By Aditi Gorur:
When President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week, the two leaders had a lot to discuss. Both are confronting violent extremism, refugee crises, and attacks on civilians that demand international responses. Both Trudeau and Obama have also made United Nations peacekeeping a policy priority – ensuring that these international forces, deployed to protect civilians and support political settlements in some of the world’s deadliest conflicts, are fit for purpose. It is time for Canada to return to its global peacekeeping leadership role.
The task of making U.N. peacekeeping effective is more important than ever as the international community struggles to find a way to prevent and counter violent extremism in the Middle East and North Africa. Countries like the U.S., Canada, and France may be willing to launch airstrikes or short ground operations against terrorist groups, but they are not willing to expend the resources, devote the political will, or risk the lives to maintain a presence in places like Libya, Mali, or Syria. Short-term military action without longer-term support often creates power vacuums that fuel violent extremism.
This grim reality was demonstrated in Libya, where a coalition intervention in 2011 deposed Gaddafi but failed to provide resources and political support in the aftermath, creating conditions for a civil war and a growing presence of the so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups. The international community relies on the UN to provide the sustained political engagement needed to support good governance.
Canada was once a leading player in U.N. peacekeeping but its appetite waned as Western countries began to withdraw their own troops from peacekeeping missions during the late 1990s. Experiences like the U.N. mission in Rwanda (led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, who tried valiantly to protect civilians from the genocide) and the Somalia Affair (in which Canadian peacekeepers committed horrific human rights abuses, including the beating to death of a Somali boy) soured Canadian public opinion. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party from 2006, Canada’s engagement on U.N. peacekeeping was stripped down and scaled back.
Now, changing domestic and international conditions have led to renewed commitment to U.N. peacekeeping by the Trudeau government. Trudeau would do well to identify a few key priorities to maximize Canada’s impact and avoid spreading itself too thin. There are three areas in particular that are both critical to the success of peacekeeping and where Canada’s efforts can pack the biggest punch.
First, Canada should elevate the role of police in U.N. peacekeeping, in line with its legacy as a leading supporter of U.N. police. Canada can ensure that U.N. police receive the guidance and support they need to perform their unique functions effectively, contribute more experienced Canadian police to serve in missions, and ensure that critical policing skills such as crowd control are considered when the U.N. Security Council drafts peacekeeping mandates.
Second, Canada should make sure that women are at the forefront of peace efforts, drawing on its reputation as a champion of women’s rights. Engagement on this issue couldn’t come at a more important time, as the U.N. is rocked by a wave of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers against the very people they are sent to protect. Canada can contribute its own highly qualified women, and train women in other countries, to serve in military, police, and civilian roles in peacekeeping missions. It can also support initiatives to hold peacekeepers accountable for sexual abuse and provide relief to victims.
Finally, Canada should make sure that the international system is working not only to respond to crises, but to prevent them from breaking out, saving both lives and resources. Canada’s political leadership at the U.N. can continue to shine spotlights on potential conflicts. Its support of initiatives — such as the recently created conflict analysis and planning capacity within the office of the U.N. Secretary-General and the deployment of “light teams” to provide early response to potential conflict situations — could help to resolve situations before they reach a point where a costly peacekeeping mission is needed.
U.N. peacekeeping is at a precarious juncture — Canada’s re-emergence as a champion of peacekeeping could go a long way toward fixing it.
Aditi Gorur is the Director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, D.C.