Where Are Our Peacekeepers?

Walter Dorn and Peter Langille

Originally published in The Toronto Star, 8 August 2009.


Peacekeepers' Day in Canada, celebrated each year on August 9, was created to recognize the high level of professionalism, dedication and courage of Canadians serving in faraway places in the cause of peace. For decades, Canada was the world's number one contributor of UN peacekeeping troops. Until 1996, this nation remained in the top 10. Unfortunately, the country now ranks 52nd. While UN peacekeeping is now at an all-time high, deploying more than 82,000 troops worldwide, Canada's contribution is a mere 65 soldiers.

Asking a simple question, "Where have all the Canadian peacekeepers gone?" yields a simple answer. They have shifted to NATO, where they are not doing peacekeeping but are conducting counter-insurgency operations as an integral part of the American war on terror. With more than 2,700 Canadian troops deployed in southern Afghanistan under U.S. and NATO command, the Canadian Forces are clearly in danger of becoming a single mission military, with one predominant and all-consuming theatre of operation. In abandoning UN peacekeeping operations, Canada is forcing developing countries to carry the heaviest responsibility for providing urgently needed troops to many troubled regions of the world. At the UN's headquarters in New York, Canada does not provide a single military officer to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which guides some 17 missions worldwide.

Canada could renew its peacekeeping role by providing several hundred troops directly to UN operations, including the missions in Haiti, Lebanon, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a country rich in peacekeeping heritage, Canada could support the United Nations in many other ways besides boots on the ground; for example, through communications and reconnaissance technology, specialized training and joint exercises with other peacekeeping nations. Canada's Coyote reconnaissance vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles could help the UN do early warning of conflict outbreaks, secure UN mission staff and protect vulnerable populations.

The Canadian drift away from peacekeeping has occurred in the absence of an overall strategic policy direction from the government. After years of waiting for a comprehensive strategy on how Canada can contribute to world security and develop its armed forces accordingly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced in May 2008 the "Canada First Defence Strategy." The document and associated speeches were widely criticized as little more than announcements confirming funding commitments.

More recently, Canada and other governments further weakened UN peacekeeping by shutting down SHIRBRIG, the multinational Standby High Readiness Brigade for United Nations Peace Operations. Canada helped pioneer this innovation starting in 1995, following the Rwandan genocide. SHIRBRIG enabled Canada to participate in a multinational division of labour for UN peacekeeping – an arrangement so promising that the government announced Canada would take a lead role. Canada was to provide a CF standby unit of approximately 800 troops, as well as to staff an operational headquarters. However, this was not delivered. Furthermore, last year Canada and the 15 other countries voted to cease all SHIRBRIG activities, a decision that took effect on June 30. The organization's termination represents another failure of Western countries to live up to their peacekeeping commitments and their responsibility to protect.

As Canada looks ahead to the 2011 deadline to draw down our military commitment in Afghanistan, a vigorous debate is underway on this country's future military purpose and priorities. Historically, Canada's interests have been divided between (1) working closely with the U.S., through alliances like NATO and NORAD; and (2) working to build a secure multilateral order, through a myriad of engagements at the United Nations, including UN peace operations. But in recent years our historic support for UN peace operations has waned, while the trend toward integration with the U.S. military and U.S. priorities has increased. Political leadership is required to restore a balanced Canadian military policy, one that includes a significant commitment to peace operations.

In tribute to the sacrifices that our soldiers have made for service to humanity, let us indeed celebrate Peacekeeping Day in Canada. But as we begin to spend billions of dollars to make our military forces more robust, we must remember that UN peacekeeping urgently needs Canadian support, and that a significant contribution to the UN by this country would give Canadians further cause for pride and future celebration.


Walter Dorn is an associate professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College and the Royal Military College of Canada. He serves as a consultant to the UN and is a council member of the World Federalist Movement-Canada.

H. Peter Langille directs Global Common Security I3 in London, Ont., where he specializes in UN peace operations, peace and conflict studies, as well as independent defence analysis.