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The end of Canadian peacekeeping?

Canada’s peacekeeping forces are “down to a busload” because waging a different sort of mission in Afghanistan has so thinned the ranks of troops available.

And that may hurt how Canada is perceived in the world, says Joan Broughton, Public Information Officer at the United Nations Association of Canada, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on informing and engaging the Canadian public in UN programs and missions.

Broughton says the mission in Afghanistan does not ask troops to simply mediate but requires them to actively end a conflict. As a result, Canada has left its peacekeeping role behind for the much more contentious duties of a “peacemaker.”

“When you get involved in a situation like Afghanistan where there are significant political implications, you are clearly taking one side over the other,” said Broughton. “Peacekeepers by definition are neutral. They don’t take sides . . . and the fact that we have chosen to deploy most of our military forces into peacemaking instead of peacekeeping is a choice we’ve made as to where we will put our focus.”

“Canada has always provided relatively huge numbers for UN peacekeeping operations, and we are now down to a busload,” said Broughton.

The Canadian government acknowledged that the UN is in sore need of troops when Ambassador John McNee, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, addressed the Security Council in January. But McNee made no promises to contribute troops.

“We must be cognizant of the strengths, but also the limits of peacekeeping operations, and only mandate those missions that have reasonable prospects of achieving results,” said McNee. “The international community must be realistic about what is achievable within the resources we are willing or able to provide.”

Instead of pouring the majority of military expertise into UN peacekeeping operations, as in the past, the Canadian government has opted to concentrate its resources in the NATO-led, UN-sanctioned operation in Afghanistan, where approximately 2,500 Canadian troops are currently deployed. The large-scale mission has drained Canada’s already limited army reserves and few troops are left for other commitments.

“I think there are probably some situations where one might argue that there could be Canadian forces usefully sent,” said Broughton. “But, from the Forces’ view, they’re already stretched too thin. It’s simply an inability to be everywhere.”

But although the operation in Afghanistan is not a peacekeeping mission by definition, the Canadian government maintains that a commitment to peace underlies Canada’s involvement in the conflict.

“The fundamental commitment to peace and improving the lives of others remains a cornerstone of Canada’s foreign policy,” said McNee during his address and went on to say that Canada’s presence in Afghanistan is “a part of this commitment.”

Ray Kokkonen, president of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans’ Association, stresses how important peacekeeping is to Canadian veterans and the pleasure they derive from their service.

“People are very, very proud of it,” said Kokkonen. “It’s an honour to wear the blue beret.”

This pride is shared by many Canadians. It stems from a long history of heavy involvement in United Nations peacekeeping that, over the years, has become Canada’s trademark in the international community. In the last 60 years, Canada has contributed over 120,000 troops, taken part in nearly every UN peacekeeping mission and, along the way, earned respect both at home and abroad.

But only 126 Canadians are currently on UN peacekeeping missions, according to the most recent available UN data. Canada, once a major contributor of troops, has dropped to 55th place on the list, and now lags behind France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Mariana Ionova writes for the The Ryerson Free Press at Ryerson University. This item is drawn from a story distributed by Canadian University Press.

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