the field, but would also allow the UN to reliably delegate greater decision-​making responsibility to troops on the ground. A common criticism has been that the “stove-​pipe” nature of UNdecision-​making restricts the flexibility of active peace support forces, preventing peacekeepers from effectively adapting to evolving situations. While standardized training will not entirely remove this bureaucratic obstacle, it will help to generate forces on the ground who are knowledgeable in key dimensions of the mission – this opens up the possibility of effectively decentralizing decision-​making to forces in the field and allowing for more proactive action on the part of peacekeepers themselves.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to conceive how universal peacekeeper training could ever become reality, let alone actually overcome state political biases. There are many roadblocks standing in the way of such an initiative, but the main obstacle is funding. The current UN budget could not sustain such a wide reaching project; individual member states would have to support it, which will inevitably mean that some states (especially those who foot the bill) will have more of a final say on the project objectives.

This reality is as true for the idea of a training program as it is for all aspects of UN peacekeeping. If any action is to be truly multilateral in its implementation, it is going to have to deal with both diverse political objectives and a possible unwieldy UN bureaucracy. The alternative, however, is to fall back on the so-​called “coalitions of the willing,” where actions can be taken quickly but are ultimately fueled by political objectives outside the scope of the UN.

If Canada truly wants to re-​enter the world of peacekeeping interventions, it will have choose between these options. Both scenarios come with challenges but such is the reality of peacekeeping as a whole. That the world is better with UNpeacekeeping missions than without them was not up for debate at the seminar. Panelists were quite clear that even the smallest improvements can have real impact on the outcome of such missions. If we are in fact serious about “being back,” it might be in our best interests to lead the way in helping to ensure such initiatives are actually effective – not simply because peacekeeping is expected of us, but because it then becomes something ultimately worth investing in.

Geoff Tasker is an Analyst with the CDA Institute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). His research interests focus on international security and defence policy as well as conflict mediation and humanitarian intervention. (Image courtesy of Mike Kouxommone.)