When now-retired major-general Guy Tousignant handed over command of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda 1995, Canada had been involved in virtually every UN mission over the previous four-plus decades.
But after the scandal of Somalia, in which Canadian soldiers tortured and killed a teenage boy, the frustrations and failures of the UN’s efforts in Bosnia and Croatia, and the horrors of Rwanda, Canada started to withdraw from peacekeeping.
Today, Canada has around 40 peacekeepers in the field. That’s a fraction of the 1,200 Canadian blue helmets and blue berets deployed when Tousignant left Rwanda.
That number is also about one-third of what it was when the federal Liberals came to power five years ago — despite repeated promises from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for Canada to do more.
That the decline has continued is frustrating for some who worked with the Liberal government during its early years. They told The Canadian Press they supported the plan to re-engage in peacekeeping and they believed it was going to happen.
Some blamed Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president for throwing off the Liberals’ plans. Others pointed to the military dragging its feet, or a lack of interest among senior Liberals.
Most agree, to varying degrees, another factor has been at play: the potential electoral costs of a large-scale deployment of Canadian peacekeepers overseas are seen to outweigh the benefits.
“I think the Liberal government realized there was probably little votes in it,” says retired lieutenant-general and former Canadian army commander Andrew Leslie, who was an adviser to Trudeau before being elected as a Liberal MP in 2015.
“The characteristic of this current government is its relentless and ruthless focus on how to get re-elected. And promises were made and not kept.”
Leslie, who did not run for re-election last year, made clear he thinks other governments have made similar calculations in the past.
The Liberal government insists it is living up to its commitments, and that Canada is making a real difference at the UN.
It points to the year-long deployment of helicopters to Mali, which ended in August 2019, and the occasional deployment of a transport plane to Uganda. Canada is also spearheading efforts to increase the number of women on peacekeeping missions and working to prevent the use of child soldiers in conflict.
“UN peace operations are a vital tool to helping ensure the maintenance of international peace and stability — a key pillar of the multilateral system,” Global Affairs Canada spokesman John Babcock said in a statement Friday.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokeswoman Floriane Bonneville said the minister is still committed to working with the UN and other international partners “to find innovative solutions to global challenges.”
Roland Paris, a former foreign-policy adviser to Trudeau, said the government “has ended up in a place where it can say that it’s meeting its commitments to re-engage with peacekeeping, at really minimal cost.”
The transport plane deployed to Uganda on occasional basis to ferry troops and equipment to different UN missions in Africa is useful, said Paris, but “on its own, it’s a minimal commitment,” adding the same could be said of the contribution to Mali.
Where Canada is leading the way, Paris argues, is on initiatives designed to make peacekeeping more effective. That includes training troops from Africa on how to conduct such operations, measures to increase the number of female peacekeepers in the field, and dealing with child soldiers.
Others such as Leslie and Jocelyn Coulon, a peacekeeping expert from Université de Montreal who also advised the Trudeau government, question the actual impact.
All say what is really needed is more Canadians in the field — something Trudeau called for ahead of the October 2015 election that brought the Liberals to power.
A survey conducted by Nanos Research on behalf of the Canadian Defence and Security Network in August found three in four respondents said they were supportive of peacekeeping. But it also found older respondents more supportive than a key target for the Liberals’ electoral efforts: young Canadians.
University of Calgary professor Jean-Christophe Boucher, in a paper analyzing the results for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, suggested that reflected how younger generations have seen the limits of intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The government committed in August 2016 to deploying up to 600 troops and 150 police officers on UN missions, then delayed for years before sending helicopters to Mali after repeated requests from the UN and allies such as France and Germany.
The Liberals also promised in November 2017 to provide a 200-strong quick-reaction force to the UN. Three years later, it has yet to materialize.
“I see it as extreme risk sensitivity,” Paris said.
“Every country is determining its level of comfort and level of commitment, and Canada has drawn a line in a particular place. And it is making a significant contribution to UN peacekeeping, but less than some had hoped for.”
In the meantime, the UN struggles to make do with what member states have on offer. The British started a three-year deployment of 300 troops to Mali this month, but the mission there is still short hundreds of troops and police officers.
Rwanda has gone down in many books as a failure for the UN and peacekeeping in general. But Royal Military College Prof. Walter Dorn, one of Canada’s leading experts on peacekeeping, doesn’t see it that way.
He referred to retired major-general Roméo Dallaire’s assessment that the UN force under his command was able to save 20,000 lives during the Rwandan genocide.
“It shows that having a presence on the ground can make a difference.”
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