Peacekeeping is no job for ordinary soldiers

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Photo: Cpl. Janessa Pon​

Peacekeeping always seems like a good idea at the time, then it tends to go awry. It did right from the start when Canada's Lester B. Pearson proposed a UN force to resolve tensions in the Mideast in 1956, after Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. Pearson got the Stanley Cup -- I mean, the Nobel Peace Prize -- for it, and probably became prime minister as a result six years later.

Even that didn't go smoothly. Pearson wanted Canadian troops as part of the force but the Egyptians gagged when they heard names like the Queen's Own Rifles and Princess Patricia Light Infantry, with a little Union Jack on the then-Canadian flag, the Royal ensign. They'd just been blasted by Royal British bombs.

Eventually some more nondescript Canadian logistical forces were deployed instead but that mixed bag quality has endured. General Lewis Mackenzie was the Canadian in charge of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia in the early 1990s. He's been critiqued for non-impartial behaviour by both Canadians and Bosnians. General Romeo Dallaire was UN commander during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and has been relentlessly eloquent about his own failure, even as others praised him.

The UN force, including Canadians, sent to Haiti in 2004, after a coup ousted a democratically elected president, "stabilized" (the UN's term) that shameful outcome while repressing popular movements, according to Canadian and other critics. It acted as an arm of U.S. policy, facilitating privatization. UN troops' behaviour led to an outbreak of cholera and involved sexual abuse.

The low point of Canadian UN peacekeeping was the 1993 Somalia affair. An "elite" unit, with a history of white supremacist influence, imprisoned and tortured to death teenager Shidane Arone (there were burn marks on his penis) while others overheard and played on their Game Boys. There were sundry cover-ups as Canadian journalists dug the story out, then a dismissal of the official inquiry by PM Jean Chrétien before it could finish its work. The unit was disbanded. That isn't exactly what Pearson had in mind.

Sexual abuse is at the top of this rapsheet. The numbers are stunning -- and undercounted: 2,000 allegations between 2005 and 2017; 99 in 2015, a jump to 145 in 2016; 55 charged in the first six months of 2017 (Al Jazeera). The normal, decent Canadian response to this stuff is: What the hell's going on? These are noble UN peacekeepers, dedicated to helping others, they wear those soothing, benign blue helmets.

A paper by U of T undergrad Daphne Wang that I happened come across last year had a great answer. She said, more or less (in my reading of her): Well, what did you expect? These are soldiers. They're trained, like soldiers everywhere, to be aggressive and able to kill. ("Killing is what it's basically about," said a former officer I knew, who was old enough to recall the Second World War.) They inhabit a patriarchal, hierarchical milieu, with little space for sensitized, much less feminist, responses. They receive relatively astronomical UN-level wages to offer desperately poor local women for sex, and if abuse occurs they're unlikely to be charged, due to legal arrangements that shield them.

In this light, the problem may be that, while peacekeeping is a military task, it's no job for ordinary soldiers, with their traditional skills, such as killing, conquest, rape and pillage -- killing being the most justifiable. Conventional soldiers "keeping the peace" could be as fatuous as the obscene "war to end all wars" was.

It seems to me that the original idea of a UN force, implied -- even if not explicitly -- something else: an actual UN-based contingent of peacekeepers, not just briefly lent by member states. It paralleled the hope that the UN might evolve into an embryonic world government, rather than a grumpy consortium of states.

And in that light, Justin Trudeau's seemingly minor and not very costly idea of at least starting to "feminize" the process may be the best component in the constricted menu he presented as his peacekeeping policy this week.

He reneged on almost everything else, like total numbers and naming where they'd go, as he's done with most policies he once promised. But apparently most Canadians like the idea of peacekeeping -- who wouldn't?

So it's good politics here at home, though maybe less so for the populations we shuffle off to. The best thing to do with it at the moment might be a good shakeout and rethink.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Cpl. Janessa Pon​

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