The Way Forward in Canada’s Intervention Policy.

litbonanza.jpgIn the wake of complex multidimensional conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, the principle of humanitarian intervention as an effective and robust doctrine is under threat. The misuse of the humanitarian justification in recent wars has cast doubt on not only the principles of intervention but the motives of intervening agents as well. In addition, reckless inaction by those members of the international community who have the capability to stop the violence in some of the worst humanitarian crises around the world, but do not, has threatened the efficacy of the intervention doctrine. Nonetheless, individuals are threatened in many of today’s states and Canada’s Defence Policy Statement emphasizes this point by affirming that individuals are now more at risk “than at any time during the Cold War.” Reflecting Canada’s commitment to the stability of failed states and in furtherance of our economic and national interests, our country has participated in humanitarian interventions along with other like-minded states. We have done so politically through the United Nations and logistically using mechanisms like UN Peacekeeping Operations or, more recently, the UN Standby High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG).

On the issues of human security and humanitarian intervention however, many scholars agree that the efforts made by the UN are glaringly inadequate. In the light of several high profile failures by UN forces to protect civilians, the glacial pace of UN reform, and the ever increasing complexities of conflicts, Canada needs to re-evaluate its approach to intervention. If Canada is to be an effective actor in the prevention of atrocities against civilians, we must take a ‘defence first’ approach and affirm a commitment to take action, with effective mechanisms, even without Security Council authorization in extreme circumstances. Such a change in policy however must reflect Canada’s commitment to multilateral organizations and the principles of broad consensus on any action.

A core philosophy of the Government of Canada’s foreign policy since 1945 has been the support of international peace and security as upheld by the United Nations. Canadians have long considered themselves an important but ‘middle’ power – – one that is a key power-broker in international diplomacy and a ‘fixer’ of issues within multilateral forums. An excellent example of Canada’s influence in international politics was the successful Mine Ban Treaty process. Of course, the work of Canada’s diplomats is only one part of this picture. The Canadian Forces are also a crucial part of Canadian foreign policy with regards to intervention since they are equipped with a wide variety of tools available for use in humanitarian crises. Recognizing the perilous status of individuals in a post-Cold War era, Canada began to focus on human security as a foreign policy objective during the mid-1990s. As part of the Government of Canada’s commitment to human security and the protection of civilians, the Government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in the wake of the Kosovo intervention by NATO. The goal of the ICISS’ report was to develop a doctrine that clearly detailed the responsibility of governments to protect civilians at risk. When a government has manifestly failed to uphold their responsibility to protect, the international community can avail itself of several options to protect those at risk within a sovereign state.

If our intent is to intervene in extreme circumstances to limit pain, suffering, and death then we must respond quickly to threats against civilians. In keeping with the philosophy of the ICISS’ Responsibility to Protect report, Canada should continue to support diplomatic solutions to humanitarian crises and the goals of prevention as outlined in the report. In furtherance of this, Canada has supported the SHIRBRIG and maintains a close adherence to Security Council decisions on matters where force is to be employed against a sovereign state. However in many situations the SHIRBRIG and Security Council have either acted slowly or failed to act at all to protect civilians. Despite this fact, Canada has continued to invest considerable diplomatic effort in the Security Council and development of the human security concept at the UN. Canada should embrace a comprehensive review of this practice and consider five trends in international security when doing so:

– The transformation of the Canadian Forces into a highly mobile and technologically advanced professional military.

– Development of rapid reaction forces outside of the UN like the NATO Response Force (NRF); this has increased the availability of professional forces that can be deployed with little prior notice.

– The underutilization of the institutional investment made by Canada in developing new doctrine and training procedures for humanitarian operations at places like NATO’s Allied Command Transformation; these procedures are important to the evolution of civilian-military interactions in humanitarian operations.

– Importance of coherent and compatible command and control capabilities in multilateral operations given its impact on the success of the protection mission.

– Finally, the advancing capability of belligerents to project power and inflict deadly force warrants the need for professional fighting forces to be attached to complex humanitarian missions

All of these trends complicate the humanitarian environment and the Canadian response to crises.

The Chief of Defence Staff’s Action Teams recently recognized that the requests for Canada to intervene in failed states are unlikely to abate and that our response should be based on the ‘whole of government’[1] approach highlighted in DND’s Policy Statement and in guidance from the Privy Council Office as well as from the Foreign Affairs department. This philosophy is in practice on the ground in Afghanistan, but if Canada is to apply the ‘whole of government’ approach in other international arenas we must consider whether our current support of UN rapid response mechanisms is appropriate. As recently detailed in an issue of the Canadian Military Journal the SHIRBRIG cannot deploy anything but an operational-level headquarters and lacks key transportation and extreme-weather capabilities. In the field, underpowered SHIRBRIG capabilities have led to a false perception that the UN had a true rapid reaction capability. Certainly the UN has failed to respond in a timely manner in cases like Rwanda where, as Shin-wha Lee identified in a recent UN University press book titled Unintended Consequences of Peacekeeping Operations, UN forces lacked discipline and coordination.

Concerns of this nature failed to subside even after the creation of new programs like SHIRBRIG, since the UN has failed to definitively protect civilians in southern Sudan, and Darfur. When Weiss stated in his book, Military-Civilian Interactions, that UN’s management of humanitarian issues has made little practical different during its existence he was certainly not the only researcher to do so. These criticisms aside, the UN has been anything but inactive since September 11th; indeed, many laud the UN for its role in developing an expanded UNIFIL mission and for its continued presence in places like Afghanistan and Kosovo. Regrettably, these missions and others like it do not represent an evolution in UN operational capability. In fact, we cannot help but notice that missions like the new UNIFIL are plainly a traditional peacekeeping mission with UN forces interposed between belligerents.

While Canadians are not only proud of their role in the creation of the UN but also of their role in the first UN peacekeeping force, the nature of the UN’s diminishing capabilities has frustrated Canadian interests in human security. The UN’s version of diplomacy has failed to restrain unauthorized aggression by member states in Iraq, and has not resolved the diplomatic impasse over the future status of Kosovo either. We cannot help but feel that the UN is having trouble performing in both high-intensity crises and low-intensity diplomatic disputes. Considering some of the issues we have discussed here, Canada should consider re-tasking rapid reaction commitments made by the Canadian Forces to alternate organizations. Committing to bolster the NATO Response Force would enhance Canada’s ability to react quickly and meet our requirements for a wide consensus on any humanitarian action. Supporting the NRF with rotations from the Canadian Forces would also ensure that advancements being made in civilian-military cooperation (CIMIC) at the NATO level would be embedded into Canadian missions by way of NRF training. In addition, troops from NATO members are tasked to the NRF on a rotational basis, so the structure of the force ensures automaticity when NATO states agree to deploy the NRF. Working with the NRF would also be the only policy option that would fulfill the five identified trends that are important to the Department, considering NATO’s historical experience in unified command and control and ISAF’s operational experience in integrating humanitarian operations with NATO security forces.

When political guidance from the Prime Minister is clear, Canada should be willing to act through NATO using the NRF to protect civilians. This approach should always be augmented with efforts from other agencies, using the principles of the “all of government” concept, but the speed and brutality of today’s conflicts demand rapid and armed response to humanitarian crises. Canada must act boldly to protect – focused on comprehensive solutions to the crisis of protection, but always keeping a sharp sword at the ready.


1. This can be also referred to as the “all of government” approach by other departments within the Government.

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Gordon C. Hawkins is an undergraduate student in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia. His research and writing interests include international organizations, security and intelligence, humanitarian interventions and the Responsibility to Protect, military transformation, NATO/EU relations, and the foreign policy of Germany. He has represented UBC at many conferences and seminars, including the 2007 CASIS Conference and the 14th Transatlantic Security Academy in Bonn, Germany. He is this year's President of the UBC International Relations Students Association, a post that he will hold until April 2008. In his spare time, which is unfortunately infrequent, Gordon enjoys to travel on his motorcycle and sail - although not at the same time.