Overton: On The Canadian UN PK Pledges

The CAF will be looking for many more Canadians like Lt(N) Anne-Marie Day for the full suite of missions that the CAF will be conducting in the future, UN or otherwise.
Photo: DND/LS Dan Bard, FIS

“Getting it”: What “Being Back” with UN Peacekeeping Means

Matthew Overton

“Canada’s back!” was the bold proclamation of PM Justin Trudeau in August of last year as he announced a commitment to UN Peacekeeping of up to 600 military and 150 police personnel.  In the ensuing months, it was matched to the rather sober observation that “modern UN peacekeeping is not what it was in the past – it is difficult, dangerous and complex!” as questions surfaced repeatedly about what ‘being back’ meant, and when it would turn into ‘being there’.  Time was needed to understand what UN peacekeeping had become in the decades that Canada had not been involved substantially in modern missions and craft an approach to them that reflected Canada’s experiences in other international, whole-of-government deployments (such as Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq).

Not only the Government, but Canadians, needed time to “get” it. We now have a better understanding of how the Government “gets” it and as much as the UN and peacekeeping has changed substantively, clearly so has Canada and our approach to providing military support to the UN.  It is on the face of it, more focused, less open-ended and more obviously connected to encouraging ‘a little bit more Canada’ in the way that operations are conducted.  It is also very modest in comparison to the full scope of UN peace support operations. It is anything but insignificant however, but not in the conventional way. 

Really, 750 uniformed personnel were not going to bring a dramatic, immediate change to 15 peacekeeping operations around the world involving over 108,000 personnel no matter how they were deployed. If Canadians and the UN hadn’t ‘got’ that over a year ago in the initial announcements, that certainly shouldn’t be a difficulty to understand now.  The rapid reaction group, tactical helicopters and airlift (whether within the mission area or strategic) all have the potential to contribute to ‘above their weight’ effect for a UN operation but are at largely arm’s length from the direct involvement of achieving mission success with the affected populations.  The important part of the pledges of capability were the repeated reminders of ‘whole of government’ as key to the Canadian approach.  Whole of government means hard and soft power tools applied in combination to achieve an effect greater than the sum of the parts. 

One of those softer tools was showcased in the significant and almost unique engagement by Canada to actively support the Women in Peace Support Operations initiative.  As a world leader in the integration of women as capable, credible members across the Armed Forces – and this remains true even as we continue to recognize our weaknesses and failures in implementation – it is a natural role for us to play and long past time to step up.  We “get” it and will work to encourage others to “get” it too when it comes to the deployment of armed forces and police who work in and around civilian populations in executing mission mandates.  This is not just for UN missions – the Canadian experience in Afghanistan is a striking case in point. 

The pity is that our pledges for capability contribution are not well postured for Canada to demonstrate how this should work, weakening that partnership of soft and hard effects to encourage our partners to “get” it.  Only one of the three pledged capabilities has significant potential for regular, primary interaction with the affected populations, giving Canadians the opportunity to model the behaviours in the field we wish others to adopt.  Will our mission partners still “get” it? 

The commitment to contribute to the training framework for deploying and deployed UN contingents will help.  Canadians have long been admired for the professional and personal qualities they bring to military operations – the uniquely Canadian approach that wins accolades from our longest, closest allies as well as new partners on modern missions.  Well-trained, professional and experienced, Canadian women and men will have gradual but important impact over time in encouraging our partner nations in doing business differently.  This is not a new role for Canadians, military or civilian, but important, longstanding and largely unsung.  A sensible pledge to make and expand to show that we “get” it about a longterm relationship with the UN. 

Of course, Canada can still provide a strong example in the mix of personnel that make up our pledged and deployed capabilities, ensuring that at least 20% of the Canadian contingents are women that are demonstrably leading and enabling mission success – whether in missions or in the training support role.  This is something our Armed Forces have been building as an inherent quality for over thirty years.  This was not mentioned specifically, but is a logical follow-on as a key element in Canada taking a leadership role for a changed operating environment for UN peace support operations. Modeling the composition of all our contributions in the manner we expect of others shows we “get” it both to them as well as the cohorts of Canadian women – and men – our Armed Forces are recruiting for the future. 

And that then, is something that all Canadians should “get” from the pledge commitments made by our Prime Minister at the UN Defence Ministerial.  Starting with UN missions, but really, for all CAF deployments (our allies and partners will be paying attention to whether “we walk the talk” consistently), there is now a clear imperative in operations for making good on the diversity initiatives laid out in the 2017 “Strong, Secure and Engaged” Defence Policy.

Most importantly for the pledges made this week in that Defence Policy, within 10 years 1 in 4 CAF members is to be a woman.  Without this institutional success, achieving the desired operational result – 20% of our deployed Canadians to be women, will be much more difficult.  It also puts at risk our ability to deliver the type of results from those deployments – UN or otherwise – that our Government and Canadians are looking for. Get it?

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