OTTAWA — The United States is pressing Canada to commit medical units and drones to United Nations missions at a peacekeeping summit in South Korea next week, and to come up with a 200-strong force first promised four years ago.
The request came in a letter to Global Affairs Canada from the U.S. on the eve of the high-level meeting in Seoul, where U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration wants allies to renew their commitment to peacekeeping.
That includes Canada, where the Liberal government has been criticized for failing to back up promises and rhetoric supporting the UN with an equivalent amount of action.
The Nov. 8 diplomatic note starts by thanking Canada for its history of providing troops and police officers to peacekeeping, including its recent deployment to Mali. It praises Canada for increasing the number of women deployed on UN missions.
It also makes clear that Washington expects Canada to do more.
“We request that Canada commits to providing medical units and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to UN peacekeeping missions,” says the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.
“Additionally, we are aware that Canada committed to providing a quick reaction force to UN peacekeeping at the Vancouver ministerial. We urge Canada to fulfil this promise.”
Canada hosted a high-profile peacekeeping summit — similar to next week’s meeting in Seoul — in Vancouver in November 2017, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the 200-soldier force along with military helicopters and transport aircraft.
That followed two years of lofty promises from the Trudeau Liberals that Canada would return to peacekeeping in a big way, after years of declining involvement under previous governments.
The helicopters were eventually deployed to Mali for a year and the transport planes fly occasional support missions from Uganda. But the quick reaction force has yet to materialize.
Meanwhile, Canada’s total contribution to the UN has sunk to historic lows.
Canada had 57 soldiers and police officers on peacekeeping missions at the end of September, according to the UN. While that was up from the record low of 34 in August 2020, it was still less than half the number when the Liberals took power in 2015.
Richard Gowan, who serves as UN director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organization, said there has long been disgruntlement at United Nations headquarters over the pace of Canada’s contributions – particularly after it lost its bid for a seat on the Security Council.
“Canada made a lot of quite big pledges and then started to slow-walk them,” he said.
“There was always a little bit of a sense that this was Security Council campaign rhetoric. The Trudeau administration probably didn't think it was going to be reminded that it has made these promises, but the U.S. evidently hasn't forgotten.”
The fact Washington has now come calling could result in promises becoming actual boots on the ground, said Walter Dorn, one of Canada’s top experts on peacekeeping at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
“The political will has been so weak on this issue that a push from the United States could make a big difference,” he said.
Yet Gowan also acknowledged the U.S. has its own way to go as it had only 31 blue helmets at the end of September, though it is the largest financial contributor to peacekeeping. Canada ranks ninth.
Officials for Defence Minister Anita Anand, who is expected to represent Canada at the Seoul summit, and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly did not respond to requests for comment.
The Liberal government has previously indicated that it has given itself until November 2022 — five years from the Vancouver summit — to fulfil all three promises: helicopters, transport aircraft and the quick-reaction force.
Earlier this month, Global Affairs Canada acknowledged the importance of UN peacekeeping missions but said in a statement: "Since this pledge was made, global dynamics as well as UN needs have continued to change and evolve."
It added: "Opportunities for a Canadian contribution of a quick-reaction force have yet to be determined."
Observers have previously wondered why it is taking Canada so long to come up with the force, or even register it in the UN’s database of peacekeeping pledges, which is normally the step countries take after making a commitment.
The UN has listed quick-reaction forces as one of several "critical" requirements for peacekeeping missions around the world, saying they were needed to protect civilians and facilitate aid delivery.
Such units have been deployed in recent years to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where they have clashed with different armed groups as the UN has sought to provide security and stability.
In a regular report on its peacekeeping needs, the United Nations said in September that while it needs eight quick-reaction forces, only three had been pledged and registered in its database.
One reason the Biden administration is pressing western allies to do more is because China has promised potentially thousands of troops to future UN peace operations, Gowan said.
“U.S. officials are nervous that Beijing may want to get more influence over UN peacekeeping and sort of exploit UN peace operations to advance its interests in Africa, in particular,” he said.
“The Biden administration would actually like to see its friends, such as Canada or … more U.S. allies leading the way in terms of UN peacekeeping rather than leaving it to the Chinese."
China had more than 2,200 peacekeepers deployed on UN missions at the end of September, making it the 10th-largest troop contributor. It is also the second-largest financial contributor after the U.S.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press