Canada’s UN peacekeeping has shifted from military to police

This story was originally published in the Embassy on August 14, 2013. Photo by the Hill Times.

National Peacekeepers’ Day, marked last week in ceremonies across the country and each year on Aug. 9, is a day to honour Canadian peacekeepers who have served or are serving in peace operations around the world.

But while Canada has been a major contributor to peacekeeping efforts historically, today that role has changed dramatically.

Once recognized as a world leader in military peacekeeping, Canada now consistently ranks in the 50s in terms of contributions to United Nations missions, well below leaders like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

But rather than retreat from peacekeeping altogether, the Canadian government has found another way to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts.

Today, Canadian police officers are far more common than Canadian military troops in UN peacekeeping missions.

As of June 30, 92 Canadian police officers were serving in UN peacekeeping operations, as opposed to 68 military personnel.

Shift in approach

Although Canadian police have been involved in UN peacekeeping missions since 1989, the military played the largest peacekeeping role for Canada during the 1990s, with UN military troop commitment levels reaching as high as 2,829 in July 1993.

In the later 1990s, however, following Canadian involvement in a number of heavy conflicts such as in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Canadian commitments to UN missions began to decline.

Jack Granatstein, a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, sees the decline in UN troop commitments as a reaction to these conflicts.

“Peacekeeping in the ‘90s almost destroyed the Canadian military,” he said.

During this era, the Canadian Forces engaged in peacekeeping because it was “popular with the public,” said Mr. Granatstein. “They did it because they followed orders, but I don’t think they particularly liked it,” he said.

In contrast, Walter Dorn of the World Federalist Movement’s Canadian branch, sees Canadian peacekeeping numbers in the 1990s declining in parallel with UN numbers. For Mr. Dorn, who teaches defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, the bigger shift actually came in 2006, after the Conservatives won the federal election and took power.

“The UN declined in numbers after the mid-1990s,” he said, “but when it surged in the early 2000s, Canada’s contribution didn’t surge in parallel, and in 2006, we actually declined to one-quarter of the previous years.”

Despite this decline in military numbers, Canada’s emphasis on police officers in UN peacekeeping missions remained steady, even after 2006.

Currently more than 140 police officers are serving in UN and other peacekeeping missions around the world. On average there have been around 100 officers on UN missions at any given time since 1989, with levels reaching more than 150 in the months following the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Canadian police ‘sought after’

Mike McDonald, who is the current Canadian Police Contingent Commander for Haiti, points to the level of esteem with which Canadian police officers are held abroad as an advantage of the police peacekeeping approach.

“Canadian police officers in mission are sought after for many reasons,” said Mr. McDonald. These reasons, he said, include tactical, investigative, and command skills, as well as other core policing skills.

Mr. McDonald also added that the linguistic abilities of Canadian police officers, as well as their experience with community policing, make them an asset in a place like Haiti.

Both Mr. Dorn and Mr. Granatstein also see this as a viable role for Canadians to play internationally.

“As opposed to the military,” said Mr. Dorn, “the police embrace peacekeeping.”

Liberal defence critic John McKay said he supports Canadian police officers serving overseas, saying that “the encouragement of the concept of the rule of law…I think is very worthwhile for us to support.”

Focus on Haiti

Canadian police are deployed to peacekeeping missions abroad through a policy framework called the Canadian Police Arrangement. It’s jointly established by the former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and Canadian International Development Agency (now jointly known as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development), Public Safety Canada, and the RCMP.

“We deploy based on foreign policy objectives,” said Mr. McDonald.

But he also stated that whereas other governing bodies might have diplomatic, economic, or other goals in mind, the RCMP’s primary concern is always domestic security. “A safer failed and fragile state will ultimately lead to a safer Canada,” he said.

With a current ministerial authorization for up to 90 police officers, Haiti is the main focus of the government’s international policing efforts. Canadian police have been operating in Haiti since 1993, and have been a part of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, called MINUSTAH, since it was formed in 2004.

Timothy Donais of Wilfrid Laurier University, whose research focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding, says that while Canadian police presence in Haiti might have been a source of contention in previous years, most Haitians now accept the importance of Canada’s policing mission there.

“Particularly after the [2010] earthquake there was a lot of criticism of MINUSTAH as a peacekeeping force in a country where there’s never really been a civil war,” said Mr. Donais.

For the most part, though, that type of criticism has not been extended to UN police officers, said Mr. Donais, who has visited Haiti several times for research, most recently in February.

“Most objective people would recognize that the long-term objective of building up a professional national police force is an important and essential part of the stabilization and democratization process in Haiti,” said Mr. Donais.

Concerns over deployment levels

Mr. Donais, however, did express concern over the number of police officers the Harper government is currently sending. “Structurally…150 to 200 officers aren’t going to make a huge difference in any particular context,” he said.

“Given its policing heritage and history and the respect with which Canadian police are held…I think that this is somewhere where, if Canada wanted to make a bigger difference, there are certainly ways in which that could be done,” said Mr. Donais.

The government did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

And while Mr. McKay would not comment on whether the Liberals would boost the number of Canadian police officers overseas, he was critical of the government’s attitude towards military peacekeeping.

“I greatly regret the way in which the Harper government has diminished the value and the utility of the military in both peacemaking and peacekeeping,” he said.

UN military troop commitments have fallen under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, from 241 personnel when Mr. Harper first took office in January 2006, to 31 on May 31, 2013.

Mr. Granatstein, however, said that Mr. McKay and the Liberals are “playing to the Canadian public rather than reality” by calling on the Canadian military to play a larger role in international peacekeeping missions.

“The military has been fighting a war—it simply didn’t have the people to do peacekeeping,” said Mr. Granatstein, adding that Canada should “be sensible” about engaging in peacekeeping operations.

“We don’t want to go into every peacekeeping operation just because the Canadian public and the Liberals in opposition think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It has to be suitable for our troops, it has to be a place that serves our national interest, it has to be a place where we’ll be effective.”

A dangerous job

Recent incidents have served to highlight the dangerous conditions under which both police officers and military troops serve in UN missions. On July 13, a UN peacekeeping team in Sudan was attacked, leaving at least seven dead. In January 2010, two Canadian police officers died in the Haitian earthquake.

Mr. Harper made a statement Aug. 9 to mark National Peacekeepers’ Day, saying: “Today, I call on all Canadians to join me in saluting and thanking these heroic and selfless individuals who sacrifice so much to help make the world a better place.”

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