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How Ottawa can ensure ‘Canada is back’ on peacekeeping

Major-General Terry Liston (ret.) is the former chief of operations, plans and development of the Canadian Armed Forces. He is currently a Fellow of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

A generation of retired Canadian soldiers, burned by failed, mismanaged United Nations missions in the 1990s, remain outspoken critics of the UN and its peacekeeping. At the same time, nostalgic memories of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Lester B. Pearson drive others to promote a romantic, non-violent return to an era that has long disappeared. A dose of reality tells us that there is no multilateral option, other than the UN, to ensure a peaceful future, but it must adapt to the threats of the modern world.

At this year's world peacekeeping summit, in London on Sept. 7-8, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will announce that "Canada is back," with a force of up to 600 soldiers and 150 police. However, in advising Canadians of this plan last week, the location and composition of that force was not revealed. The UN itself is split on the type of force it requires.

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The latest high-level UN panel on peacekeeping, called HIPPO, repeated the long-standing need for the UN to build "robust, fast-deploying first-responder capabilities for the future, drawing upon national and regionally based standing capabilities." Such forces would be deployed under a Security Council mandate, but they could be either UN or non-UN forces. They must be highly trained soldiers who have the equipment, courage and skill to face the terrorists and armed gangs that decapitate, blow up, assault and kill innocent civilians.

Precedents for robust, third-party intervention include salvaging the mission of the UN force in Sierra Leone in 2000 by a rapidly deployed, non-UN, British battalion of 800 men. In Mali, France stations a non-UN battle group of 1,000 to deal with terrorist activity that the UN force cannot handle. In the Congo, the new, robust 3,000-man, African Intervention brigade took the lead in destroying the M23 militia that had overrun the Eastern Congo in the face of a paralyzed UN force.

As recently as Aug. 12, the Security Council approved the addition of a robust "Regional Protection Force" of 4,000 soldiers for the South Sudanese capital of Juba with a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to protect civilians and other UN personnel. For the Security Council, UN headquarters staff and force commanders, these intervention brigades are the type of reserve required for complex UN missions.

However, "robust" operations are shunned by many countries within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), including the major troop contributing countries (TCC) such as Bangladesh and India. They remain fixated on the pre-1990s non-combatant "principles of peacekeeping." Many TCCs do not want such robust units to even be part of the UN force for fear that their own "Blue Helmet" troops will also be seen as combatants and targets for rebel militias. As well, they fear that the UN could lose its image of impartiality, making their job more difficult. Their view is that forceful operations, if required to impose peace, should be conducted outside the UN peacekeeping framework by third-party forces. Thus the UN is establishing liaison procedures for working with third-party forces, while also demanding that "Blue Helmets" conduct robust operations, at the risk of being sent home if they refuse.

In London, Mr. Sajjan should offer to station in Africa a robust, immediately available Canadian battle group, designated as UN First Responders. It would be ready to deploy as a "bridging force" to stabilize a new mission area or intervene rapidly, as a reserve, in a crisis such as the current violence in the South Sudan. A force of 600 soldiers is obviously inadequate and should be increased to more than 1,000 by planning an immediate "flyover" of reinforcements in a crisis. This sort of solution would cause the world's defence ministers to agree that "Canada is back."

Anything less will draw a derisive smile.

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