Canada’s back? When? How?

New opportunities should be explored to better equip peacekeeping personnel with key enablers, but will the Liberal government really seize the day?

Walter Dorn

Originally published in Policy Options, 7 November 2017. 


In the foreign policy debate of the 2015 election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau declared emphatically that peacekeeping “is something that a Canadian prime minister [Lester B. Pearson] started, and right now there is a need to revitalize and refocus and support peacekeeping operations.” On election night, Trudeau proudly declared that Canada is “back” as a compassionate and constructive force in the international community, and he soon mandated his defence and foreign ministers to re-engage in UN peace operations. However, in the two years since, there has only been dithering and delay.  In fact, the number of Canadian uniformed personnel in UN operations has fallen to a historic low, with just 29 military personnel and 44 police deployed, fewer than Stephen Harper’s government provided.

The Trudeau government made an impressive pledge in August 2016, just before the 2016 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial in London, UK, to provide up to 600 troops and 150 police. But over a year later the government still has not decided when or where to deploy.  With Canada hosting the follow-on 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial in Vancouver, which includes reviewing implementation of previous pledges, it is embarrassing that the host has yet to fulfill its own pledge. Furthermore, with “rapid deployment” to crises a key item on the agenda of the Vancouver conference, Canada has set a particularly poor example by taking years to increase its troop numbers, even though the UN has a desperate need.

Still, Canada can make good on its pledges and regain some prestige, something it needs in order to win a seat on the UN Security Council, which is another of the Trudeau’s government declared aspirations. And there is much that Canada can do. It can immediately double or triple the number of uniformed personnel from the current 70, even as it decides on how to deploy the 750 it pledged. The UN has pressing needs in Africa, such as in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and South Sudan.

The UN wants Canada back. As a favour, in early 2017 the UN even held open the position of force commander of the UN’s mission in Mali to allow Canada to submit a candidate for the position, as well as an accompanying “force package.” But Canada could not decide on the force contribution, so that position, the most senior military position, was given to a general from Belgium. Canada can still fit into the troop rotation pattern for the Mali mission (with Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden among the European nations now deployed) and seek the force commander position in the future. It can also look at other UN missions to fill senior positions, like that of special representative to the Secretary-General, the diplomat who heads each mission.

The UN also desperately needs heavy-lift aircraft (such as Canada’s C-17 jets and Chinook helicopters), expert medical units (which Canada ably demonstrated in Afghanistan) and advanced technologies for monitoring (such as Coyote/TAPV reconnaissance vehicles). It also needs disciplined, experienced and well-trained troops, which Canada has, although they are not yet experienced in UN missions or trained on them. So more training is needed. In fact, Trudeau’s mandate letter instructs the defence minister to lead an international training program in peacekeeping, but that has yet to materialize. For a decade Canada led with the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre but it was closed in 2013, leaving no place in Canada for civilians, military and police to train together for peace operations.

The UN is making a major push to upgrade its field technology to better meet its ambitious mandates and bring the world organization into the 21st century. Canada could become one of the leading technology-contributing countries, in addition to being a troop-contributing country and a police-contributing country. So far, Canada has not participated in the UN’s partnerships for technology in peacekeeping, but there are many opportunities for Canada to offer capabilities like anti-mortar radars, unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance vehicles. These technologies serve not only as “force multipliers” for uniformed personnel but also as “mission multipliers” for all components of UN missions, including those involved in protecting civilians, in humanitarian assistance, in protecting human rights, in reconciliation and peace processes, in nation building, and in promoting the rule of law. Recently the UN has made remarkable technological progress, but it has only partly met the requirements in the field. More help is greatly needed.

Technology can assist with all of the themes highlighted on the agenda for the Vancouver conference. For one theme, “Protecting those at risk,” peace operations need better situational awareness and rapid response. In the fog of conflict, the UN has all too often been unaware of current attacks and imminent threats. The UN is struggling to create a real-time tracking system for its own vehicles and personnel, and it should eventually have the means to track locals in danger. With “precision peacekeeping,” using GPS location devices for peacekeepers and local populations, it is easier to send the right peacekeepers to the right places to do the right things. For population-centric operations, UN missions need “human security intelligence” — analyzed information on the wide range of threats and opportunities. Gathering such information is a huge task, requiring both human and technological intelligence. To achieve “participatory peacekeeping,” the local population needs to provide UN missions with inputs and warnings, thus contributing more directly to local security, much like “community policing.” In the digital age, it is possible to create a “coalition of the connected” that includes local populations, thereby providing protection through connection. Using the smartphone revolution (including translation software) and social media, the UN can be in more frequent contact with local people and stay better informed. UN missions can provide SIM cards to selected local people to enable “crowd seeding,” where specific individuals are rewarded for information provided to the UN. For another conference theme, “Early warning and rapid deployment,” human information together with UN monitoring devices can help to determine when and where conflicts will escalate.

For the theme of “innovation in training and capacity building,” Canada and other pledgers can help the UN develop its decision-making and planning software, systems for e-learning, and exercises and simulations, so peacekeepers (Canadian and others) can be better prepared before and during missions.  Electronic “peacekeeping games” could be introduced, or existing war games modified, to include peacekeeper roles.

One of the cross-cutting issues in Vancouver, the “empowerment of women,” includes making women safer in conflict zones. Canada can help the UN explore better tracking and communications. Whether they are for women peacekeepers working in danger zones or for local women collecting firewood near refugee camps or internally displaced persons’ camps, GPS trackers with a distress signal capability can provide alerts and real-time location in emergencies. Also, better tracking of mission personnel can increase their accountability, to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse. For conflict-related sexual violence by locals, forensic kits (including DNA technologies) can help identify perpetrators, obtain evidence and increase accountability.

More generally, Canada and the nations at the Vancouver meeting could each develop a catalogue of commercial technologies proven by their militaries in field operations that would be useful in peace operations, similar to the Obama administration’s Technology Source Book.

A year after Canada led the creation of the UN’s first peacekeeping force in 1956, Lester B. Pearson eloquently called in his 1957 Nobel Lecture for greater commitment and action: “We made at least a beginning then. If, on that foundation, we do not build something more permanent and stronger, we will once again have ignored realities, rejected opportunities, and betrayed our trust.”

There is so much Canada can and should do to enhance peacekeeping. Missing these opportunities is ethically negligent. To use these opportunities is to save lives and alleviate human suffering. Canada is not yet “back,” but it can and should be.


This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined in Policy Options