Hudson on the Hill

Peacekeeping is a Dangerous Business
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Nov 27, 2017

Canada has a long and usually proud record in the world of international peacekeeping. Even before Peacekeeping became a “thing”, Canadians were involved (in the late 1940s) in supervising the truce in Palestine after the Arab-Israeli war and as part of an observer group supervising ceasefires between India and Pakistan. The 1956-1967 United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF1) to Suez was the first mission to use troops that fit the UN’s official definition of creating “a buffer zone between belligerents and to supervise the withdrawal of forces” from a conflict zone. 

The years since have seen Canadian military, paramilitary and civilian personnel involved successfully in UN-sanctioned operations, mainly in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. However, since 1995, our direct involvement in UN missions has been curtailed as Canada opted to work increasingly, and with continued success, through NATO.

But no record is complete without a look back at how two UN missions went horribly wrong: Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s.

In Bosnia, Serbian forces from the former Yugoslavian army launched a massive assault on Muslims and Croats. “The Serbs were the bullies, the bad guys laughing in our faces, doing as they pleased,” Fred Doucette recalled in Empty Casings, an hypnotic and brutally candid 2008 memoir of his deployment as one of a handful of Canadian officers with the UN Protection Force. “It was frustrating and heartbreaking.”

And deadly for 100,000 people, notably thousands of men and boys rounded up in July 1995 and summarily slaughtered by Serbs under the command of Ratko Mladic, who promised detainees they would not be harmed. Thanks to restrictive rules-of-engagement and political considerations, UN personnel effectively had to stand down.

Mladic, remembered by Doucette as “just another fat fucking war criminal of the first degree,” eventually was extradited to The Hague in 2011 for trial by the International Criminal Tribune (ICT) for Yugoslavia, which heard from more than 500 witnesses and considered nearly 10,000 exhibits during 530 days of interrupted sittings. Found guilty of genocide, among other things, Mladic, now 74, was sentenced to life imprisonment in late November 2017. His lawyer is expected to appeal despite the overwhelming evidence against him. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian national, called the former Bosnia Serb Army chief of staff the “epitome of evil” for having “presided over some of the darkest crimes to occur in Europe since World War II.” The conviction, he added, was a “testament to the courage and determination of those victims and witnesses who never gave up hope that they would see him brought to justice.”

That aside, there’s no gainsaying conclusions that the UN fundamentally failed its mission – the summer of 1995 remains a stain on its reputation.

Overlapping that was the 1993-1996 UN assistance Mission for Rwanda, where another genocidal campaign was, in effect, allowed to happen because of limited resources available to the mission’s Canadian commander, Army General Roméo Dallaire, and, yet again, restrictive UN rules of engagement forced good people to sit on the sidelines rather than act. Its humanitarian efforts were nonetheless credited with saving thousands of lives even as others fell victim to tribally-driven ethnic cleansing which resulted in some 800,000 deaths, mostly among the Tutsi minority, in a three-month bloodbath, as well as a massive refugee exodus. Ten Belgian soldiers on the mission were also killed and their bodies mutilated by Hutus.

In October 1994, the ICT for Rwanda (sitting in Tanzania) began indicting and trying a number of higher-ranking members of the Hutu majority. A handful of senior Rwandan officials were eventually convicted of crimes for organizing the genocide, but many suspects have never been brought to trial because their whereabouts were, and ostensibly are, unknown. 

The Egyptian politician-diplomat Boutros Boutros-Galli, who was UN Secretary-General from 1992 to 1996, observed in a 2004 televised interview that “the failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia, because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.” 

The current administration in Ottawa should keep Bosnia and Rwanda firmly in mind as it considers how to fulfill Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to restore Canada’s peacekeeping presence and reputation. He first broached the idea during the 2015 general election campaign and, to much fanfare in August 2016, the Liberals pledged nearly $500 million and up to 600 soldiers for unspecified UN peacekeeping operations.

The UN had asked Canada to contribute transport helicopters for its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, where improvised explosive devices are being used to target peacekeepers. That mission, involving nearly 15,000 personnel, including some 11,200 troops, continues today; three peacekeepers died and five others were injured by an IED explosion in September, and four UN peacekeepers were killed in two separate attacks in November. 

Canada’s indecisiveness about committing troops to Mali – or, for that matter, any other part of central Africa with its rampant tribalism – prompted Belgium and Germany to pitch in, in the hope that more time would enable Ottawa to finalize a plan. More than a year later, under the realization that Canadian soldiers may also be killed, that plan was still pending. 

During a visit to UN headquarters in New York last May, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan had reasserted Canada’s commitment. “When we make a plan and make a contribution, this isn’t just about checking a box,” he told reporters. “We need to make sure that we have the right plan, have the right discussions moving forward. Because we want to make sure we provide a meaningful contribution.”

In June, the long-awaited defence policy “Strong, Secure, Engaged” reiterated the government’s hope to “lead and/or contribute to international peace operations” with not only the UN, but also NATO and other international partners. Then, in August, renewing his homage to a “strong Canadian tradition”, Trudeau noted in a statement that “our history of peacekeeping goes back […] to our earliest missions to build peace and security across the globe.”

However, when the announcement finally game, it underscored suspicions that none of the UN’s current missions fits whatever model Canada has constructed after sundry fact-finding missions and detailed assessments. Rather than 600 military personnel and 150 police, as originally proposed, we have offered a 200-strong rapid deployment force to be used in vaguely defined circumstances, coupled with an offer to train others’ troops and possibly provide airlift support.

Another part of the package is the government’s offer to spend $21 million in a bid to encourage more female participation, an initiative in line with the UN’s own attempts to respond to allegations of sexual assault by peacekeepers against the women and children they are tasked with protecting.

Overall, the Liberal government’s latest announcement, despite the rhetoric, is a relatively muted follow-on to the “Canada is back” rhetoric during and since the 2015 election. This may be due to the new understanding that whenever it deploys troops abroad, casualties are inevitable, and with the next election now less than two years away, it may be a gamble the government isn’t ready to take.

Dallaire has called the government’s proposal “very progressive.” Having been a key witness in the ICT trials in Tanzania and now head of an eponymous organization helping to remediate child soldiers, the retired General accompanied Defence Minister Sajjan on an African fact-finding trip in 2016. They evidently learned that other countries were keen to have more training. “They’re not looking for our battalions; they’re looking for […] new capabilities and competencies.”

On the other hand, Lewis MacKenzie, Canada’s first peacekeeping commander in Bosnia, said in a televised interview that rapid reaction is an “oxymoron” in UN circles, given the length of time it usually takes to push a resolution of approval through the General Assembly, where national and regional realpolitik can present formidable and occasionally insurmountable hurdles.

The former Lieutenant-General also found the latest proposal “condescending” in the way it was presented. “It’s tap-dancing around the difficult issues,” he said. “We’re going to throw money at the training, we’re going to throw money at modest resources, but ‘the rest of you do the heavy lifting’ […] That’s pretty superior coming from people who aren’t doing much peacekeeping these days.” 

He also pointed out that much of Canada’s peacekeeping expertise retired with his generation. “There are some things that other people are probably in a position to teach us. If they really want to have an impact on UN peace operations then it’s an opportunity lost.”

General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has acknowledged that while the government’s pledge will be a “challenge” to fulfill, it is “entirely manageable.” He also acknowledged in a televised interview that the nature of peacekeeping has evolved. “I’m under no illusions at all, nor is anybody who is making decisions about where we would operate and what we would do.”

Hopefully that will include learning from the mistakes of history. 

Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.