With UN peacekeeping missions steeped in scandal, Canada looks to re-engage and keep its soul

Soldiers of the Third Battallion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group received their NATO medal for Service in the former Yugoslavia on Canada Day.

Richard Warnica

Jacob Kathman takes a Moneyball approach to political science. He studies huge data sets on things like civilian deaths in civil war and international military intervention. As a political scientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Kathman has spent most of the past decade using that big data to puzzle out issues tied to global peace and security. But he keeps coming back to one question: Does peacekeeping work?

It turns out to be remarkably hard to figure out. That’s partially because researchers can’t seem to agree on what “work” should mean. Does success in UN peacekeeping mean ending war? Sustaining peace? Reducing attacks on civilians? Is it about fostering stable government, fighting terrorists or protecting human rights? Maybe it means just not making things worse?

Like a lot of big data analysts, Kathman speaks about his own work with boundless enthusiasm but also endless caveats. He hedges and qualifies, and always makes the listener aware of the limits of what he can know. Still, in his own cautious way, he’s pretty sure he has an answer. “The general consensus,” he said in a recent interview, “is, for the most part, peacekeeping seems to improve the situation on the ground, generally speaking.”

In other words, yes, peacekeeping does work. At least according to the kind of analysis Kathman and his colleagues perform. What they’ve done over several studies is look at UN troop and police deployments, month by month, all over the world for many decades. What they’ve found is that, despite some high-profile failures, peacekeeping does tend to improve things on the ground. “In terms of reducing violence, maintaining stability, improving progress towards democracy and economic stability, peacekeeping appears to be a pretty positive way forward for many war-torn countries,” Kathman said.

Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada will soon commit up to 600 troops and about 100 police officers to a United Nations peacekeeping missionin an undisclosed location in Africa. That would mark the most significant Canadian contribution to a single UN mission in a generation. The deployment would fulfill a major Liberal promise from last year’s election. It would also pivot the country in a rhetorical way toward a more big-L Liberal vision of what Canada should be in the world.

and beset by serial scandals about sexual abuse, disease and self-serving bureaucracy. The system is in such trouble it could be at risk of a massive failure — a Srebrenica-like moment that could doom peacekeeping for decades, believes Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert in New York.

At the same time, research from Kathman and others suggests that, for all its many problems, peacekeeping can pay off. “The UN gets a pretty bad rap,” Kathman said. “But … it’s pretty surprisingly effective.”

And therein lies the problem for Canada. Peacekeeping can be abusive, bureaucratic, buck-passing, cholera-spreading and rape-ignoring. It also works. Can Canada re-engage and still keeps its soul?

Peacekeeping in the public imagination tends to ping pong back and forth between poles of horror and heroism. The idea was dreamed up during the Suez crisis in 1956 by, among others, Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister at the time. During the Cold War, division on the Security Council kept large-scale peacekeeping missions to a minimum. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the age of mass peacekeeping began.

It didn’t last long.

A string of horrific failures in the early to mid 1990s soured many in the Western world on peacekeeping. In Canada, members of an elite airborne regiment tortured a local teenager to death while on a mission in Somalia in 1993. Early the next year, the UN failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, despite the pleas of Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire, who was on the ground at the time.

In 1995, in what became the last straw for many in the West, UN peacekeepers allowed the wholesale slaughter of Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica. The attack served as a turning point in UN peacekeeping. “Prior to Bosnia, almost half of UN peacekeepers had been from Western countries,” Jean-Marie Guehenno, who served as the head of UN peacekeeping between 2000 and 2008, wrote in a memoir published last year. “When I left office, the West provided fewer than one in 10 of our blue helmets.”

Peacekeeping didn’t stop in 1995, though it did slow down dramatically for several years. When it picked up again in earnest in the early 2000s, the missions looked different. The developed world continued to pay for peacekeeping, in Guatemala, Burundi, Haiti, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and more than a dozen other countries. But the soldiers increasingly came from poorer parts of the world.

By July 2016, more than 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers were deployed on 16 missions around the globe, at a cost of over US$8 billion a year. More than 30 per cent of those soldiers came from just four countries: Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. (Canada currently has a total of 103 soldiers, police officers and official observers deployed to five different missions in Africa and Haiti.)

The missions themselves had morphed, too. In some countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan, peacekeepers were deployed into combat where “there was little or no peace to keep,” according to a major UN peacekeeping review published by the organization in 2015. They were tasked with broad mandates to carry out over vast geographical spaces with little high-calibre support.

In his book, Guehenno suggests peacekeeping has become, at times, a way for the Western world to deal with problems it cares about, just not that much. In Darfur, “the leading Western countries … wanted ‘to do’ something, but certainly were not prepared to deploy their own troops and did not want to pay too much,” he wrote. The result was an overstretched, poorly manned mission that had little hope of containing the violence across a huge area of land.

Darfur was no exception. The peacekeeping review panel found, in mission after mission, a “widening gap between what is being asked of United Nations peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.”

The answer, some believe, is more Western troops and better equipment. Others see a problem of scale and politics. But scope and structure aren’t the UN’s only issues. Scandals, too, have continued to dog the peacekeeping world. In the past several months alone, as Canada has ramped up its peacekeeping talk, several embarrassing, atrocious incidents have come to light.

In June, Anders Kompass, a veteran Swedish diplomat and longtime UN employee, quit the organization in disgust. Kompass blew the whistle on allegations of child sexual abuse by UN and UN-affiliated peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014. For his trouble, he was hounded by his superiors, asked to resign, suspended and investigated as a leaker. Even after a high-level, independent panel — chaired by former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps — cleared him of wrongdoing, he felt no option but to leave.

This article was originally published in the National Post on September 2, 2016

Richard Warnica is a writer at the National Post | Twitter@richardwarnica