Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged in a splashy way right after his 2015 election to “renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations,” the country’s contribution to peacekeeping remains at an all-time low. Since Trudeau’s seemingly impetuous campaign promise a year and a half ago, allies and UN member states have anticipated a Canadian deployment of troops, to no effect.
As Canada prepares to take its turn holding the annual UN peacekeeping defense ministerial summit — in November 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia — the country will soon face more scrutiny surrounding its commitment to UN peacekeeping. For starters, the Canadian mission to the UN just postponed an April 27 launching event for the summit at the UN headquarters in New York, with no explanation.
The government’s imminent publication of its defense policy review, which will create a road map for the role of its military for the foreseeable future, is bound to shed light on Canada’s position on global security issues and its presence in UN peacekeeping. Until the review delivers its outlook for the military, which has seen a decline in its budget, Canada may continue to skirt questions on whether it will be an international peace-operations player.
As reported widely, the decision to invest troops in UN peacekeeping missions hinges partly on American foreign policy and the Trump administration’s plans for its own military operations. The United States held a peacekeeping briefing in early April in the UN Security Council to discuss the viability of peacekeeping missions overall — to consider, as a concept note read, in part, “whether current peacekeeping operations continue to be the best-suited mechanisms for meeting the needs of those on the ground and achieving the Council’s political objectives, or if changes are needed.”
In reality, the US is eager to reduce mission sizes to save money for its own foreign-aid budget. The concept note from the US on UN peacekeeping did not, for example, mention several UN peacekeeping missions that are closing down, such as in Ivory Coast and Liberia, as well as a large reduction of Haiti. At the UN, the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, is actively aiming to cut the number of troop ceilings in missions, starting recently with a modest reduction — after pushback from France, another Council member — to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The goal of the US is to reduce its overall contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget from 28 percent to 25 percent, as PassBlue reported recently. Some members of the UN Security Council, which approves peacekeeping mandates, are balking, including Russia, Senegal and Egypt, the latter two being huge troop-contributing countries.
“It’s all interconnected,” said Harjit Sajjan, the Canadian defense minister, who met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in February to address the commitment to NATO, defense spending levels and peacekeeping operations. “So we have to discuss this because we need to be able to maximize our impact on the ground.”
Trudeau and Sajjan are taking their time, they say, to consider the complexities of UN peace missions, several of which, notably in Africa, operate in active conflicts or tense regions of transnational crime and terrorism. The UN is desperate for more troops, especially French-speaking ones that Canada can provide, to deploy in Francophone missions, such as in Mali and Central African Republic. The UN also needs more police — especially female officers — which Canada could also provide, as well as rapid-reaction forces and medical facilities.
Trudeau’s Liberal government said in August 2016 that it would commit up to 600 soldiers, 150 police officers and $450 million over three years to UN peace operations. The announcement did not specify which missions these resources would be allocated toward, and the government has not followed through on the targets.
Canada, once the leading contributor to UN peace missions, had more than 3,000 troops deployed during its peak period in the early 1990s. After Canada’s participation in a string of failures, including the UN mission in Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica in Bosnia, the number of Canadian troops deployed in UN missions declined. Today, the Canadian Armed Forces count over 75,000 personnel across the navy, army and air force, but Canada has only 121 peacekeepers (91 police, 11 military experts and 19 troops) deployed in UN missions.
Canada is ninth among the top-10 financial contributors to UN peacekeeping, but if it wants to win a seat on the Security Council in 2021, as Trudeau announced he planned to do, it must demonstrate a more robust personnel contribution to peacekeeping — part of the job of getting a seat on the Council. But the question of how to re-engage, and in which missions, remains a difficult one for the country.
Defense spending isn’t open-ended, of course, so that the number of troops that can be committed to peacekeeping is a function of other military operations to which Canada is committed, experts say. That includes NATO. And as an ally of the US, Canada must meet those priorities first.
“So if Canada deploys 600 troops in a peacekeeping operation, that means that there are less available for other things that may be higher on the US’s list of priorities, such as the fight against ISIS,” said Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert at the Canadian Forces College.
If Canada can show the US that it is a strong ally in fighting terrorism, it may benefit the country in other areas of Canada-US relations, such as the renegotiation of Nafta. The continued lack of clarity surrounding American foreign policy is not the only factor delaying the Canadian decision-making process.
“I don’t think it’s only a Trump effect,” said Alexandra Novosseloff, a senior visiting fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “I think Canada has been using it as a way to say that maybe they need to think more about how they commit.”
UN peacekeeping missions are not the operations of yore, when soldiers in blue helmets would stand, more or less, along cease-fire lines, monitor elections and help countries recover from war by holding reconciliation forums. Today, the UN is increasingly involved in “peace stabilization” operations in messy, internal sectarian conflicts where peace is sporadic or conflicts boil, such as in South Sudan.
Stabilization, a term used in missions operating in ongoing conflicts, “denotes a level of robustness that not all member states are comfortable with,” Michael Grant, the deputy permanent representative of Canada to the UN, said at an event held by the International Peace Institute, an independent think tank in New York City.
Canada’s return to peacekeeping after such a long hiatus will require intense preparation. Factors such as the use of child soldiers by nonstate actors in conflicts further complicates the job of peacekeepers, which now require highly specialized training.
“It would be very a significant contribution to provide troops, but it’s not the only way to engage,” Dorn said. “Canada could also provide strong force enablers like reconnaissance, vehicles and technology” — much like Germany and Sweden are doing in the Mali peacekeeping mission.
Novosseloff said first steps could be cautious but important. “Positioning a few officers in military headquarters in various missions, as well as here in New York in the office of military affairs, would start the process of regaining the knowledge of what UN peacekeeping is about and what it’s doing,” she said in an interview. “The good thing is they’ve promised to fund a few projects, and that might help them regain knowledge on how to undertake peacekeeping operations. But that will take time.”
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Julie Vanderperre is a recent political science graduate of McGill University in Montreal. She has written for the McGill Tribune and was an intern for AID India in Chennai and for Social Justice Connection in Montreal. She currently works for France-Amerique Magazine in New York and speaks English, French and Spanish.