They are known as the Blue Berets for their distinctive headgear emblazoned with the seal of the United Nations. And there are about 10,000 of them, from 35 nations, serving in the Middle East, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Of that number, no fewer than 1,300 are Canadians, making the nation a leader of the world’s peacekeepers. As a result, when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced last Thursday that its 1988 award would go to the UN peacekeeping forces, many Canadians took a special pride in the fact. Said Defence Minister Perrin Beatty: “The recognition of UN peacekeeping is really a recognition of the contribution Canadians have made around the world.”
At the same time, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was at UN headquarters m New York City to address the General Assembly. And clearly the announcement of the Nobel Prize was helpful to one of his main objectives: securing for Canada a seat on the 15member UN Security Council for the next two years. For the UN itself, the prize—to be accepted in Oslo on Dec. 10 by Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar—crowned a
year in which the world body dramatically reasserted itself after decades of decline. In a flurry of diplomatic activity over the past few months, the UN had negotiated a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, a ceasefire in the
eight-year Iran-Iraq war and a resumption of negotiations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It had also started a peace process between Morocco and the Polisario Front guerrillas fighting over the disputed Western Sahara and laid the groundwork for South African-ruled Namibia’s transition to independence.
Those efforts by the UN had even won over a once-hostile U.S. administration. President Ronald Reagan—after recently lifting an embargo on the payment of U.S. dues to the world organization—told the General Assembly on Sept. 26 that the string of recent successes had shown “how valuable the United Nations can be.” And in a personal tribute to Pérez de Cuéllar, Reagan added, “We salute you for these accomplishments.”
Three days later, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the normally low-key Pérez de Cuéllar seemed to be elated. He said that it was “one of the most brilliant decisions” ever taken by the prize committee, established in 1901 to administer the bequest of industrialist Alfred Nobel. Meanwhile, reports of the prize were radioed from UN headquarters to peacekeeping units in the field. And in Jerusalem, members of the UN’s longest-lived peace force—the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which was set up in June, 1948, at the conclusion of the first g Arab-Israeli war—cracked open bottles of 2 champagne to celebrate.
£ Canadians have been involved in every UN g peacekeeping effort since 1949 in India. One I of the high points came in 1956, after the
Arab-Israeli Suez war, when Canada’s secretary of state for External Affairs, Lester Pearson, originated the concept of sending a special emergency force to the Middle East—an idea embraced enthusiastically by UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. For his efforts, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
In the 40 years since the UN’s truce supervisory organization was formed, 733 soldiers—of whom 78 were Canadians—have been killed in various trouble spots. That toll does not include the Korean War, in which 312 Canadians died in action. Although fought under the UN banner, that war is officially termed a “police action” rather than a peacekeeping operation.
Still, the most perilous of all UN peacekeeping operations is one in which Canadians are not involved—the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. More than 200 UNIFIL men have been killed on duty. And the word “interim” in its title is regarded by its members as something of a grim joke, because UNIFIL is now more than 10 years old.
For Canada, the longest and most costly involvement has been in Cyprus. Canadians have been represented in Cyprus in at least batallion strength since the force was set up in 1964, to keep the peace between warring Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Cyprus operation has cost Canada, on average, one life for each of the 24 years of its history. At its peak representation, Canada had 1,126 men in Cyprus, and currently there are 570 Canadians in the 2,100-strong, multinational force.
But for all the sacrifice of Canadian—and other—lives, peacekeeping in Cyprus, as elsewhere, is often a thankless task. Whenever there is a flare-up, UN forces tend to be accused by either or both sides of intervening too slowly, ineffectively or one-sidedly. Last July, when a Turkish sniper shot and wounded a Greek Cypriot soldier after he entered the demilitarized buffer zone at night, two Canadian soldiers went to his assistance.
At considerable personal risk to themselves, they administered first aid until an ambulance reached the scene. But the next day, the Greek Cypriot media complained that the UN had failed to prevent the incident and that the wounded man was allowed to lie bleeding for 20 minutes. As the UN’s former chief of peacekeeping operations Sir Brian Urquhart observed in his 1987 memoir, A Life in War and Peace, “In Cyprus, reason and common sense all too often gave way to hatred, fear and fantasy, which often spilled over in preposterous accusations against UN personnel.”
After the Cyprus operation, the UN force with the largest number of Canadians is UNIIMOG, the Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group, which includes 520 Canadians out of a total of 850 men—no women—from 24 countries. Fifteen of the Canadians are observers; the rest are men from the 88 Signals Regiment, headquartered at Petawawa, Continued on page 34
Ont., who run a communications network for the observers on both sides of the ceasefire line. Those signallers will soon start returning to Canada—most could be home for Christmas—and will be replaced by civilian members of the UN Field Service staff. UN officials say that Canada’s alacrity in making its signallers available and getting them on the spot in record time was an essential element in the success of the Gulf war ceasefire, which went into effect on Aug. 20. Said Defence Minister Beatty last week: “The UN has told us that if it weren’t for Canada, UNIIM0G would not have been a go.”
Other units in which Canadian troops are serving under the UN flag include the 50strong mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has five Canadians; the 1,330-member disengagement observer force on the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, which has 220 Canadians; and the 295-strong truce supervisory unit, headquartered in Jerusalem, with 22 Canadians. As well, 140 Canadians are serving with an international observer force of 2,500 that monitors observance of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty in the Sinai Desert, but it is not a UN operation.
Meanwhile, Canada’s involvement in peacekeeping is likely to be expanded if current negotiations over the future of Namibia and the Western Sahara are successful. The UN is planning to send large forces of men to each territory, and Canada is ready to contribute more than 500 men to each force. The Namibian operation is expected to begin first. A team of 20 UN experts, including two Canadian military officers, is expected to leave soon to study housing, communications and logistics requirements for the UN Transition Assistance Group for Namibia, which will include 7,500 soldiers and 2,500 civilians.
That force could be moving into place in November if South Africa, Angola and Cuba reach agreement in current talks on the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and South African forces from Namibia. And indications are that those negotiations are going well. Said Gen. Antonio dos Santos Franca, leader of Angola’s delegation to the latest round of talks in Brazzaville, Congo, last Thursday: “We are at the door of a deal.”
Now, with another settlement pending in another trouble spot, the importance of the UN in monitoring regional peace agreements may become even more evident. Yet by their very nature, peacekeeping operations still lack glamor and excitement—unless they go seriously wrong. As Canada’s Brig.-Gen. John Maclnnis, director general of Military Plans and Operations, told Maclean’s last week, “The essence of successful peacekeeping is that nothing happens, and when no incidents occur, there is no news.” For that reason, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded served as a dramatic reminder of just how valuable a service the Blue Berets render in the world’s trouble spots.
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