10 August 2013

Nation Peacekeepers Day address

I  thought I had posted this someplace already, but it seems not.  I wrote this for delivery to the crowd on National Peacekeepers Day in 2011.  Unfortunately, the day was windy, rainy, and cold, and turnout was poor, consisting of veteran peacekeepers, Our Duty members, and a lone reporter.  Given the conditions, I opted for brevity and shortened this on the spot, but kept the most important bits near the end.

Today being National Peacekeepers Day 2013, I felt I should share.  My opinions have not changed. - JRM

When Lester Pearson first proposed peacekeeping to the UN in 1947, I doubt he realized how much this would impact our national character.  Nor would he have seen the development of an entirely different type of soldier and RCMP officer. 

64 Years ago, faced with a crisis in Israel, Pearson presented the world with a brand new concept, with the idea that soldiers, could be engineers of peace instead of weapons of war.  Through the Israeli conflict and the Korean War, Pearson continued to prove that his idea was reasonable and practical, but it took the Suez Crisis before the world was ready to accept the proposal.  To end Suez, Canada led soldiers from Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, India, Indonesia, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Yugoslavia into Egypt with the goal of stopping the belligerents from fighting, with force if need be.  The United Nations Emergency Force - UNEF - became the first real peacekeeping mission.  And it would not have occurred, had not a balding, bespectacled, round-faced, son-of-a-methodist minister had the vision that soldiers could bring peace. 

In the decades since, despite our relatively small and frequently under-equipped military, Canada has led the world in peacekeeping.  Canada has been a significant contributor to missions in:

the Middle East,
West Sahara,
Central Africa,
East Timor,
Sierra Leone,
Democratic Republic of Congo,

And it is a well known fact that, regardless of where the troops come from, a Canadian is wanted to lead any peacekeeping mission.  Such is the legacy of Pearson. 

There is more to peacekeeping than saying “Please stop fighting” - It takes a special individual to fill this role.  Aggression is at the core of the human animal.  To hold one’s own aggression in check, in the teeth of conflict and chaos, requires depth of understanding, determination of will, and total dedication to the mission. 

Such qualities set peacekeepers apart from the rest of us, but if we are not diligent when planning their missions, those virtues will destroy those who serve.

In 1993, Canada sent General Romeo Dallaire to lead the United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda.  At its conception, UNAMIR was to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Peace Agreement.  The UN’s role was to witness the parties peacefully settle their differences through powersharing.

But in spring of 1994, in the middle of chaos and insanity, General Dallaire was ordered to do the impossible: to maintain the original mission and rules of engagement.  To stay uninvolved.  To only fire when fired upon.  Despite Dallaire’s arguments and reports of mass murder, he was ordered to stay out of the conflict - he was there to bear witness.  Dallaire did as he was ordered.  General Romeo Dallaire bore witness to 800 thousand deaths in 100 days.  He witnessed a genocide because that is what we ordered. 

The special qualities of the peacekeeper - understanding, determination, dedication - turned against Romeo Dallaire when we required him to place duty above principle.  We asked him to do the impossible.  And one thing we SHOULD know is that when you ask the impossible of a Canadian Peacekeeper, they deliver.  Dallaire delivered and suffered.  We destroyed a peacekeeper with his own virtues.

From Pearson’s idea to Dallaire’s ideals, we see the transformation of the peacekeeper from fighting man to defender of humanity.  What Dallaire understood - what you fellow peacekeepers understand - is that peacekeeping is not like national service.  Soldiers and police serve their country, caring for and defending their citizens.  Peacekeeping is vastly different.  You are not police, for often there are no laws to enforce.  You are not warriors, for there is no war to win.  The people involved are not your people. 

Peacekeepers serve humanity.  Humanity without division by nation or ethnicity, skin colour or language, religion or politics. 

Peacekeepers serve a principle.  A principle that transcends national interests.  A principle that goes beyond borders.  The principle that peace is not an ideal, but attainable, for all people.

You who have been peacekeepers, and those who were before, and those who will be later, know that to serve as a peacekeeper is to put yourself in harms way for that principle.  You serve to protect the innocent and to calm belligerents.  Peacekeepers are there to bring reason to the unreasonable, to bear witness to the unbearable, and to be human amongst the inhumane.  You are willing to sacrifice yourself in the name of humanity.

Therefore, on behalf of humanity, I want to thank those who are here and those who could not be, for your service, your dedication, and your sacrifice.  You have made the world better and the world thanks you for that.

(Coverage of that day can be found here.  Thanks to Ashley Fitzpatrick for turning out, not only with notebook, but also with video.)

To find out more about peacekeeping,
visit the UN.