Skip to main content

In this November, 2008, file photo, United Nations peacekeepers patrol near Rutshuru, about 80 kilometers north of Goma in eastern Congo.

Peacekeeping is so deeply embedded in Canada's cultural DNA that it even featured in the famous "Joe Canadian" beer commercials a decade ago. "I believe in peacekeeping, not policing," the actor in the Molson commercials declared. "My name is Joe, and I am Canadian!"

It was a Canadian diplomat and future prime minister, Lester Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the innovative idea that led to the first modern United Nations peacekeeping force. During the Suez Crisis in 1956, he suggested that the UN could deploy military personnel to supervise a ceasefire - and, crucially, he offered Canadian troops to lead the UN force.

With this one stroke of imagination, Mr. Pearson did more than anyone "to save the world at that time," the Nobel committee said. The peacekeeping force ended the biggest global crisis since the Korean War. "It used the military instrument in a way that was unheard of in the history of international relations," noted a report published by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute this year.

Canada soon became the world leader in peacekeeping. But Canada has ignored the innovations of the past decade - reforms that led to more complex UN peacekeeping missions, which have proved surprisingly successful.

For nearly 40 years, Canada was one of the top UN mission contributors. By the 1990s, more than 50,000 Canadian soldiers had become peacekeepers - more than any other nation. A poll found that 69 per cent of Canadians considered peacekeeping "a defining characteristic of Canada."

It all began to go sour in the early 1990s. First there was the disastrous mission in Somalia, where a Somali teenager was tortured and killed by Canadian soldiers, sparking a scandal that led to the disbanding of Canada's elite airborne regiment. Then there was Rwanda, where UN troops under the command of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire were unable to stop the massacre of 800,000 people. And then there was Bosnia, where Dutch peacekeepers stood by helplessly as 7,000 unarmed civilians were dragged from a "safe area" and massacred.

Most of these problems were blamed on UN mismanagement. In the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many Conservative MPs see peacekeeping as weak and naive. The war in Afghanistan was seen as a way of reasserting the fighting glories of Canada's military history.

Yet the preoccupation with Afghanistan has obscured the view of substantial recent reforms in UN peacekeeping. Consider the UN's peacekeeping operation in Lebanon in 2006. It was equipped with heavy arms. Its rules of engagement were robust - as different from buffer-patrol peace-keeping as one could imagine.

Unlike the days of Lester Pearson, however, the innovations of the past decade have passed by with little notice or interest in Canada.