Over 70 countries and organizations, including 550 international delegates, gathered at Vancouver’s Convention Centre to discuss improvements to UN peacekeeping operations on Nov. 14 and 15. The 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial Conference hosted representatives from the European Union, the African Union, NATO, and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.

Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Howard E. Grant of the Musqueam First Nation, and Squamish Nation Councillor Chris Lewis greeted the audience on behalf of their Indigenous relatives. “We welcome you to the unceded territory that we share. We want to [acknowledge] your efforts around recognizing Indigenous peoples not only in Vancouver, [but] all Indigenous peoples around the world,” said Lewis.

Lewis described how with deep kinship ties, in times of conflict and war long ago, their peoples “banded together to ensure that this place known as Vancouver was our place.” Showing a sense of openness despite past conflicts, he added, “As was told by our elders, we are rich for your presence, having you here on our land.”

Modernizing ‘peacekeeping’

The conference was hosted by Canada’s minister of national defence, Harjit Sajjan — a Liberal MP who represents the Vancouver South riding — who further acknowledged the history of the ancestral lands holding the peacekeeping discussions.

“This is not the peacekeeping of the past. We need to modernize peacekeeping. But we need to learn from each other, from our respective experiences,” he said upon commencement of the meetings.

“Peacekeeping has for decades occupied a prominent place in the Canadian identity. But as we all know, the nature of peacekeeping and the scope of the threats to global stability are changing.”

Arguing that UN missions are about protecting civilians, Sajjan queried what must be done differently in order to ensure this happens in areas of ongoing conflict. “In the face of [an] extraordinary and evolving challenge, we must ask ourselves, ‘What can we do better? What must we do differently … to better protect the safety of those at risk?'”

The Vancouver South MP closed with a message to his fellow defence ministers. “I say we need to be frank about what is working and what is not. We need a deeper understanding of the root causes of conflict, including crime and a lack of opportunity. In pursuit of better results, we need to be willing to try new approaches and embrace innovative solutions.”

Other prominent figures in attendance included General Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff of the Canadian Armed Forces; retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie.

Honouring Major Pearl Block

South Africa’s Major Seitebatso Pearl Block was named UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year for her work assisting women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Major Seitebatso Pearl Block
United Nations

Created in 2016, the award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security.

Major Block spoke about the role women can play in making the United Nations more responsive and inclusive. A UN press release described her service:

Serving as an Information Operations Officer with the United Nations Stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) from July 2016 to July 2017, Major Block developed a Mission-wide SMS campaign on conflict-related sexual violence to reach communities who would otherwise not be easily accessible.

Based in the eastern city of Goma, Major Seitebatso interacted extensively with Congolese women, men, girls and boys to better understand their concerns. She invested her personal time to train fellow staff officers and troops to be more aware of gender dynamics within the peacekeeping mission. This led the military component to develop more inclusive community engagement projects as part of the Protection of Civilians strategy combating illegally armed groups in Eastern Congo.

“I’m proud to have been recognized for the good that I’ve done in the DRC, and I’m very happy to be receiving this award,” said Block.

Hypocrisy in peacekeeping

Some peace activists in B.C. objected to the premise of the Vancouver gathering.

“The direction of the Canadian Forces is fighting wars not making peace.”

“Canada is not doing peacekeeping; we are doing warfighting,” Tamara Lorincz, a board member of Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, told Ricochet by email.

“The new defence policy released in June makes that clear. We are going to spend $553 billion to maintain high-level warfighting and to buy new fighter jets, attack helicopters and armed drones over the next 20 years. The direction of the Canadian Forces is fighting wars not making peace. The Trudeau government does not want to spend money for peacekeeping,” added Lorincz.

While many are quick to point out the irony of a “peacekeeping mission” by Canadian and international armed forces, conference speakers addressed past and current criticisms of abuse of power in international relations.

UNHCR’s Jolie asked the audience to envision a conflict breaking out in their own countries. “One night, trucks roll in and your street is surrounded and blocked off. Men with guns pour out of those trucks and start breaking down doors…. In the course of one night, they rape every woman or girl they find, and they do so in front of their families.”

“There is nothing worse than when someone in uniform is harming the very civilians they are sent to protect.”

She asked UN member representatives to imagine how they and their families would be affected during the months and years to come: “the emotional pain and trauma, the stigma, the shame, the physical and mental illness, and the agony you would feel from the inability to have stopped it.” She suggested bitterness would result from being told to move on and forget “because there is now a peace agreement and justice for your families is less important.”

“This is the reality for millions of families today,” she said.

Raising the issue of sexual violence inflicted by peacekeeping forces, Jolie reminded the crowd that there are already laws and institutions in place to address the crisis. “We have the expertise in gathering evidence and the ability to identify perpetrators. So what is missing?” she asked. “The political will.”

“There is nothing worse than when someone in uniform is harming the very civilians they are sent to protect,” Jolie declared.

Youth criticism

The conference was also met with protests and criticism from youth. While the announced “Vancouver Principles” focus on ensuring children do not become instruments of war and engaging more youth, some participants in the adjunct UN Youth as Peacebuilders Forum were angered by comments from government representatives, such as Canada’s international development minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau.

“Bibeau said, ‘Youth do not need to get paid to gain valuable experiences…. I went to Morocco for four months in an unpaid internship.’ But for real? Most youth pass up on unpaid opportunities because they need money [to live],” said Vidaluz Ortuño after the forum.

“It is not creating inaccessible spaces where only youth of considerable privilege are able to attend and then telling those that try to speak about issues faced by underrepresented communities that they should be grateful, because at least they’re here,” said a participant named Tanvi.

Anti-pipeline activists confront Trudeau

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appearance at the UN Peacekeeping conference on Nov. 15 was upstaged by a pair of young climate activists.

Jake Hubley, 24, and Hayley Sacks, 20, both admitted into the conference under freelance journalist passes, sought to confront Trudeau over Ottawa’s 2016 approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

If built, the tar sands pipeline would significantly increase tanker traffic in Vancouver’s harbour, just steps away from where the conference was held. Holding up signs that read, “Protect Our Future. Stop Kinder Morgan.” both activists stood to address Trudeau as he stepped on stage. Sacks, a first-time voter for Trudeau’s Liberals in the 2015 election, told the room, “We are here as youth who are scared for our future because of climate change.”

Trudeau acknowledged their activism, but the pair were escorted out of the conference without having their concerns addressed by the prime minister.

“There can be no meaningful climate action or reconciliation from the Canadian government when they are building the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline through Indigenous territories without consent,” Sacks told Ricochet.