Peter MacKay has written a provocative and useful Policy Options article about the dark side of peacekeeping. While he is mostly wrong on many levels, we should be indebted to him for amassing so many of the straw man arguments in one place.
MacKay suggests that traditional peacekeeping is antiquated and obsolete. What Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Prize for, a mission where peacekeepers stand between warring parties that have agreed to a truce, is no longer the most requested operation type. MacKay is without question correct that this kind of peacekeeping is mostly not what happens these days (although it still has a place). But nobody denies this! Complex, multidimensional, multipurposed modern peacekeeping has been the default framework for a very long time — and at least since the 2000 Brahimi Report on United Nations peace operations. A quick read of the UN Peacekeeping website is warranted for those who think “traditional” peacekeeping is what the UN still mostly does.
MacKay is right in pointing out that the “tragic missions in Somalia (1992-93) and Rwanda (1993-96) drastically undermined the view of traditional peacekeeping.” Indeed. Looking back (25 years later!), it is obvious that UN peacekeeping has evolved as a result. In fact, about half of all missions have started since 1994, and the bulk of these are clearly nontraditional in scope and design. So why not acknowledge that evolution? Why repeat the mythology that peacekeeping is still rooted in a traditional, Cyprus-era model? Nobody argues that tired cliché, except Peter MacKay, a handful of retired generals and certain national newspaper editors. We must wonder about the motivations behind repeatedly reviving a caricature of what peacekeeping is, so many years after the UN has reimagined the tasks, the mission robustness and the rules of engagement for operations.
There is a reason why there are about 100,000 soldiers, police and civilian peacekeepers in the field in more than 15 missions and why their duties are now to “facilitate political processes, protect civilians, assist in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants; support constitutional processes and the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights and assist in restoring the rule of law.” For starters, UN peacekeeping works — not always, but most of the time. And it is undeniably cost-effective. Many of the required tasks are things that NATO (in particular) doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well. Maybe it can’t and shouldn’t do them.
MacKay mentions the “rapid reaction force” promised by Canada at the November 2017 Vancouver peacekeeping summit. This offering shows particular promise for those of us who have for years argued for greater UN standing capacity and a permanent UN Emergency Peace Service. Presumably MacKay’s glib passage over this subject means we shouldn’t want new capabilities at the UN that respond faster, better and earlier, that might enable resolution or suppression of conflicts before they get out of hand and that might save lives and stop mass atrocities. Rapid deployment capability is a potentially major enhancement of the UN toolkit, and it might make certain kinds of NATO intervention obsolete. It deserves serious attention, not MacKay’s dismissive one-liner: “We already have DART” — which in any event confuses humanitarian assistance delivered by the military (and let’s note the necessary caveats) with a timely security response.
Further on, MacKay takes more than a few swipes at the UN writ large and argues in favour of NATO leadership, NATO methods and NATO hard power, military prowess and ballistic missile defence: in other words, NATO instead of the United Nations. Then he writes that military goals and mission choices should “clearly be defined predominantly by the military, overseen and directed by democratically elected bodies.” I think we know where this is heading: “Operational decisions [should not be] thwarted or overtaken by political decisions.” That sounds like the UN handing a military mission over to NATO and then letting it run its course. MacKay is opposed to the continuance of “traditional” peacekeeping, but he is attracted to “muscular missions” like Kosovo, which were “more in keeping with traditional military objectives.” NATO’s Kosovo mission, we shouldn’t hesitate to mention, was judged “illegal but legitimate ” (and how much more chaotic would it have been in the absence of UNMIK, the UN peacekeeping operation, and a heavy presence of UN agencies?).
Civilian authority, as it turns out, is a significant attribute that distinguishes NATO missions from UN missions. What happened in Libya (whether or not one is willing to acknowledge there was wrongdoing) was that a UN-authorized military mission was handed over to NATO. NATO leadership then morphed a civilian protection objective into regime change. There was no real outsider oversight, and UN ownership evaporated. As MacKay puts it, however, “It is speed and lethality in balance that win the day, as in the first Gulf War and Libya.” Who today believes the day was won in Libya and that this was a success story? Libya is what happens when you have a military mission without an overarching political framework to build the peace. This is how we can distinguish a NATO mission from a modern UN peace operation.
MacKay fails to mention the peace process and its fundamental role in conflict resolution and mission success. The peace process is critical, and while it is an unsurprising component of modern UN peacekeeping, it is not (yet) a NATO priority. Surely there’s an omission, at best, when it isn’t referred to in a discussion of peacekeeping pros and cons.
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