Peacekeeping Is Not Peaceful

Soldiers will almost always face violence, even when deployed as peacekeepers.
By: /
June 13, 2012

In recent weeks, folks have argued on that violence is ebbing, and that we need to focus more on humanitarian intervention. This coincides with a story that suggests that the Liberal party still yearns for a return to peacekeeping as opposed to war fighting. Unfortunately, the Liberals long for a past that really did not exist. Peacekeeping missions have always risked violence, and we will continue to see violence in the future, even if less than before. The key factor that needs to be considered, which is frequently ignored, is this: When it comes to peacekeeping efforts, the enemy forces have a say in how things play out – and theirs is the deciding vote.

What does this mean?  In any conflict that peacekeepers might enter, there are multiple sides and usually more than one set of actors hostile to the accord. (After all, if an agreement produced consensus, there would be little need for outsiders to intervene.) These “spoilers,” as they are known, may or may not resort to violence, but the threat that they may do so means that the outside interveners must be prepared to be violent themselves. This is basic deterrence logic: You need to be able to threaten to impose costs to deter a potential aggressor, AND you need to use force if deterrence breaks down.

The dramatic failure of the UN mission in Rwanda as the genocide started was partly due to the weakness of the UN peacekeeping effort. The genocidaires chose to be violent, voting for war against the rest of Rwanda. They started it off by killing a number of peacekeepers. As the UN mission was poorly equipped, it did not defend itself, nor did it protect anyone else. Indeed, the lesson drawn by potential spoilers from Mogadishu and Rwanda is this: Start by killing the peacekeepers, who may then flee.

Those nostalgic of past peacekeeping forget the violence the Canadians not only faced in such circumstances, but also deployed. In Croatia, the Canadians battled with the Croatian army, which was engaged in war crimes against the Serb populace. This was the biggest battle Canada fought between the wars in Korea and Afghanistan. History suggests, then, that peacekeeping has always been a violent enterprise, and it is probably more so these days, as spoilers learn from Somalia and Rwanda. 

Yes, Jennifer Welsh is correct that there is less civil war than there used to be, but part of that is due to the interventions that have ended conflicts around the world – in Cambodia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and elsewhere. And less civil war does not mean no civil war. The last year should at least have taught us that there are enough authoritarian regimes still around that repression and civil war are not obsolete. Civil wars in Libya, Syria, and other countries where the Arab Spring was not so successful demonstrate quite clearly that there is still demand for intervention. Supply? Well, that is another story.

In evaluating its current strategy and planning for the future, the Canadian government needs to be aware of several factors:

  1. There remain deep splits within countries over how to govern and who is to be governed;

  2. Even where agreements are signed, there will be actors who will either be tempted to change the terms or obsessed with doing so;

  3. These actors can look to the recent past to see that violence against peacekeepers can work; and

  4. Peacekeepers need to be ready to deploy violence. Otherwise, safe havens are neither safe nor havens.

The only way for the Canadian Forces to be deployed without the threat of violence is in response to natural disasters, as in the cases of Japan, Haiti, and the like. While these were good uses of military forces, they were exceptional. In nearly every other case, there will be potential adversaries, who, with their deciding vote, will have the power to choose violence.

Photo courtesy of Reuters