Jacob Kathman takes a Moneyball approach to political science. He studies huge data sets on things like civilian deaths in civil war and international military intervention. As a political scientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Kathman has spent most of the past decade using that big data to puzzle out issues tied to global peace and security. But he keeps coming back to one question: Does peacekeeping work?
It turns out to be remarkably hard to figure out. That’s partially because researchers can’t seem to agree on what “work” should mean. Does success in UN peacekeeping mean ending war? Sustaining peace? Reducing attacks on civilians? Is it about fostering stable government, fighting terrorists or protecting human rights? Maybe it means just not making things worse?
Like a lot of big data analysts, Kathman speaks about his own work with boundless enthusiasm but also endless caveats. He hedges and qualifies, and always makes the listener aware of the limits of what he can know. Still, in his own cautious way, he’s pretty sure he has an answer. “The general consensus,” he said in a recent interview, “is, for the most part, peacekeeping seems to improve the situation on the ground, generally speaking.”
In other words, yes, peacekeeping does work. At least according to the kind of analysis Kathman and his colleagues perform. What they’ve done over several studies is look at UN troop and police deployments, month by month, all over the world for many decades. What they’ve found is that, despite some high-profile failures, peacekeeping does tend to improve things on the ground. “In terms of reducing violence, maintaining stability, improving progress towards democracy and economic stability, peacekeeping appears to be a pretty positive way forward for many war-torn countries,” Kathman said.
Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada will soon commit up to 600 troops and about 100 police officers to a United Nations peacekeeping missionin an undisclosed location in Africa. That would mark the most significant Canadian contribution to a single UN mission in a generation. The deployment would fulfill a major Liberal promise from last year’s election. It would also pivot the country in a rhetorical way toward a more big-L Liberal vision of what Canada should be in the world.
But Canada’s renewed interest comes at a difficult time for peacekeeping. The peacekeeping office, the largest in the UN, is in crisis. It is overstretched, undermanned and beset by serial scandals about sexual abuse, disease and self-serving bureaucracy. The system is in such trouble it could be at risk of a massive failure — a Srebrenica-like moment that could doom peacekeeping for decades, believes Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert in New York.
At the same time, research from Kathman and others suggests that, for all its many problems, peacekeeping can pay off. “The UN gets a pretty bad rap,” Kathman said. “But … it’s pretty surprisingly effective.”
And therein lies the problem for Canada. Peacekeeping can be abusive, bureaucratic, buck-passing, cholera-spreading and rape-ignoring. It also works. Can Canada re-engage and still keeps its soul?
Peacekeeping in the public imagination tends to ping pong back and forth between poles of horror and heroism. The idea was dreamed up during the Suez crisis in 1956 by, among others, Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister at the time. During the Cold War, division on the Security Council kept large-scale peacekeeping missions to a minimum. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the age of mass peacekeeping began.
It didn’t last long.
A string of horrific failures in the early to mid 1990s soured many in the Western world on peacekeeping. In Canada, members of an elite airborne regiment tortured a local teenager to death while on a mission in Somalia in 1993. Early the next year, the UN failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, despite the pleas of Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire, who was on the ground at the time.
In 1995, in what became the last straw for many in the West, UN peacekeepers allowed the wholesale slaughter of Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica. The attack served as a turning point in UN peacekeeping. “Prior to Bosnia, almost half of UN peacekeepers had been from Western countries,” Jean-Marie Guehenno, who served as the head of UN peacekeeping between 2000 and 2008, wrote in a memoir published last year. “When I left office, the West provided fewer than one in 10 of our blue helmets.”
|Postmedia Network fileCpl. Tyler Gallant, of Petawawa, watches from the turret of his Coyote as a patrol of Canadian peacekeeping troops roll through the Bosnian village of Sanski Most in December 2003.|
By July 2016, more than 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers were deployed on 16 missions around the globe, at a cost of over US$8 billion a year. More than 30 per cent of those soldiers came from just four countries: Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. (Canada currently has a total of 103 soldiers, police officers and official observers deployed to five different missions in Africa and Haiti.)
The missions themselves had morphed, too. In some countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan, peacekeepers were deployed into combat where “there was little or no peace to keep,” according to a major UN peacekeeping review published by the organization in 2015. They were tasked with broad mandates to carry out over vast geographical spaces with little high-calibre support.
In his book, Guehenno suggests peacekeeping has become, at times, a way for the Western world to deal with problems it cares about, just not that much. In Darfur, “the leading Western countries … wanted ‘to do’ something, but certainly were not prepared to deploy their own troops and did not want to pay too much,” he wrote. The result was an overstretched, poorly manned mission that had little hope of containing the violence across a huge area of land.
Darfur was no exception. The peacekeeping review panel found, in mission after mission, a “widening gap between what is being asked of United Nations peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.”
|ED OUDENAARDEN/AFP/Getty ImagesTwo Dutch soldiers riding on an armored vehicle accompanying a Dutch-UN convoy of 56 engineering vehicles on their way to Lukavac in Bosnia-Hercegovina on Feb. 28, 1994|
In June, Anders Kompass, a veteran Swedish diplomat and longtime UN employee, quit the organization in disgust. Kompass blew the whistle on allegations of child sexual abuse by UN and UN-affiliated peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014. For his trouble, he was hounded by his superiors, asked to resign, suspended and investigated as a leaker. Even after a high-level, independent panel — chaired by former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps — cleared him of wrongdoing, he felt no option but to leave.
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Kompass thinks there’s something fundamentally broken about the UN. There’s an ingrained culture of secrecy and self-protection that allows horrific acts like child sexual abuse to go unpunished at the highest levels. “Instead of protecting the people, they are abusing them,” he said in an interview from his new home in Sweden. “And then no one is saying anything. It’s terrible.”
Kompass sees the same instinct — to circle the wagons — at play in another recent UN scandal. In August, the UN admitted for the first time that peacekeepers had been responsible for the introduction of cholera into Haiti in 2010. The disease has since killed more than 10,000 Haitians and made over 100,000 more desperately ill. The evidence linking the outbreak to a UN camp has been overwhelming, and public, for years, but the United Nations secretariat has, until this summer, done nothing but dodge.
“It was a very similar reaction to what I experienced,” Kompass said. “They just can’t recognize that they had (done) something wrong. They expect the rest of the world to do it, but they (won’t do it) themselves.”
|AP Photo/Jason Patinkin, FileIn this July 25, 2016 file photo, some of the more than 30,000 civilians sheltering in a United Nations base in South Sudan's capital Juba for fear of targeted killings by government forces walk by an armoured vehicle and a watchtower manned by Chinese UN peacekeepers. According to reports from victims which have come to light Monday Aug. 15, 2016, South Sudanese troops, fresh from winning a battle against opposition forces in the capital, Juba, on July 11, 2016, went on a nearly four-hour rampage through a residential compound popular with foreigners, and the UN peacekeeping force stationed nearby are accused of refusing to respond to desperate calls for help.|
“They shot dead a local journalist while forcing the foreigners to watch, raped several foreign women, singled out Americans, beat and robbed people and carried out mock executions,” the AP reported. “For hours throughout the assault, the UN peacekeeping force stationed less than a mile away refused to respond to desperate calls for help.”
Taken together, the three scandals would seem to confirm the worst fears of the UN-ophobic. Peacekeeping can appear, and indeed sometimes is, a horrific cluster of the ineffective, the abusive and the self-serving. But researchers, and even some critics, don’t think that necessarily means Canada should stay away. Without the renewed involvement of Canada, some believe, peacekeeping will only get worse.
“I think Canada is doing the right thing by re-engaging,” said Gowan, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation. But they have to do it the right way.
What that means differs depending on whom you ask. Gowan, for his part, sees the UN peacekeeping system as desperately overstretched, with peacekeepers on the ground in places where they have no credible local partners and no hope of restoring peace or protecting more than a fraction of the civilians at risk. “The system almost lives in denial about the number of civilians who have died on its watch in Darfur, South Sudan and the Congo,” he said.
|Alex Urosevic / Postmedia News fileCanadian troops in Bosnia in December 2003.|
Charles Petrie, a former UN assistant secretary general, who helped write the 2015 peacekeeping review, agrees, to an extent. Petrie thinks the entire system needs to be rethought. The focus, he believes should be more on supporting political agreements and structures. He’d like to see smaller, more targeted peace-building missions, supported by small teams of highly trained soldiers able to react quickly to the worst humanitarian dangers. Canadian soldiers, he believes, could help form those rapid reaction teams.
Based on his research, Kathman thinks any increase in Canadian involvement would help. But if Canada does recommit in a serious way, he said, it would be better off focusing on a small number of missions rather than spreading its soldiers out. “The other thing we’ve found is that the more coherent a mission”— in other words, more troops from fewer countries — “the more effective those missions tend to be,” he said.
The consensus, though, seems to be that Canada can’t just focus on its own UN mission. “I think it’s much more than money and much more than troops,” Petrie said. “I think there needs to be a fundamental rethinking of how (peacekeeping works).”
On Thursday, the Canadian government announced a new reconnaissance mission to Mali, home to a large, unusually violent peacekeeping mission. The trip follows an earlier African excursion that saw Sajjan and a team of peacekeeping experts tour the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.
The government insists that no final decision on a destination for Canadian troops has been made. But the Liberals do seem committed to the idea of sending a new wave of Canadian blue helmets somewhere, at some point soon.
“There’s a sense of incredible vulnerability across the UN system,” said Gowan. “And a sense that the organization has gone beyond its capabilities and some sort of reckoning is necessary.”
For better or worse, that reckoning is Canada’s now, too.