The case for Canadian peacekeepers in Colombia

After two weeks of ups and downs, the Colombian peace process marches on. Canadian peacekeepers should be there to help it succeed. 

By: /
October 14, 2016
Supporters of the peace deal signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels gather at Bolivar Square during a "Silent March" in Bogota, Colombia, October 5, 2016. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

It has been quite the few weeks for the Colombian peace process.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, a peace agreement that would have effectively ended half a century of conflict between the FARC insurgency and the Colombian government was surprisingly shot down by the Colombian electorate.  A plebiscite seeking popular support for the agreement was rejected by about half of voters, showing how deeply polarized Colombian society has become regarding the peace process.

By Monday morning, four years of negotiations were in limbo; neither government negotiators nor the FARC had planned for such a scenario. An emboldened opposition, led by strongman and former president Alvaro Uribe, demanded a say in the peace process. President Juan Manuel Santos met with friend-turned-foe for the first time in six years in a remarkable effort to save the peace agreement.

Then, on Wednesday, in an unprecedented display of public support, thousands marched dressed in white to express their desire for peace, despite the surprising results of Sunday’s referendum. Friday, the Nobel Committee granted Santos the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Colombia. The prize gave Santos and the peace agreement a breath of fresh air and signalled the international community’s continued support for the process. 

Finally, last Friday night, a joint statement from FARC and government negotiators stated the parties’ continued commitment to the process, the extension of a bilateral cease-fire and the FARC’s willingness to talk to sectors of society opposing the peace deal. The peace negotiators also requested that UN peacekeeping be implemented, despite Sunday’s setback. 

We should not have expected any less from the land that gave us magical realism.

Now that the Colombian peace process is back on track, Canada needs to seriously consider sending peacekeepers. The Liberal government has been somewhat ambiguous on exactly which countries or conflicts will Canada commit troops and money to. However, the talk of the town indicates that it will most likely be a country in Western Africa or Colombia. The list of countries allegedly under consideration in Africa includes Mali, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger.

Mali seems likely. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was in Ethiopia when the announcement of an upcoming Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOP) was made in August; he also made stops in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the DRC, further fuelling speculation. A government delegation was sent on a reconnaissance mission to Mali. During the trip, Canadians met with counterparts from the Malian government, as well as commanders of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, as it is known. Canadian officials have popped up in France to supposedly discuss collaboration in a Mali mission.

On the other hand, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was present during the peace-signing ceremony between Colombian authorities and FARC rebels on Sept. 26, barely a week before the plebiscite vote struck the agreement down. The DND had previously confirmed Colombia was one of the countries under consideration, and Canada recently pledged $21 million to peace initiatives there, yet no formal peacekeeping commitment to either Mali or Colombia has been made.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government committed to spending $450 million and deploying 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel to UN peacekeeping operations through their newly minted PSOP. At an event to mark NATO’s 50th anniversary in Toronto this week, Minister Dion also announced that Canada would host an international peacekeeping summit in 2017, as a follow-up to the one in London earlier in September. 

In other words, peacekeeping appears to be top of the government’s foreign agenda.   

The case for Colombia

This week, Colombia has shown the country’s commitment to achieving peace. Despite political differences and a deeply polarized society, Colombians have proven that they are willing to put aside differences and sit down at the negotiating table. Simply put, there is peace to be kept in Colombia.

The Colombian government has relatively strong institutions and a professional army subservient to the civilian government. Colombia has strong ties to Canada in other areas , which should make collaboration across departments more effective. For example, the two countries have had a free trade agreement in place since 2011, and Colombia was one of DFATD’s (now Global Affairs Canada) key bilateral partners under Stephen Harper’s rule. More recent high-level meetings highlight the continued relationship: Prime Minster Trudeau and President Santos met and discussed collaboration at the margins of the signing ceremony of the Paris climate treaty in New York in April.

Mexico has already offered to collaborate with Canada in a possible mission to Colombia in the near future and Canada has relatively strong ties and a good rapport with other nations involved in the Colombia peace process, such as Cuba and Chile.

The mission requested by Colombia will be a monitoring and unarmed mission to guarantee successful disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of FARC rebels back into Colombian society. Soldiers and observers will be mostly out of harm’s way.  Nevertheless, the situation in Colombia is still complex, with far-right groups, narco-terrorist organizations and other guerrillas vying for control of areas abandoned by the FARC. Furthermore, paramilitary organizations have been accused of targeting civilians and victims perceived to have collaborated with the leftist insurgency. A stronger intervention is not out of the question.

Countries like Mali or Burkina Faso may not be in any less need than Colombia. However, if the Trudeau’s government wants a relatively quick and successful mission under its belt, Colombia is the place to be. 

Successful peacekeeping

Creating a long lasting peace, one that will endure external and internal shocks, is incredibly difficult. Breaking the cycle of violence, addressing the ravages of war and building a post-conflict environment are herculean tasks.

James Cohen recently wrote for this site on the complexities of modern peacekeeping, and how vastly it differs from, for example, the peacekeeping in Cyprus led by Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s. Today, a peacekeeping mission is not just about stopping rebels from shooting at government forces and vice-versa (known in policy circles as ‘negative peace’). Modern peacekeeping entails aspects of state building, capacity training, addressing victims and refugees and economic development. Collaboration across departments such as Public Safety, DND and Global Affairs is crucial for any mission to succeed.

Ideally, Canada should not shy away from situations of hardship and uncertainty. The fact is that recent incursions abroad have provided Canada with experience in complex conflict ecosystems. Take, for example, the Canadian Armed Forces mission in Afghanistan, where some aspects of state-building were attempted. In Mali, the Canadian military’s professionalism and French-language skills set it apart from other nations. This is not about the danger to Canadian troops, as the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark frames the mission — our forces are well-seasoned and experienced — but it is about the best mission for civilians, the army, and the international community. 

Peacekeeping now needs a win

Some UN missions have not delivered on their promises, with peacekeeping in Haiti, Darfur and South Sudan failing to stop the worst of the violence or hold very fragile agreements in place. Peacekeepers have been marred by allegations of abuse and corruption against victims and individuals at risk. Amnesty International has gathered substantial evidence of widespread sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable individuals (including children) in CAR, and the New York Times has called peacekeepers’ conduct “sickening.”

Despite mass atrocities committed in Colombia, the conflict does not inspire the virulent ethnic and racial divisions that others have. The East-West schism (for lack of a better term) is not as marked and pervasive as in other places of the world. There is more room for development and capacity building in Colombia, where there is good faith and hope for the future. Revista Semana, an influential weekly local periodical, published an extremely enthusiastic and optimistic headline when the announcement of a UN mission to Colombia was made. In Colombia, Canadian soldiers will be "met with open arms," it read. 

Given the difficulties in modern peacekeeping and the tarnished image of Pearson’s gift to the world, Canada should work hard to improve the image of UN peacekeeping.  The current government has indicated its interest in doing so. And now, peace in Colombia holds a symbolism not found elsewhere. The 54-year-old Colombian insurgency is the last war remaining in the continent and it is one of the oldest active conflicts in the world. By granting the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos, the international community has invested in the success of the negotiations. 

In a year marred by increased violence, xenophobia and the spread of conflict, the world needs peace in Colombia to hold. Canada can help deliver this win.