Michael Byers Op-ed: “Should Canada focus on keeping the peace? Yes”

YES: Peacekeeping is not passé, writes Michael Byers. We don’t hear about it because it works

By Michael Byers

“We need action not only to end the fighting but to make the peace ….”

Spoken by Lester B. Pearson in 1956, these words grace the side of the peacekeeping monument in Ottawa. They also provide an insight into the true nature of this difficult and often dangerous task.

Pearson knew a great deal about war. He served in both the army and air force during the First World War. During the Second World War, he served as a diplomat in London and Washington.

When he spoke about making the peace, he was drawing a distinction from two other types of missions: the defence of one’s country from outside attack, and forward-leaning interventions aimed at defeating opponents overseas.

Canadian soldiers have served nobly in the defence of our country. During the Cold War their principal duty was, not to make the peace, but to guard against the Soviet threat.

Canadian soldiers have also served nobly in a forward-leaning “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan. A mission that, from a security perspective, was optional, since al-Qaeda had relocated elsewhere by 2005 and the Taliban posed no significant threat to Canadians in Canada.

Jack Granatstein has admitted as much, writing last month that: “Canada did have one core reason – to be in Kandahar from beginning to end. Ottawa wanted to take on a dangerous and heroic mission in a difficult struggle in order to achieve influence in determining the course of that struggle. That was so that Canada would no longer be seen in Washington and Brussels as a free rider …”

Peacekeeping is also optional, insofar as it is not directed at existential threats to this country. It is something that Canada traditionally did, not to curry favour with the United States, but to promote our long-term interests in international peace and security.

Granatstein and I agree on the need to defend our country. Where we disagree is on the appropriate focus of our optional missions overseas.

For more than a decade, Granatstein has argued that peacekeeping is passé and counter-insurgencies are the new reality. Yet the turn away from peacekeeping has been a choice rather than a necessity, driven in large part by a desire – on the part of the defence lobby – to maintain and increase budgets in a significantly more peaceful, post-Cold War world.

Critics of peacekeeping often point to the failed UN missions in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. They ignore the very many more successful UN peacekeeping missions: in Cambodia, East Timor, Mozambique, El Salvador, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

They also ignore the reasons for failure, which more often than not are rooted in failures of political will – not on the part of the UN as an organization, but on the part of the member states that make it up.

They ignore the fact that the member states have learned from their mistakes. UN peacekeeping missions today have clear and strong mandates to “use all necessary means” to protect peacekeepers and civilians alike.

Some critics propagate the myth that peacekeeping is for “wimps,” a myth that found its ultimate expression in U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s October 2000 comment, “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

Rice, of course, was a member of the U.S. administration that failed to develop a peacekeeping plan for post-intervention Iraq, with untold consequences for Iraqi civilians, U.S. and allied military personnel, and ultimately the global position and reputation of the United States.

Most important, those who denigrate peacekeeping dishonour the thousands of Canadian veterans who served in these missions, and particularly the 114 who were killed.

Peacekeeping requires diplomacy, discipline, and considerable courage. Peacekeepers have to be able to negotiate when possible, and fight when necessary. Achieving that balance, and acquiring all those skills, is an enormously challenging and uniquely valuable task.

Again, our American friends do not do peacekeeping very well, and this has created a real niche for Canada. If we want to make a positive difference with our optional overseas missions, adding a few thousand soldiers to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers focused on counter-insurgency operations is hardly an optimal strategy.

Instead, in addition to defending our country, we should build and use our military for missions the U.S. military is unable or unwilling to fulfil.

Canada’s distinct history, our international reputation for independence and objectivity, our highly trained, experienced, diplomatically skilled soldiers – all these attributes enable us to punch above our weight, provided we are not always punching in the same place, time and manner as the United States.

Today, there is no shortage of peacekeeping missions where Canadian soldiers could make a invaluable contribution. There are more than 81,000 blue-helmeted soldiers from 114 countries deployed in 15 separate peacekeeping operations from Kosovo to Lebanon to the Congo.

But unlike the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, most people have not heard of these missions – because they are successful. Missions such as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, which since 2006 has created and maintained peace on the front line between Israel and Hezbollah. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon involves thousands of soldiers from Italy, France and Spain, with maritime support provided by Germany and Denmark. That’s right: the key contributors to UNIFL are NATO countries. And they’re making the world a safer place – using the tried and tested instrument of UN peacekeeping.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. The author of War Law and Intent for a Nation, he has been a visiting professor at the Universities of Cape Town and Tel Aviv.

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