National Column: UN peacekeeping retreat unfair but politically wise

by Thomas Walkom

It began two years ago with Justin Trudeau’s bold campaign promise to restore the great Canadian tradition of United Nations peacekeeping.

It ended Wednesday in Vancouver with the prime minister’s tacit admission that Stephen Harper, his Conservative predecessor, was right – that traditional peacekeeping no longer works and that Canadians would do well to bury their nostalgia.

With a throw to gender politics, Trudeau did his best to dress up the Liberal government’s retreat. But retreat it was.

The truth about modern UN peacekeeping is that it is singularly unfair. The rich countries shoulder the financial cost. But the poor countries risk their soldiers’ lives.

The biggest contributor of manpower to UN peacekeeping is the desperately poor African nation of Ethiopia, with 8,403 personnel committed. It is followed by Bangladesh, India, Rwanda, Pakistan and Nepal.

Canada is far down the list, according to the official UN website, with 23 active personnel taking part in peacekeeping. Even Donald Trump’s America contributes more people – 55 as of October this year.

The reason why peacekeeping is popular among the governments of developing countries is that it is profitable. The UN pays contributing governments $1,332 (U.S.) per soldier or police officer per month. The contributing government needs to pay these soldiers or police officers only their standard wage – which can be considerably less.

The average income in Ethiopia, for instance, is $660 a year.

Some governments pocket the difference. One study calculates that Bangladesh netted $1.3 billion between 2001 and 2010 from peacekeeping.

But even those that don’t skim off the top see an advantage in peacekeeping. It allows them to field bigger armies than they could otherwise afford.

The cost of all of this is borne by the richer countries. The U.S. covers 29 per cent of the annual $6.8 billion peacekeeping bill, making it the top funder. China comes in second, covering 10 per cent of the cost. Canada is ninth at 3 per cent.

During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals couldn’t move fast enough to reinstitute real peacemaking. It would show that Canada was back.

But since coming to power, the Liberal approach has been one of studied delay. Decisions were promised and then, for no obvious reason, put off. Fact-finding missions were dispatched and facts gathered. But still, nothing happened.

Various theories were advanced to explain the delay. One, to which I subscribed for a while, blamed the government’s preoccupation with Trump, who has been a strident critic of the UN.

But now I think the reason was simpler. The Liberal government realized early on that a return to traditional peacekeeping was unrealistic. But it stubbornly didn’t want to admit this.

It still doesn’t. Technically, the government says it is committed to deploying “up to” 600 soldiers as peacekeepers. But clearly it views none of the UN’s current 15 peacekeeping operations as satisfactory.

So instead, it has produced a much more modest grab bag of proposals, including a 200-person rapid deployment force to be used in vaguely defined circumstances.

Under the latest plan, Canada won’t necessarily send its own soldiers on peacekeeping missions. But it will offer to train those from other countries that do go. It might even airlift them to their destinations.

The government is also offering to spend $21 million in an effort to encourage more female peacekeepers. This isn’t a foolish idea. The UN itself is trying to encourage more female participation, in part as a response to widely publicized incidents in which male peacekeepers were alleged to have sexually assaulted women and children.

But it is not clear how Canada will persuade the main troop-contributing countries, many of which are socially conservative, to include more women in their armed forces.

Overall, Ottawa has decided to avoid getting caught in the dangerous and endless quagmire that is the modern UN peacekeeping mission. It wants instead to be a small but useful helper.

This is certainly a retreat from the triumphalist Canada-is-back rhetoric of the 2015 election campaign. Politically, it is probably a wise retreat. Peacekeeping has never been risk-free. Since 1948, it has taken the lives of 122 Canadians. But it is qualitatively more dangerous now.

I’m not sure how that danger plays in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. I do know that after going through the Afghan War, Canadians have little appetite for another long and bloody military mission – even one that is called peacekeeping.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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