Washington, DC - Canada is contemplating a return to “peacekeeping.” The Liberal government’s concept of peacekeeping falls into the “we’re not Stephen Harper’s Tories” category of avoiding expeditionary military activity such as Afghanistan like the plague. There is even the thought that Canada-the-Peacekeeper will get more votes when seeking a seat in UN committees.
But if there is some vague amorphous concept of once-upon-a-time peacekeeping which featured the equivalent of civilians in military garb, “back to the future” will prove a bitter and perhaps bloody comedownance. Perhaps the mental image is the peacekeeping role in Cyprus from 1964-1993 where 25,000 Canadian troops, often in battalion size, cycled through the island to keep the Greek and Turkish Cypriots from each other’s throats. There was a neatly defined “Green Line” dividing the hostile communities which was largely observed, making for rather dull tours of duty for the Canadian forces. Eventually, driven by the conclusion that it was simply a waste of money that could be handled by a troop of Boy Scouts, Ottawa withdrew them.
The peacekeeping images one wants to skip past are those of Somalia (1993) wherein the Canadian Airborne Regiment proved incapable of keeping peace and distinguished itself by torturing to death a Somali teenager (Shidane Arone) caught infiltrating the unit’s camp to steal. The “trophy photos” of the dying Somali may not be as historically memorable as the Abu Ghraib... photos of U.S. held Iraqi prisoners, but they were sufficient to disband permanently the airborne unit.
Or perhaps the recollection of Brig.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda would be salutary? Essentially, given responsibility with no authority he ended by “shaking hands with the devil” while passively observing the massacre(s) of Hutu Rwandans. Killed in the process also were 10 Belgian soldiers that the feckless Dallaire made no credible attempt to save.
So now we have Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan having returned from a tour of Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo. His travel gives the impression of a desperate search for an assignment where Canadian military personnel will not get killed and conclude with national acclaim smelling like roses. Upon return, Saijan and other ministers, including Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, announced that Canada will commit 600 troops, including engineers and medical personnel with ancillary helicopters and other aircraft.
But there was no announcement as to where they would go and when.
Happily for Canadians, forces are not on the tarmac waiting for aircraft to take them into the never-never. There is still time for rethinking:
First, Canada has been more engaged in peacekeeping than it is willing to appreciate. The extended effort in Afghanistan was a UN-endorsed effort with well-equipped, effectively organized allies. Canadian forces in Iraq are providing useful operational assistance against IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Combat action against multiple challenges is today’s peacekeeping.
Second, none of the countries mentioned in the Sajjan tour have identifiable action/responsibility parameters in which Canadians would be in control;
Third, there are no exit strategies—these countries have open-ended problems;
Fourth, casualties will be significant. Canadians are body bag adverse;
And, finally, there is an obvious circumstance in Canada’s “backyard” that offers far better opportunities for success and accomplishment: Haiti.
Haiti has been a long-running semi-disaster in the Caribbean. It is still far from recovered from the 2010 earthquake with housing and public infrastructure in deplorable condition. The UN force currently in the island is associated with creating a cholera epidemic.
In contrast, Canada has considerable experience in Haiti with substantial numbers of the Canadian population of Haitian origin. These citizens provide a solid linguistic and cultural basis for understanding issues involved. The country has defined parameters; its culture is comprehensible and its politics, although chaotic, are not characterized by armed insurgency. There are specific, identifiable objectives for rebuilding the country physically and politically.
In short, Canada should “adopt” Haiti. It should make rehabilitating Haiti its national long term objective for which the more traditional form of “peacekeeping” would be relevant and using Canadian Forces as the organizers and implementers. Rewards would be tangible and globally apparent. Moreover, there would be no body bags.
It is useful when considering the possibility for peacekeeping in Africa to recall the adage associated with the invidious consequences of good intentions: “I didn’t realize that when I decided to drain the swamp that I would be hip deep in alligators.”