Liberals grapple with how to return to a new era of UN peacekeeping

They had come to reinvent the wheel — one their Canadian predecessors had played a significant role in shaping some six decades earlier.

OTTAWA — They had come to reinvent the wheel — one their Canadian predecessors had played a significant role in shaping some six decades earlier.

The closed-door meeting at Global Affairs Canada on Jan. 29, 2016, was a brainstorming session on a topic that, at one time, would have been inconceivable in Canadian government circles: how Canada could make a meaningful contribution to international peacekeeping.

The day-long session brought together representatives from Canada’s renamed foreign ministry, leading diplomats, academics and former United Nations peacekeeping officials.

The agenda, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press, asked a number of questions about Canada’s return to the peacekeeping fold.

The participants tackled a range of issues — from the military’s capability to take on peacekeeping missions and how they would fit Canada’s broader foreign policy interests to how to incorporate women and where to deploy.

It was one of the first steps towards transforming a Liberal foreign policy campaign promise into a reality — one that had to confront the fact that Canada had been out of the peacekeeping business for more than a decade, focused instead on war-fighting in the post 9-11 era.

“This exercise will serve to lay the ground for establishing the criteria for engagement in specific missions or initiatives,” said the document, which asked far more questions than it answered.

“What are the respective strengths, weaknesses and implications of adopting these priorities, both for our peace operations engagement and for activities across government?”

The participants discussed some of the underlying criteria for future missions, including the “responsibility to protect” civilians, preventing violent extremism and whether unspecified “geographic priorities” should be the deciding factor.

They also looked at “gaps” in the military’s capability and how Canada’s “capabilities need to be updated and improved to be more responsive to UN needs.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion acknowledged that a lot of work lay ahead before Canada could return to the world of peacekeeping.

“We need to be very selective,” Dion said in a recent interview. “We need to have a clear view about where we will be the most effective in co-operation with others. We will not act in isolation about peacekeeping.”

He also made clear that Canada will have to filter the requests of its allies, now that the government has publicized its intention to return to peacekeeping.

“The requests come from everywhere,” Dion said. “From the French, from the British, from the U.S. — everybody has an idea about what Canada should do.”

They’re not cheap, he added: “If we add all these requests, I think the minister of finance will have a tough time.”

Transition documents prepared for the incoming Liberal government last fall showed that Canada had 31 military personnel and 85 police officers assigned to UN peace operations, which ranked the country 68th among the 124 countries that contribute. Canada is the ninth financial contributor to UN peacekeeping operations with an annual contribution of about $240 million U.S.

Canada deployed more than 3,000 personnel deployed on operations in the mid-1990s.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he doesn’t envision Canada deploying large numbers of soldiers on the ground in future UN missions, and will instead contribute high-level experts — engineers and medical experts, as well as leveraging its French speakers.

Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces Staff College in Kingston who has studied the decline of Canada’s contribution to UN peacekeeping, disagreed, saying Canada could increase its contribution 10-fold, to 300, without much trouble.

“You can’t get the top leadership positions if you’re not going to make substantial contributions to the missions,” Dorn said. “I think we need to show we can put boots on the ground.”

The dynamics of peace support operations have changed dramatically since former external affairs minister Lester Pearson, backed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the first UN peacekeeping mission in 1956 to help defuse the Suez Crisis. That earned Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

The January meeting in Ottawa looked at how Canada can make a “constructive” contribution to the UN’s conflict prevention, mediation and post-reconstruction efforts.

There are plenty of opportunities for Canada to make contributions to missions in francophone countries, such as the Central African Republic, Mali and Haiti, Dorn said.

Canada is one of Haiti’s largest aid donors having contributed $1.6 billion in development and humanitarian assistance since 2006. The country has faced political instability for months.

Brazil is looking for new peacekeeping partners in Haiti, Dorn noted.

“It’s in our backyard, and we have the francophone component which can help a lot.”

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