Where Are Canada’s Peacekeepers?

Posted by on Aug 10th, 2010 and filed under Opinion, Recent Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

We need action not only to end the fighting but to make the peace…
— Lester B. Pearson (Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate) in 1956
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EACH year on August 9, Canadians celebrate Peacekeepers’ Day. It was established to recognize the high level of commitment and courage shown by Canadians serving in faraway places in the cause of international peace.

But in 2010 it feels to me that we have much less to celebrate about our contribution to peace – only our legacy from a far more respected past.
For many years, peacekeeping held a place of pride in the Canadian national identity.

Traditionally, Canada was committed to maintaining an equitable middle-ground between large and minor powers; however, today these principles of productive neutrality seem no longer a priority. Canada is now just one of many countries involved in everything but building world peace; in fact recent years have seen a waning of our historic support for UN peace operations and a growing trend toward integration with American military and foreign policy. At UN headquarters in New York, for example, Canada does not provide a single military officer to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Canadian “peacekeepers” are now embedded in NATO forces, conducting counter-insurgency operations as part of the American-led “war on terror.” This slow but steady drift away from peacekeeping has occurred in the obvious absence of an overall strategic direction from Ottawa.

My concern is that the current government is signalling to Canadians and the world that we are now a nation of military might. But it was not Canada’s military might that elevated this nation to the level of respect and exemplary profile we have enjoyed for so long. It was our reputation as honest “peace-brokers” that earned admiration around the world. Sadly, this historic respect is fading with every policy shift that erodes Canada’s former commitment to peace-building.

Indeed, some have emerged who suddenly advocate for military might without realizing that the era of big guns is over. Have we failed to grasp the sorry example of our southern neighbours? If anyone has truly “lost” the past decade’s deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is America and Americans. They lost not only at home, but also abroad.

I know I am not alone in affirming that Canada is not — and never has been — a warrior nation and should not in any way be defined as one. Being identified as peacekeepers and defenders of human rights has been our privilege throughout the 20th century and that should be our continuing commitment in the 21st century and beyond.

Unfortunately, the foreign policies of the current political powers on the Hill have radically changed now and are running contrary to the wishes of rank-and-file Canadians.

It is now time to ask, why not make a renewed effort to balance Canada’s contributions to world peace? The disturbing reality is that the Conservative government’s new introductory booklet on Citizenship mentions “peacekeeping” only as a footnote, as if intentionally ignoring our Golden Age of diplomacy.
As a country rich in peacekeeping heritage, we could support the United Nations in many ways, besides sending only “boots on the ground” as we do today in Afghanistan. We have much more to offer, through (for example) the provision of communications expertise, health and infrastructural innovation and development, specialized civilian and police training, and joint exercises with other peacekeeping nations.
By refocusing on these areas, Canada would not be planning to invest billions of taxpayers’ dollars into unnecessary military and airborne equipment. Instead of adding to the devastation of aerial warfare, we could be instrumental in helping the UN provide early warning of conflict outbreaks, offer security to UN mission staff and protect vulnerable populations, just as we did so effectively in years gone by.

If Canada’s political leadership becomes far wiser than it is now, August 9 each year could again become an occasion for true celebration of Canada’s contribution to peace in the world. But with current Canadian losses in Afghanistan standing at a shocking 151 (as of the date this was written), compounded by numerous victims of war injuries and trauma who do not make headlines, this time of year will serve only as a grim reminder of our collective failure in the cause of peace. Figures released by the federal Department of National Defence (DND) in December 2009 show that the total number of Canadian soldiers injured and wounded in nearly seven years of war had reached 1,442; and that number will be much higher when the annual figures are presented for December 2010. Four Canadian civilians have also been killed, including one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers.

From 2001 until the present moment, the war in Afghanistan has caused thousands of civilian deaths through combined insurgent and foreign military action, as well as tens of thousands of indirect Afghani deaths through the deprivations of displacement, starvation, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment, crime and lawlessness, all resulting from this foreign-led war. The official figure of Afghan civilian casualties for only one year – 2009 – is 2412 which is likely far below the actual toll.
Like so many others, I first heard that this war was about bringing “democracy” and freedom to Afghanistan. But the reality I know is quite the opposite. There is nothing in this war that is good for anyone except arms manufacturers and power-mongers.

Our government should know by now that trading trust for mistrust is a poor exchange. Our government should also know by now that exchanging Canada’s time-honoured role of peace-keeping and peace-making for a brute force military campaign does us immeasurable disservice as a nation.
What more evidence do we need that Canada should NOT be in this war? It is not a question of abandoning Afghanistan or abdicating our international responsibilities. Far from it: we are faced with a question of much greater and nobler urgency – where is our INTEGRITY?

Afghanistan is about — or could be about — Canada’s true place in the eyes of the world as a leader in diplomacy, humanitarian achievements and peace-building. We could once again be the model in modern history of how a democratic nation can help others to implement peaceful and just resolutions.
If we do nothing as a nation, if we maintain the American mantra of Us-against-Them, what will our leaders be saying to the families, friends, colleagues, or fiancées of new soldiers whose chances of being killed increase with every additional deployment than what they are used to? Somehow, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” no longer sounds the least bit reassuring – if it ever did.
Since 1956 over 125,000 Canadians have participated in more than 70 United Nations and NATO peacekeeping missions throughout the world. That is more Peacekeepers than any other country. However, our mission in Afghanistan has become the deadliest. Since 2002, when we got engaged in counterinsurgency Canada lost 151 soldiers, four civilians and has almost 1,500 injured and wounded on the fields of Afghanistan. From 1956 until 2002, Canada lost far less lives than we did in only one mission since 2002 until today. Isn’t this calculation enough?

What will you be thinking about on Peacekeepers’ Day, next Monday, August 9, 2010?
I will be looking for peacekeepers to emerge again and bring us back our tradition and identity of PEACE!

(Canadian Islamic Congress Friday Magazine.)

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