Canadian Peacekeeping: Where to Now?

By Flanagan, Ann | Behind the Headlines, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Canadian Peacekeeping: Where to Now?

Flanagan, Ann, Behind the Headlines

For decades, peacekeeping has played a central role in defining Canada's place in the world and in contributing to the international self-image of Canadians. Yet traditional assumptions no longer appear quite so certain, and, in terms of both policy and implementation, there are many issues but few answers.

On 15 November 1996, Canada's proposal to send a multinational humanitarian force under Canadian command to eastern Zaire received the approval of the United Nations Security Council (resolution 1080) under the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. By the end of the month, when many of the refugees had returned to Rwanda, the nature of the mission changed and coverage largely vanished from the media, leaving in its wake confusion over the nature and future of Canadian peacekeeping efforts. On the initiative of CIIA President Alan Sullivan and Geoffrey Pearson of the UN Association in Canada, a distinguished group from academia, the public service, and journalism met in Toronto on 27 January 1997 to discuss peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding. That group included Professors Howard Adelman and David Dewitt, York University, Professor Janice Stein, University of Toronto, Messrs Andrew Cohen and Paul Knox, Globe and Mail, Jack Granatstein, Rowell Jackman fellow, CIIA, and Alex Morrison, President of the Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre. Following is a report on that discussion, supplemented where appropriate by editiorial observation and elaboration. It is, we hope, only the beginning of a continuing exchange.

Contemporary notions of peacekeeping have been conditioned by the precedents of Cold War diplomacy. Traditional peacekeeping efforts arose out of interstate conflict, when warring parties agreed to cease hostilities and consented to outside involvement to create a breathing space. The combatants could then consider proposals for more permanent dispute settlement. The credibility of the forces of interposition - the peacekeepers - depended in large part upon their impartiality. Frequently, the requirements of impartiality papered over the need to make hard choices between sides. Although absolute neutrality may have been a myth, a central role of peacekeepers was to uphold international law in the face of aggression. The quintessentially Canadian characteristics of civility and compromise served such operations well, and Canada was involved in virtually every UN peacekeeping action from their inception until the 1990s.

The peacekeeping tradition has spawned a sort of national mythology in Canada. Some even claim that Canada invented peacekeeping - a proud consensus built around the provision of security as an international public good. In hindsight, however, we can see hints of realist geopolitical interests at work here. Perhaps Canada's national interest was closely bound up in the maintenance of peace and the health of international organizations. More pointedly, Canada tended to participate in peacekeeping operations where clearly defined alliance interests were at stake - be it in Suez, the Congo, or Cyprus. Nonetheless, most Canadians conceived of their peacekeeping duty in idealistic terms: the task and those who performed it were seen as somehow `above the fray.'

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, peacekeeping gave way to peacemaking and peacebuilding, a new agenda which tends to run roughshod over the idealistic mythology. With the end of the stable, if tense, Cold War period, and in the face of rising nationalism and ethnic fragmentation, the focus has shifted from interstate conflict to intrastate conflict. While some have questioned whether intervention in intrastate conflict violates internationally accepted norms of state sovereignty, in empirical terms the new volatility has increased demands for peacekeeping operations. Paradoxically, as the need to intervene and equilibrate between the super-powers ended, the international agenda expanded, as did the scope for peacekeeping operations. …

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