Canada dodges peacekeeping bullet

TYR, LEBANON-OCTOBER 21, 2006: Unidentified Turkish UN vehicle on patrol on October 21, 2006 in Tyr, Lebanon

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced his government’s plan to re-engage with UN peacekeeping operations at a UN Peacekeeping Summit in Vancouver. Canada will honour its promise to contribute up to 600 troops somewhere, sometime, in the fullness of eventually, pledged Trudeau. But, not all at once, nor in one place and especially not in any of the places or on any of the missions the UN has already asked Canada to fill.

Instead, Canada will offer “Smart Pledges” designed to ensure the UN gets the type of military assistance it needs, when and where it needs it. Trudeau didn’t even smirk at the irony of his words, mere sentences after confirming Canada would, in fact, not provide the UN with the type of military support it most needs and has repeatedly asked for.

Canada’s national arrogance didn’t end with Trudeau’s “We’re smarter than all of you pledges.” His tone of voice was, as usual, pedantic and condescending and suggested he believed the Liberal Party myth machine and his own defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, when Sajjan reminded the conference that “Canada invented peacekeeping” – a frequent Canadian claim that former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold may have reason to dispute.

Trudeau didn’t even smirk at the irony of his words, mere sentences after confirming Canada would, in fact, not provide the UN with the type of military support it most needs and has repeatedly asked for.

Sajjan also reminded the audience that over 120,000 Canadians have worn the blue beret over the years. He did not remind them that a dozen countries have contributed more troops to UN missions than Canada has, nor that Canada has not played a significant role in UN peacekeeping operations in almost two decades. In fact, of the 106,000 UN peacekeepers currently deployed around the globe, a full 23 of them are Canadians.

Who contributes more troops than Canada? Well, pretty much everybody. You probably can’t guess who contributes the most troops to UN peacekeeping operations these days. Go ahead, guess.

The top five troop-contributing nations are:

1. Ethiopia: 8,403
2. Bangladesh: 7,133
3. India: 6,435
4. Rwanda: 6,334
5. Pakistan: 6,266

The next five include: Nepal, Egypt, Senegal, Ghana and Indonesia.

But, the world should bow down to Canada. Yeah, right.

Trudeau pledged a five-year commitment to support UN peacekeeping operations:

1. Up to 200 ground troops as part of a “Quick Reaction Force” available to the UN. “A company of elite personnel and accompanying equipment capable of responding rapidly to threats such as those against UN positions and observation posts,” Trudeau explained. This is almost exactly the kind of commitment I’ve been advocating for years. In fact, I’ve written about why it’s the right choice here and here. But, this commitment is too small. 200 soldiers cannot sustain and support themselves on missions lasting longer than a few days. The minimum deployable unit size is about a battalion with added support elements. But, it’s the right direction.

2. Up to two aviation task forces, potentially comprising:
• C-130J tactical cargo plane(s) to be based at a UN hub in Uganda.
• “Attack helicopters” for the UN’s use in Africa. This, notwithstanding that Canada does not own any attack helicopters. Rather, Canada will be prepared to deploy its massive twin-rotor transport/heavy-lift CH-147 Chinook helicopters, as well as its CH-146 light-duty utility helicopters. Both aircraft can have machine guns bolted into its open doors.

Canada should have proper attack helicopters. Our own troops in the Quick Reaction Force will need them, so we should acquire some. It’s a capability the Canadian Army/Air Force has been lacking for, well… forever.

3. Military trainers for future UN peacekeeping operations. This sounds great, but will be interesting to see how it rolls out. Many troops from countries like Bangladesh and others arrive in the mission area basically naked. Their countries expect the UN to equip them with everything from underwear and boots to rifles, ammunition and armoured vehicles. All of this equipment then goes home with the troops when their replacements show up – naked. This is how poor countries procure equipment at little or no expense to themselves.

It’s conceivable Canada could train some of these troops in soldiering skills while they’re being kitted out. But, I’m not sure how practical that is. Canadians could also train senior officers on higher-level peacekeeping tactics and concepts away from the battlefield – perhaps at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Nova Scotia, which was established for exactly this purpose. Except, it hasn’t exactly been a roaring success so far. In fact, oh yeah, that’s right. It closed in 2013 because, well, why would other countries be interested in sending their officers to Canada to learn?

If Canada has to get back into UN peacekeeping, this is a good way to do it: as little as possible.

This brings us to the biggest problem with this pledge: turns out, Canada has very little credibility with the biggest peacekeeping contributors. Bangladesh, Ethiopia, etc. may not do peacekeeping the way we think it should be done, but they’ve done a helluva lot more of it than Canada has over the past decade. Perhaps they should be teaching us.

4. The Prime Minister challenged everyone to be “bold” and promised to provide “uniquely Canadian ideas and capabilities.” Presumably, he meant for everyone else to be bold, because his pledges certainly weren’t. And his “uniquely Canadian ideas and capabilities” appear to be those that would put the fewest number of Canadians at risk, for the shortest possible time and only in the safest places. I’m with him on this one, though, if only because I believe peacekeeping is rarely the best option.

5. $15 million in a “trust fund” to help other countries recruit women soldiers and police officers for peacekeeping missions and provide enhanced training for those already in uniform. As far as I can tell, no one has any idea what this means, what it would look like, nor who may conceivably want to do this.

6. $6 million to help strengthen security for women involved in dangerous missions. Perhaps this will pay for other soldiers to protect them. If not, I have no idea what it means.

Well, it could have been much worse. In fact, if Canada must get back into the peacekeeping business to satisfy an ill-conceived political promise, then this is probably a good way to do it. As little as possible. No major risks. No long-term commitments.

Hopefully, this government, having dodged the peacekeeping bullet, will allow our armed forces to remain focused on maintaining its war-fighting capability. We never know when we’ll need it. But, we can be certain, we will.