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CDA Institute Research Fellow Michael Cessford looks at the complicated nature of contemporary peacekeeping operations, in light of the government’s renewed commitment to such missions. 

“To contribute to greater peace throughout the world, the Government will renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and will continue to work with its allies in the fight against terrorism”
The Government of Canada’s Speech from the Throne, 4 December 2015

Canada’s new Liberal government has clearly signaled its intent to provide additional resources to directly support the United Nations (and likely other international organizations such as the African Union) in their execution of peacekeeping operations. This decision appears to reflect a change in Canada’s support to UN peacekeeping that saw, in the mid-1990s, a significant decline in Canadian troop contributions. From a high of over 3,300 Canadian personnel serving on UN missions in 1992, Canada’s contributions had, by 1998, fallen to well under 500 personnel – a figure which has remained more or less consistent to this day.

It is important however to note that this was a trend shared by virtually every Western nation. According to the UN peacekeeping website, as of 31 October 2015, across the 28 nations that form NATO, the average national contribution of civilian, police and military personnel to UN missions was 174 personnel. In 1999, Australia committed well over 5,000 personnel to the UN International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) mission alone. However, like Canada, recent commitments to UN operations have been dramatically reduced. In October 2015, there were 47 Australians deployed in support of UN missions as opposed to 119 Canadians.

As Canada now considers the potential enhancement of its support to UN peacekeeping missions, it is essential that our leaders recognize and understand the changing operational environment that prompted a succession of both Liberal and Conservative governments to reduce a historically high level of support to these operations – a decision shared, at the time, by many western troop contributing nations and maintained to this day.

The reality is that the UN was utterly ill-prepared to address the types of operational challenges it faced in the 1990s. Within operations in the Balkans, Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere, local UN commanders and their forces were unable to proactively address the challenges they faced and became impotent witnesses to the most flagrant of war crimes. The UN lacked both the capability and, more importantly, the political will to create the conditions (by force or the threat of force if necessary) for ceasefires and the eventual restoration of peace.

Canada’s experience in the UN mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia (UNPROFOR/ UNCRO) encapsulates that of many Western nations. At the tactical level, comparatively well-armed and trained Canadian forces lacked the mandate to gain anything but local and transitory successes. Belligerents operated with virtual impunity and indeed the mere presence of UN forces required the approval of the warring factions themselves. Designated UN Safe Areas (UNSA) were routinely targeted by all sides as were the UN forces themselves. Eleven Canadian soldiers were killed while serving with UNPROFOR with scores of others wounded or injured. Many Canadian UN personnel were taken hostage and, in some cases, used as human shields by the warring factions.

The Srebrenica massacre, in which over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were brutally executed in July 1995, offered compelling evidence of the UN’s inability to impose any constraint over the conflict, let alone come to a peaceful resolution. The Dutch battalion responsible for the protection of the Srebrenica UNSA – denied effective air support because of their inability to gain both UN and NATO approval (the “dual key” mechanism) for air strikes – was forced to stand aside and witness an act of mass murder take place before their eyes.

This atrocity was the catalyst that began the transition of operational responsibility in Bosnia and Croatia from the UN to NATO. The London Conference, held in the days immediately following the Srebrenica massacre, saw 16 nations agree to the expansion of NATO air operations against Serbian forces. In late August, following a mortar attack on a Sarajevo marketplace that killed 37 civilians, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force which employed massed airpower, over a period of three weeks, against hundreds of Serb targets. The effect of these attacks, combined with successful Croatian operations in the Krajina region, was significant and in November 1995, the Dayton Peace Accord was signed by all warring factions. Of note was the fact that NATO assumed responsibility for the implementation of the military Annexes of the Dayton Agreement (The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Within days, spearheaded by a US Armored Division, 60,000 NATO troops moved rapidly into Bosnia-Hercegovina to replace UN forces. The difference in capabilities and mandate between the two forces was stark and the conditions articulated in the military Annexes were firmly and quickly imposed, establishing a sullen but nonetheless viable peace in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

It is important to recognize the impact this transition had on Canadian personnel who were serving, or had served, in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina or, for that matter, who had served on other UN operations such as in Rwanda or Somalia. Many had come to see the UN as an organization that was institutionally incompetent and incapable of fundamental reform. By way of contrast, well trained and led NATO forces, under a political-military leadership with decades of experience in the assessment, initiation, and conduct of operations, appeared to offer a speedy and effective resolution to problems that seemed utterly beyond the capabilities of the UN – a perception reinforced, in 1999, by the operational success of the NATO Kosovo campaign. The influence this transition in operational command had on the Canadian military psyche was significant, if not profound. Given this point, it is worth emphasizing that the junior officers and NCOs who served in the UN and NATO campaigns of the 1990s are now the senior leaders of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Canadian participation in operations over the past 15 years – notably in Libya and Afghanistan – has likely done little to erode this preference for NATO vice UN commitments.

Care should be taken not to over-state the importance of this potential issue given the Canadian government’s desire to enhance UN operations. The CAF will respond effectively and without reservation to any direction given. What is important is that the government recognize the different nature of UN operations and the challenges this imparts to the CAF – in effect, taking care not to repeat the mistakes of the 1990s. Despite efforts to reform, the UN remains far less capable than NATO at virtual every level from the strategic to the tactical. Mandates are often more restrictive and constrain operational effectiveness. Efforts to standardize UN operating procedures are nascent at best and the effective and synergistic integration of the various national contributions that comprise each mission is rarely achieved. National contributions vary greatly in terms of quality and capabilities and their activities are routinely governed by national caveats that far too often impede their effective employment. These issues (and others) generally impose a higher degree of tactical risk to personnel on the ground and often deny the rapid attainment of mandate objectives (ongoing UN operations currently average 23 years in duration).

The Canadian government must recognize the imperative to critically and objectively assess UN requirements to determine where (or if) Canada’s contributions can achieve tangible, lasting, and positive outcomes within a reasonable timeframe. This is the sine qua non of any operational commitment. Emotional appeals for a massive increase to our UN commitments, based upon a flawed or naïve understanding of past and current peacekeeping operations, must be viewed dispassionately. A decision to contribute forces to a UN mission is, at best, meaningless if the conditions are not in place to achieve enduring, positive effect. At worst, it runs the risk of operational failure and the death or injury of both peacekeepers and the innocents that this force was meant to protect.

Michael Cessford is a retired military officer and part-time academic who is currently employed by a major defence and aerospace company. He is affiliated as a Research Fellow with the CDA Institute.

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