A cool blackness still envelops this rocky Mediterranean island at 6 in the morning, as the Canadian Contingent is rising and preparing itself for a day of soldiering. The sounds of waking, brushing, boot-polishing, bed-making and soldierly banter fill the air, as the Canadian branch of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus prepares to pull itself into an orderly rank and make its long daily journey into the buffer zone.
First, though, there are some distinctly non-combatant matters to be dealt with. There is the matter of the Canadian Contingent’s children, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, who have to be ushered off to school. There is the Canadian Contingent’s wife, who might want to discuss matters involving swimming lessons, a long-postponed scuba-diving trip and the progress of homework. There is the Canadian Contingent’s white UN jeep, whose awkward right-hand drive the Canadian Contingent curses as he makes his winding way to the base in the warm light of dawn.
Inside the village of aging brick barracks that makes up the UN base in Nicosia, Captain Alain Chabot drives past the other national contingents. There’s a Hungarian Club, where 84 soldiers drink their brandy into the night; and an even larger shack, marked with a bright-coloured sign, where the 299 Venezuelan soldiers and military police hang out. But CANCON, as Alain Chabot’s contingent is known, does not have a Canadian Club. Not any more.
“The guys here joke about it a bit,” the 35-year-old Quebec City native laughs. “They call me the Contingent of One. But I think they’re envious because at least I don’t have a lot of bureaucracy to deal with here.”
More than 25,000 Canadian soldiers have travelled to Cyprus to wear the blue helmets and berets of the United Nations peacekeeper since the conflict there began in 1964 — the largest contribution Canada has made to any single military mission since the Second World War. Today, though, our official contribution has come down to one guy, Capt. Chabot.
A no-nonsense soldier who waves off the Ottawa-centred mysteries of his position, he finds nothing terribly odd about his solitary posting here. “I suppose it’s a political decision — I don’t know, I guess they decided that we should continue to have a Canadian presence here.”
Canada now claims to have peacekeeping missions in 10 countries. But of our 2,756 troops abroad, at least 2,300 are part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which is not at all traditional peacekeeping — in which politically neutral soldiers keep combatants apart, monitor buffer zones, and mediate in disagreements — but rather an aggressive, “robust” mission of a new sort known as peace support or peace enforcement.
On these missions, the soldiers aren’t neutral, and they can keep the peace by shooting bad guys. Canadians are now well aware of this: In the past few months, 18 Canadians have returned home in body bags, most recently 26-year-old Capt. Nichola Goddard, who died on Wednesday.
But Canada is not quite ready to give up on old-style peacekeeping. Because of our promises to the UN and our desire to be seen as part of the solution in at least some of the world’s problems, we keep a foot in the door in many conflicts — though usually just a little toe.
Many of Canada’s obligations have been shaved to the bone: We now have exactly 21 peacekeepers in Bosnia, six soldiers keeping the peace in Haiti, 43 manning the binoculars in various parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories, nine in the Congo, 11 in Sierra Leone. For the honour of being the smallest Canadian contingent, Capt. Chabot is tied with Lieutenant-Colonel Shawn Tymchuk, who personally forms the little-known Canadian UN contingent in Iraq.
This week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a peacekeeping force in the bloody Darfur region of Sudan, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper alarmed some Canadians, including military leaders, by stating outright that Canada wouldn’t be able to contribute a significant force. But that conclusion isn’t new: From the time we pulled most of our soldiers out of the Balkans in late 1995, until Afghanistan, Canada hadn’t had a significant UN force anywhere.
The contrast could not be more dramatic between the deadly hell of Afghanistan and the stately time warp of the Cyprus Green Zone, where a bullet hasn’t been fired in 32 years and the safety warnings issued to soldiers tend to involve sunstroke, alcoholism and venereal disease.
Capt. Chabot understands the difference all too well: He came to Cyprus directly from serving in the dangerous North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in Kabul. Before that, he did two terms in Bosnia with the UN. If peacekeeping is in crisis, its fractures are etched across his résumé. “I’ve done every kind of peacekeeping, peace support, combat, whatever they call it — the two kinds of missions are extremely different, and they both have real challenges,” he says.
Cyprus isn’t at peace. Turkey still refuses to pull its troops out of the north, and the Greeks in the south refuse to endorse a peace agreement that would unify the island. But the conflicts that keep the UN busy tend to involve chest-pounding squabbles over checkpoints and border crossings.
The peace seems to be pretty well kept here. When Capt. Chabot took over the Canadian Contingent last summer, the handover ceremony took place 30 metres beneath the Mediterranean. Both officers were avid scuba divers, and they snapped a picture of the handover of the Maple Leaf flag atop a coral reef. (Capt. Chabot learned diving in the icy waters of Quebec, and has done it on almost all his postings, except Afghanistan.) “It not a posting you complain about,” he says modestly. “It’s also the first time in 10 years I’ve been able to live in the same place as my wife and kids.”
Yet over his career, this solitary Canadian has found himself a central actor in the crises that defined the peacekeeping debate. If you want to understand the roots of this angry showdown between blue helmets and green berets, it might help to spend a day in the no man’s land of Cyprus with Capt. Chabot.
This morning, he is taking a stroll inside the Green Zone, the thick strip of land that cuts off the northern third of Cyprus. In downtown Nicosia, the zone looks like the Berlin Wall, with rifle-toting soldiers guarding barbed-wire emplacements on either side. Over here, near the UN base, are the surreal sights of abandoned jetliners, hangars and the once-sleek 1960s terminal of what had been Cyprus International Airport. Capt. Chabot points out the ghostly sights: “Everything here stopped on the 16th of August, 1974 — it’s just frozen in time.”
On that day, Canadian peacekeepers had already been here for more than 10 years, trying to keep the island’s Greek-speaking majority from driving the Turkish-speaking minority out of government and into subordinate status, and getting caught in the bloody fighting that ensued. At least 26 Canadians have given their lives to this conflict, most in those early years.
In 1974, Greece’s military dictatorship led a coup to take over the island. In response, Turkey seized the northern third of the island on Aug. 16, establishing borders that have barely moved since then. Suddenly, a classic UN peacekeeping mission was in place.
Peacekeeping, in its classic sense, was really born in 1948, when the UN made the infamous decision to allow the division of the world’s two most disputed areas, Palestine and the Indian subcontinent, largely along ethnic and religious lines. To keep the Israelis from the Palestinians and the Pakistanis from the Indians required a new kind of soldier. (Both of those UN missions are still under way.)
This type of activity became known as peacekeeping, and gained its blue-helmet uniform, after hundreds of UN troops were brought in to the Sinai after the 1956 Suez crisis. Peacekeeping was meant to be the opposite of war. It was based on what are often called the “holy trinity” of principles — impartiality, the consent of both parties and the minimum use of force.
These early missions defined the image of the peacekeeper: A couple of blue-helmeted soldiers, in an observation post atop a buffer zone, gazing through huge binoculars for any sign of conflict.
At least 36 such missions had been launched over 47 years, involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers, when a 23-year-old Quebec soldier was shipped out to Visoko, Bosnia, in early 1995. The UN peacekeeping operation in the former Yugoslavia, UNPROFOR, had a seemingly crystal-clear mission: “Monitor ceasefires, assist humanitarian agencies, deter attacks on safe areas.”
In fact, those words are considered by many to be the epitaph of modern peacekeeping. Shortly after Capt. Chabot arrived, the UN’s celebrated impartiality and avoidance of force led to some of the most dire incidents of the post-Cold War world.
In May, Serbian forces had detained UN peacekeepers and chained several of them, including Canadian soldier Patrick Rechner, to ammunition dumps to prevent NATO air strikes. In July of 1995, Dutch UNPROFOR peacekeepers in Srebrenica were forced to stand by as more than 7,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys were dragged out of one of those “safe areas” and summarily shot.
The Canadians, who were camped not far from Srebrenica, were equally unable to act. Many of them were held under siege by the Bosnian Muslim army, which questioned their neutrality and left them without food or water for days, some of them becoming ill.
For Capt. Chabot, who found himself in the centre of this impotent mission with rules of engagement that were often pointless, it was a frustrating lesson.
“It’s really difficult to be caught in the middle of a conflict like Bosnia, where you see one side committing atrocities against the other side and the rules of engagement prevent you from doing anything about it,” he said. “And nobody thought you were neutral. In Bosnia, there was always somebody saying, ‘You’re favouring the other guys.’ … It was a real nightmare.”
It was a nightmare shared by the UN and its member states, and for most of them it permanently changed the notion of peacekeeping. (The genocidal slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans under Canadian-led UN watch in 1994 already had created grave doubts.) “I think Bosnia was a hard learning experience for those of us with the UN,” Capt. Chabot said. “I think the UN had to learn the hard way to handle a major fighting experience like Bosnia.”
By the time he got to Afghanistan in 2004, the Canadian military’s attitude to peacekeeping, along with most of the world’s, had shifted 180 degrees. Impartiality was now seen as a dangerous hindrance, and so was the inability to fight. In the amorphous, stateless conflicts of the new century, the idea of winning the consent of two combatants seemed ridiculous.
When mass murder was at hand, many of the more humanitarian-minded nations now preferred to select the more pointed tool of NATO combat troops, who have no qualms about taking sides or shooting people. Sometimes this has occurred against the will of the UN (as with the NATO mission, including Canadian forces, that finally stopped the Balkan conflicts in 1999). And sometimes the UN has called for these NATO aggressors, as it did in 2001, when it authorized the Afghanistan mission.
This, of course, has created its own dangers. “When things go wrong here,” one NATO official said off the record, “it seems like we have half our troops rebuilding bombed-out bridges to help the civilians, and the other half of our troops blowing up those same bridges to stop the bad guys.”
In the Kandahar region, where the Canadians are posted, the ratio is more like one bridge-builder to five bridge-bombers.
“That’s the 64-million-dollar question,” says Paul Williams, a security analyst at Britain’s Birmingham University, who recently co-wrote a study of peacekeeping. “Can you do peace enforcement and still lead the country to a situation where real reconciliation between the belligerent forces is possible? That’s very hard to say.”
Many governments, not just Canada’s, have become increasingly unwilling to put their forces under UN control in the years since Srebrenica. But in fact the United Nations, too, wants its blue-helmets to become a lot more like NATO fighters. The UN’s 2000 Brahimi Report concluded that “when the United Nations does send its forces to uphold the peace, they must be prepared to confront the lingering forces of war and violence, with the ability and determination to defeat them.”
The UN still observes the “holy trinity,” but now it’s more often in the breach: Blue-helmet soldiers are allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to shoot people. “The traditional operation of a neutral monitor who doesn’t get in the way and doesn’t let civilians get involved is not something that really exists any more — after Srebrenica, those kind of troubles became impossible to ignore,” Mr. Williams says.
Actually, there still remain some places where it’s possible to ignore those problems. If Sri Lanka’s currently intensifying conflict is ever brought to an actual peace agreement, it’s the kind of place in which old-style blue helmets would work perfectly, to mediate a traditional territorial struggle with a fixed boundary line. And Canada, with its long history there, will be pressed to contribute.
And here in Cyprus, where Capt. Chabot has come full circle form the moral collapse of UN peacekeeping to the dramatic rise of NATO’s aggressive peace enforcement to the granddaddy of all peacekeeping missions, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the old concept.
The guys in blue spend their days patrolling the Green Zone in jeeps, chatting with the bored teenagers who make up the Turkish and Greek forces, and catching some sun. At 4, they drive home, where most of them live with their families — a luxury unavailable to most of the new-style peacekeepers.
The open Mediterranean sky gives them lots of room to reflect on the meaning of peacekeeping. Most of the 900 international soldiers here have served elsewhere, and they also have heated debates about their proper role.
The lone Canadian, like many of his colleagues, seems happy to wear any colour of beret.
“I had no problem being in Afghanistan with NATO, and I have no problem being here with the UN,” he says. “There are challenges involved in commanding NATO operations, and equally big challenges in commanding UN operations. Either way, you never run out of problems.
“What you hope is that if you do your job properly, maybe it will help — maybe it will make people’s lives a little bit better.”