China, Russia aim for key UN peacekeeping positions as Canada prepares deployment

Both China and Russia are angling for a bigger say in how and where the United Nations conducts peacekeeping operations, causing an unexpected and politically disruptive wrinkle in the Liberal government’s foreign policy agenda.

Backroom manoeuvring and horse-trading among Security Council members — related to the selection of the new secretary general — could see Beijing put in charge of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, according to multiple sources in New York and Ottawa.

Although no decision has been made, a UN official said he’s heard the rumblings.

“From our perspective, the nationality is less important than making sure whoever leads the department does so in a manner that is competent and helps us to address the very real challenges we have going forward,” said Nick Birnback, the chief spokesman for the peacekeeping operations department.

“It’s a very difficult time for peacekeeping. We’re stretched. We’re deployed in some of the toughest theatres of operation on the planet. And we need somebody who can lead us effectively.”

Similarly, Moscow is apparently aiming to run the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, which plays a central role in preventing and resolving conflicts.  

“We do believe that Russia should be properly represented in the Secretariat,” Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said earlier this week. “We are not the only ones who are expressing our interests in various positions.”

‘China has shown a willingness to engage in peace operations and I think it’s a good opportunity for dialogue’ – Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan

For years leadership of both organizations within the world body have been in the hands of Western nations, specifically France and the United States.

Another UN diplomat, speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the file, said he wouldn’t be surprised if change was at hand, particularly when it comes to the peacekeeping department.

”Head of DPKO is a very important job. It shouldn’t be in the hands of any country indefinitely. You can decide whether 19 years counts as indefinite or not,” said the diplomat. France has been in charge of the peacekeeping department since the 1990s.

Canada and China peacekeeping comrades?

The Liberal government, which campaigned last year on Canada rejoining the ranks of peacekeeping nations, has committed up to 600 troops for international operations and is currently weighing where they should go.

The most likely candidates, according to government sources, are Mali, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There has been some pressure to also commit to a mission in Colombia, but the recent rejection of the peace accord has put Canada`s potential involvement in limbo.

The notion that either China, or Russia, could have greater influence over UN peacekeeping operations is a “huge red flag” for the opposition Conservatives, who are already against the Trudeau government’s re-engagement with peacekeeping.

Russia Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, have held talks about ending the fighting in Syria but critics say Russia’s political involvement at the UN should be limited. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was quick to make a distinction between the two bids and downplayed the suggestion that Beijing’s greater involvement in peacekeeping would somehow be menacing — or a venue for advancing China’s national interest.

“When we work with the United Nations on peace operations, we’re there for that purpose,” Sajjan told CBC News. “China has shown a willingness to engage in peace operations and I think it’s a good opportunity for dialogue.”

But Conservative defence critic James Bezan says China’s human rights record should preclude it from such a critical leadership position at the UN.

“Why would we want to turn peacekeeping operations over to them, when they could turn a blind eye to atrocities where we might have peacekeeping troops?” he said.

UN SUDAN DAFUR

China has deployed 2,600 troops of the 8,000 it has committed to UN peacekeeping operations. Three were killed this year, in Mali and South Sudan. (EyePress/Associated Press)

Another reason to oppose it, according to Bezan, is the dispute in the South China Sea, where an international tribunal recently deemed China’s claim to a vast swath of ocean territory was “unfounded.” The dispute with the Philippines and other nations in the region has increased regional tensions and the Chinese government has effectively said it doesn’t recognize the Hague ruling.

“If they’re not going to follow the international decision as it pertains to the law of sea, why would we  give them any role to play in peacekeeping operations?”

But Sajjan says a peacekeeping relationship is an excellent forum to advance the dialogue with China on human rights.

Walter Dorn, one of the country’s leading peacekeeping experts, says China committed 8,000 troops to UN peace support operations last year when the secretary general issued a plea for greater involvement.

At the moment, it has 2,600 troops deployed and at least three of its soldiers have been killed this year — in Mali and South Sudan.

The Chinese are understandably demanding a larger role, Dorn said.

“It makes a lot of sense given that China has made significant pledges to peacekeeping,” he said.

Reticence on Russia

Russia is another matter, and Dorn says the Canadian government should be paying close attention making its voice heard in the debate.

“Russia is playing by old rules and it’s not putting the international interest first,” he said.

The recent collapse of the Syrian peace initiative and subsequent allegations of Russian aircraft bombing major hospitals in Aleppo make Moscow an unlikely partner.

Sajjan was cool, but diplomatic, in his view.

“They need to demonstrate they want to have a meaningful conversation.” Sajjan said.

“I’m always open for a good dialogue on peace operations, but Russia has not demonstrated this, especially with their actions in Syria.”

The Conservatives say the latest development should give the Trudeau government pause.

“It another sign how naive they are,” said Bezan. “We should only be doing it if we can guarantee that Canadian troops will be under Canadian command, and they’re able to protect themselves and civilians.”

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