Canadian Armed Forces members arrive in Gao to start the preparations. DND IS03-2018-0015-007

Canadian troops are deploying to Mali for the UN MINUSMA mission, where they will assume the responsibility for the protected medical aerial evacuation of mission personnel.  As they head towards that important task, Canadians are again asking “what does success look like”?

Unfortunately, the discussion focuses almost completely on the resolution of the bitter divides in Mali and the progress, or lack thereof, in inching towards a stable and peaceful form of democracy with better security for Malian citizens.  They are important results and ones that Canada, in supporting the troops engaged in operations on the ground, will play a useful and necessary role.  Where the Trudeau government is really looking for success however, is in New York, not Bamako or Gao.

In “Strong, Secure, Engaged” and the statements of the Minister Freeland that preceded the policy release, more effective UN operations were clearly highlighted as the reason why “Canada’s back”. Rather than work to resolve the political and security problems of any one particular mission, the defence policy states that “Canada has made a firm commitment to increase its support to United Nations peace operations. Canada will focus on four core elements, undertaken as a whole-of-government effort, by:

  • providing Canadian personnel and training for United Nations peace operations;
  • strengthening Canadian support for conflict prevention, mediation, and peace building efforts;
  • advancing the role of women and youth in the promotion of peace and security; and
  • supporting United Nations reform efforts to make peace operations more effective”[1]

Prime Minister Trudeau detailed his expectations for Canadian support to the UN during the Vancouver Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial in November 2017, when he pointed out that “Today’s peacekeeping environment is more complex than ever before, and Canada firmly believes we need to do peacekeeping differently. That’s why we are focused on improving the effectiveness of UN missions, increasing the proportion of women deployed overseas, and empowering women in all aspects of peace and security.”[2]

This was reinforced in March 2018, by Minister Freeland, who while announcing the Smart Pledge for MINUSMA stated: “We are committed to improving the effectiveness of UN peace operations. We are doing this by working with partner countries
to increase the meaningful participation of women, through the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations, implementing the Vancouver Principles to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and providing specialized training to meet the needs of the UN.”[3]

Nothing then, in either statement, about resolving the problems of the peace agreement in Mali, as important a goal as it is.  Everything is about changing the way that the UN conducts peace operations.

It’s a Big Idea, responds to the recommendations contained in the 2015 UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, and is exceedingly ambitious considering the size of the Canadian contributions of all natures compared to the full scope of UN peace operations around the world.  To be successful, it must be ‘front of mind’ constantly.  Sadly, it is getting overlooked in the breathless recounting of ‘the most dangerous UN mission’, agonizing over whether it is a warzone, or not, and determined questioning of whether Canadians should be there in the first place since there is apparently, ‘no peace to keep’.  All very valid discussions, but to stay at that level misses the point of the Big Idea – change the way UN conducts peace operations.  And to keep that goal ‘front of mind’ requires different questions and discussion entirely.

Armed Griffon Helicopters will be part of the well-trained teams ensuring the success of the Canadian deployment in the mission area. DND KW08-2017-0113-010

The women and men being deployed to MINUSMA and the UN airlift support hub will complete important work in supporting the day-to-day UN operations. Our experience in Afghanistan reinforced the critical value of a reliable and effective casualty evacuation system as reassurance to the troops deployed on patrol.  The same for the key role airlift played in logistics support for geographically dispersed missions where movement on the ground can be highly risky.  For these essential functions, Canada is providing highly competent capabilities to UN missions where there were identified shortfalls.  In the coming months we will have occasion to once again be proud of the work that Canadian military personnel will be doing – tactical success for the contingent and for MINUSMA.

This will distract us again however, from the larger and more important question of whether Canada is achieving the objective outlined in the defence policy – more effective UN peace operations.  For that, we will need to look for three elements.

First, there must be real progress and results from the Elsie Initiative to prepare women for UN deployments and then substantial increases in the number of women deployed (for which Canada has committed funds in support) where they can have a direct impact on the populations being protected.

Second, changes will be required in the approach to peace operation planning that accounts for the political and social dynamics that are critical to peace, including the close linking of diplomatic, political and security activities, from UN Headquarters NY through to missions.  Canada is not the only voice in calling for such improvements – the recently released Carter Center report to the UN on MINUSMA notes that this coordination in the mission area needs work.

Lastly, there must be demonstrable success in the other measures outlined by our Foreign Minister and our defence policy to make UN peace operations more effective such as greater numbers of trained specialists for deployed in UN missions and the implementation of techniques that measurably reduce the use of child soldiers in conflict zones.

Canada will need be an active part of these changes to lead and encourage other nations to do the same – from planning of UN operations at the UN Headquarters in New York, through the senior leadership of missions and national contingents to the individuals patrolling amongst the population, whether military or police.

Canadians should be looking to see how the military deployments promote success for the Big Idea. What are the criteria for declaring success in changing how the UN conduct its operations?  How are the contingents being evaluated for their contributions in achieving this goal?  Are the Canadian deployments modelling the behavior that we are looking to encourage in other national contingents? How do the military deployments fit with the other elements of the overall Canadian strategy to improve UN peace operations (many of which are still in development) and again, what are the criteria being used to gauge success?  What performance criteria have been set for the other strands of Canadian activity that will contribute to success outlined in the defence policy? And most importantly, is the Big Idea achievable given the effort that Canada is willing to commit – in other words, have we got our expectations right?

The military deployments of helicopter and transport aircraft contingents put Canada back into UN operations in a way that highlights Canada is focused on doing things differently –  a good start.  On their own however, they fall considerably short of achieving the ambitious objective set out in “Strong, Secure, Engaged”.  With Canadian troops now at risk while delivering their contribution to success in a mission, time for Canadians to know that the Government is getting on with the rest of the plan for change in the UN and how we are measuring progress to know that we are succeeding.

Without good, realistic answers to the questions outlined above, unlike the Canadian helicopters and their crews in Mali, the Trudeau Government ‘Big Idea’ for the UN will never get off the ground.


Matthew Overton is the Executive Director of the CDA Institute

[1] SSE page 84

[2] PM Statement, Vancouver PK Defence Ministerial, 15 Nov 2017

[3] MFA Statement, 2nd PK Smart Pledge, 19 Mar 2018

Photo credits: combatcamera.forces.gc.cca

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