On November 15, speaking at the Vancouver meeting of defence ministers from countries participating in United Nations peacekeeping, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his message: “We believe in peacekeeping.” He then announced the Canadian contributions to UN peacekeeping.

Jocelyn Coulon, who was an adviser to former Foreign Minister StĂ©phane Dion, called the announcement a “big disappointment” and “a policy without ambition.” It certainly upset anyone who believes in the usefulness of contributing to what is, after all, an essential international instrument for conflict resolution.

But let’s start at the beginning: what about the commitments made by the Prime Minister?

Smart pledges

The Canadian military contribution will be limited to tactical air support (one plane) for the UN Regional Service Centre in Entebbe, Uganda, for 12 months. The Prime Minister also announced the deployment of a 12-month helicopter task force and a 200-person rapid reaction force. The target of 600 soldiers and 150 police officers, promised in 2016, will be reached over the next five years, he says.

There is no doubt that the UN needs airplanes, helicopters and sometimes rapid reaction forces, but Ottawa has not yet decided where and under what mandate the helicopters and the rapid reaction force will be deployed. What have been announced are scatters of modest and low-risk (to the Canadian government) contributions over various theatres of operation.


Canada will deploy a new support and training team for a “partner country” while participating in the “activities” of UN schools and training centres. This announcement is surprising because, as far as we can tell now, it does not propose anything new.

Indeed, through the Military Training and Cooperation Program established in 1963, Canada has a long history of contributing to the training of peacekeepers and military personnel from contributing countries, particularly in Africa, in collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). The announcement lacks all the important details. It is impossible to know if this is supposed to transform old practices or if and how Canadian contributions will stand out from the many other training programs out there.

Child soldiers

The recruitment and use of child soldiers is widely condemned by the international community. Thanks in particular to UNICEF, the 1997 Cape Town Principles and the 2007 Paris Principles highlighted strategies for preventing the recruitment, demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers. But so far, efforts have been confined almost exclusively to the rehabilitation and reintegration of these children.

The Prime Minister has the ambition to end the recruitment of child soldiers. How? By promoting the Canadian Armed Forces’ doctrine on child soldiers and by providing training based on that doctrine. The doctrine states that soldiers must “defuse confrontations” and target adults first to induce the children to surrender. To prevent the recruitment of children, soldiers must monitor the areas suitable for recruitment. The presence of women in army ranks is also favoured in order to win the children’s trust.

This is still a military training perspective and commitment, but one based on a debatable logic. The link between the training and the desired effect is not clear: how will training offered to peacekeepers have an impact on the problem of child soldier recruitment by armed groups? The objective is laudable, certainly. Yet, it has little to do with UN peacekeeping per se because the issue of child soldiers arises on all, or almost all, battlefields, whether UN peacekeepers are there or not.

The Elsie initiative

This initiative seeks to support efforts to increase women’s participation in UN peacekeeping. Currently, women represent 3.7 percent of military and 9.5 percent of police personnel deployed. Security Council Resolution 2242 wants to double the numbers by 2020.

How will Canada contribute to this effort? It will provide $6 million to help “some UN missions” and it will launch a global fund with an investment of $15 million. Again, no detailed information has been presented to explain how the money will be spent. The total of $21 million seems very little to meet a major global challenge, while the one thing certain is that such a program can only have an impact over the long term.

Do you believe?

After nearly two years of procrastination, the government had to make an announcement in Vancouver to save its diplomatic credibility. Certainly, the UN will welcome any contribution, however limited. Undoubtedly, the Elsie initiative and the child soldier project are laudable and they polish Canada’s image as a “good international citizen.” However, the commitments do not meet any urgent UN need, pose no risk to and require little investment from the Canadian government, which will limit their impact.

The contrast with military contributions in Latvia, Ukraine and the Middle East is striking. To defend its lack of ambition, its very modest contribution and its risk management approach, the government deployed all the clichés: the nature of conflict and of peacekeeping has changed, so-called traditional peacekeeping does not exist anymore, peacekeeping does not really work and it is actually dangerous to the peace process, etc.

Can this use of clichĂ©s be explained by Canada’s 20 years of absence from UN peacekeeping? The government should know that the debates on “new wars” began at the end of the Cold War and the ones on peacekeeping since at least the publication of the Brahimi report in 2000. To justify such a modest policy on the basis of these clichĂ©s will only convince those who do not believe in the importance of a Canadian commitment to UN peacekeeping.

The United Nations knows what its priorities are and has made them clear on many occasions, both in its reports and in media interventions, repeating that its most urgent needs are in Mali. If the Canadian government still needs to analyze and debate UN needs and its potential contribution, we must ask what it has been doing for the past two years.

Following its Vancouver pledges, it seems clear that the Liberal government only half believes, at best, in UN peacekeeping.

This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.

Photo: A man walks past the flags of participating nations at the 2017 United Nations Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference in Vancouver, BC, on November 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck.

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Bruno Charbonneau
Bruno Charbonneau is professor and director of the Centre for Security and Crisis Governance at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, and director of Centre FrancoPaix of the Chair Raoul-Dandurand. He is on LinkedIn and Twitter @charbonneau_b.

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