Stewart: Get back to peacekeeping

CBC journalist Brian Stewart comments on Canada’s peacekeeping past and calls on Canadians to once again contribute to UN peacekeeping operations (Time for Canada to get back to peacekeeping, CBC News, 3 December 2012):

…at a time when the UN is making serious strides to reform and expand peacekeeping, Canada, which largely invented the practice in the 1950s, is noticeably absent, and unless Ottawa has a change of heart, will remain so.

Since the late 1990s the pro-military lobby did such a good job bad-mouthing UN operations that both Liberal and Conservative governments have been only too happy to eviscerate our peacekeeping contributions.

The Harper government in particular treats the UN as an irritating irrelevance at best, to the point that we forget a UN operation like peacekeeping is something we used to be pretty good at, and that helped define us as a country.

In fact, more than 100,000 Canadian military personnel have worn the blue armband abroad over the years, usually with great distinction.

In the 1990s, Canada made up 10 per cent of all peacekeeping troops worldwide with as many as 4,000 soldiers serving at any one time in places like Cyprus, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, the Balkans, Africa and parts of South America and Asia.

Today, as peacekeepers from other countries have quadrupled in just a dozen years (from 20,000 to 95,000) we have shrunk to a near invisible 52nd place, alongside Fiji and Paraguay.

While nations like India, Brazil and the still impoverish Ethiopia are now the main peacekeeping forces in the UN arsenal, Canada’s entire 100,000-strong land, sea and air components contribute “less than a school bus-load of Canadian soldiers” in the striking image of the Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring.

That’s right, only 32 soldiers, according to the latest UN figures. [Down to 30 soldiers as of 31 October 2012 –] And these are doled out in tiny packets: one in Cyprus, three in the Golan Heights, six in Darfur, and so on.

When it comes to peacekeeping, we can’t blame our low effort on the strain of Afghanistan, for some of our allies in that struggle continued to maintain respectable numbers, particularly Britain (278 soldiers), France (916) and Germany (207).

What degraded peacekeeping here was the mindset that used Afghanistan as a way to seek a full revival of a “warrior nation” ethos through support-our-troops campaigns and media messaging that seemed determined to crush all that was allegedly squishy about our past internationalism.

“The damning of peacekeepers became, among the coterie of military historians and fellow travellers in the media, something of a blood sport, and the game in their sights was liberal Canada,” writes Noah Richler in his recent polemic What We Talk about When We Talk about War. …

Canadians, to their credit, never entirely bought the anti-peacekeeping vitriol that was making the rounds.

Two years ago, pollsters at Nanos Research found 52 per cent of respondents considered peacekeeping the most important role for our military; only 21 per cent saw combat as the priority.

Yes, we do need an army that can handle combat in crisis zones when necessary, but we also need one that can also use the sophisticated, patient and humane skills required for robust peacekeeping in a world that badly requires such help.

The UN very much wants Canada to return. But one can only imagine the embarrassing back-flips our military boosters will have to perform before our current government says it is time we volunteered again for more UN duty.

Sadly, the immediate prospects for a return to peacekeeping are not good. Volunteer for UN duty? It seems unlikely that even military booster back-flips could accomplish a trick like that with this government.

Photo credit: United Nations

Tags: Brian Stewart, Canada and peacekeeping, Canadian defence policy, Peacekeeping, UN peacekeeping, United Nations