The United Nations Security Council has just approved a peacekeeping mission for Mali. Canada, with decades of experience in these operations, really should take part.
The UN-led force will not replicate the work of the French soldiers who, since January, have wrested northern Mali out of the hands of a small band of Islamic militants. The job now is different: helping Mali's army maintain control over its territory.
Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about Canadian participation in a potential peacekeeping mission. "We are not looking to have a combat, military mission there," he replied. "We will certainly be providing development and humanitarian assistance. But the details of what our long-term engagement may be are still the subject of discussions."
Those discussions should take into account that, as United Nations spokesman Kieran Dwyer has said, "Canada is in a very strong position to play a role."
Canada has been involved with Mali for decades, contributing large amounts of development aid and foreign investment. Canada also has French-speaking troops who could speak directly with Malians, as well as with the francophone troops from Chad, Niger and Senegal who will constitute most of the peacekeeping force.
Canadian soldiers would be highly valued as "force-multipliers" who maximize the impact of other, less well-trained troops. For nearly half a century, Canada filled this niche in every UN peacekeeping mission.
Although Canada has disengaged from peacekeeping in recent years, that shift was a political decision. When Canada's military leaders sought to have General Andrew Leslie appointed commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 2010, it was the Harper government that intervened and claimed that Canada's commitments to the NATO mission in Afghanistan precluded his taking part.
The government's thinking was influenced by a group of conservative commentators who argued that peacekeeping is passé. Jack Granatstein and others pointed to the failed UN missions in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, where peacekeepers were forced – by inadequate mandates, equipment, or numbers of personnel – to stand by while civilians were killed.
But critics of peacekeeping overlooked the core reason for those failures of the early 1990s, namely a lack of political will, not on the part of the UN as an organization, but on the part of its member states.
The critics failed to acknowledge that a learning process was underway, as the end of the Cold War enabled the UN to take on more robust and complex operations. Peacekeeping has since evolved substantially, with new missions – including the new one in Mali – being given strong mandates to use "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, as well as the weapons necessary to do the job.
The critics also failed to mention the UN's peacekeeping successes. One mission played an important role in stabilizing Cambodia and running an election that resulted in a widely supported government. Other missions in Mozambique and East Timor had similar outcomes. In El Salvador, UN peacekeepers demobilized a powerful guerrilla organization and trained a national police force; in Sudan, their work led to the end of the civil war, a referendum, and the relatively peaceful, recent secession of South Sudan.
The RAND Corporation, an American think-tank, analyzed 16 state-rebuilding missions – eight conducted by the UN; eight by the United States – during the period from 2003 to 2005. Seven of the UN missions had succeeded, whereas only four of the U.S. missions did.
The RAND report concluded: "Assuming adequate consensus among Security Council members on the purpose for any intervention, the United Nations provides the most suitable institutional framework for most nation-building missions, one with a comparatively low cost structure, a comparatively high success rate, and the greatest degree of international legitimacy."
The point about cost deserves emphasis: UN peacekeeping accounts for less than one per cent of worldwide military spending. In 2010-2011, Canada spent $7-billion on its Afghanistan mission, with just 2500 soldiers involved. In 2012-2013, the UN will spend the same amount – $7-billion – on its 15 missions involving more than 80,000 soldiers.
Most UN member states are cognisant of the successes and efficiencies of peacekeeping, which is why they continue to establish and fund more missions. The UN currently has more troops in conflict zones than any actor in the world apart from the U.S. Department of Defense.
What most current UN peacekeeping missions lack are well-trained soldiers from the developed world. Indeed, the single greatest challenge for the peacekeeping mission in Mali concerns the relatively poor training of the African troops that will be deployed. Just one thousand Canadian soldiers could make all the difference, providing leadership, mentoring, and a proven ability to operate in desert conditions.
It is clearly in Canada's national interest to support the Mali mission, for it is important that al-Qaeda not find a safe haven there.
Just as importantly, the Mali mission provides an opportunity to arrest the decline in Canada's "soft power" – the ability to persuade that is the principal currency of diplomacy for middle-power states. When Canada lost its bid for a seat on the Security Council in 2010, foreign observers identified our government's abandonment of UN peacekeeping as a contributing factor.
Stephen Harper may resent losing that UN vote, but it's time to move on. The Prime Minister's carefully worded refusal to rule out Canadian participation in a peacekeeping mission in Mali suggests that he sees the potential benefits to Canada – and to his own influence on the world stage.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.