Views / Opinion

Liberals' announcement exposes peacekeeping myths and nostalgia: Tim Harper

Justin Trudeau’s downscaled commitment is a reminder Canada has not been a peacekeeping nation for years.

Canadian peacekeepers prepare for a parade at Maple Leaf Camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Nov. 28, 1997. The Trudeau government has promised to get Canada back into the peacekeeping business. This week he said Canada would contribute military and police resources to a number of global hot spots.

(DANIEL MOREL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Canadian peacekeepers prepare for a parade at Maple Leaf Camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Nov. 28, 1997. The Trudeau government has promised to get Canada back into the peacekeeping business. This week he said Canada would contribute military and police resources to a number of global hot spots.

When the federal Liberals released their own report card this week, they left out an important category.

Had they included spinning broken promises, they would have earned an A+.

That grade would have to be given for their peacekeeping announcement in Vancouver this week.

It was a pledge built on the realization that technology and rapid response is needed, that traditional peacekeeping has long been dead and that Canada can lead a new era of peace making and peacekeeping.

All of that is undeniable, except for the aspirational nature of Canadian leadership.

But this is still a broken pledge.

And it should remind Canadians that the blue berets and the Pearsonian ideals are more nostalgia and myth than reality because Canada hasn’t been a peacekeeping nation for many years.

There are 94,000 peacekeeping and police missions under United Nations auspices in 15 different operations.

A grand total of 62 of them are Canadians. That is our smallest commitment in more than a generation. Most are police. Canada has not rotated through a traditional peacekeeping mission in 16 years.

That is not to suggest that those Canadians deployed are not making a difference.

I was embedded with our police effort in Haiti years ago and saw firsthand the difference they were making in that country. But that mission also included sexual assault of Haitian women and children by peacekeepers, including allegations against Canadian officers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must be held accountable for backing down on a pledge made in August 2016, when he promised a deployment of 600 military personnel and 150 police officers to a single UN operation.

While the country and allies waited . . . and waited . . . Trudeau instead promised a rapid response force of about 200, 50 military, police or civilian trainers for other countries contributing troops, armed helicopters and airlift capabilities and a transport aircraft.

But there will be more waiting, because it will be many months before Ottawa and the UN decide how to use the Canadian contribution.

The time lag has been described by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan as the government doing its homework and getting it right. It might also be a case of a government realizing it had again overpromised and looking for a way to reinvent a downscaled promise.

“We believe in the United Nations and we believe in peacekeeping,’’ Trudeau said at the peacekeeping conference in Vancouver.

And he maintained he was fulfilling a promise, just doing it smarter.

But the promise was overly ambitious.

Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal foreign affairs minister and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, presided over an era of much more robust and traditional peacekeeping.

He pointed to gaps between Trudeau’s pledge and peacekeeping expertise in this country.

While there is still a need for boots on the ground, Axworthy told me, there are holes in the United Nations capability when it comes to technology, modern logistics and digital communications.

The training needed for peacekeeping soldiers and peacekeeping officers has lagged badly in recent years and the country cannot go into this “cold turkey. Those who will provide training will first have to be learners,’’ he said.

He believes Canada got caught up in a “macho period’’ post 9/11 and the Stephen Harper government was more interested in air missions in Libya than building our peacekeeping capability.

Much of Trudeau’s initiative this week deserves praise, but it also reminds that everything old is new again.

It was under Axworthy’s watch that Canada committed to a rapid response peacekeeping team known as the Multinational Stand-By High Readiness Brigade for United Nations Operations.

There were also efforts to get more women into peacekeeping operations under that former Liberal government with Axworthy in a key cabinet post.

Trudeau announced $15 million in a trust to get more women placed in senior peacekeeping roles this week.

Weeks before he was elected to a majority government, Trudeau challenged Harper over peacekeeping at a leaders’ debate.

Canada had nothing to contribute to an international conversation over peacekeeping, he said.

“(That) is disappointing because this is something a Canadian started,” he said.

“Right now, there is a need to revitalize, focus and support peacekeeping operations around the world.”

Two years later, Canada’s contribution to that revitalization is modest at best.

We may be headed back on the international stage, but when it comes to peacekeeping it’s going to be a long road back.

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