Keynote: An Innocent at Large

Recently, George Somerwill was asked to provide the keynote presentation for the event entitled, Sudan and South Sudan: Contributing to Conflict Prevention and Post-conflict Stabilization. Both the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Laurier University, located in Waterloo, Ontario, in addition to the Academic Council on the United Nations System and the Department of National Defence, sponsored the two-day public event.

George offered a personal narrative of his work within both the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the United Nations Mission in Sudan, including moments from his time spent as BBC and CBC journalist and humanitarian worker. His analysis touched upon the involvement of Canada in the UN in addition to the insight he has developed over the years regarding Africa, Canada and the UN.

What follows is an excerpt of his keynote presentation called, An Innocent at Large. With the UN in the Horn of Africa. One Canadian’s Story.

KEYNOTE EXCERPT by George Somerwill

SONY DSCI would like to say a few words about Canada’s past and present role within the United Nations, and specifically within UN peacekeeping. As I mentioned earlier, Canada has a storied past in peacekeeping. Lester Pearson’s original concept during the1956 Suez crisis – when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt – of having a ‘thin blue line’ of UN blue helmeted troops standing between combatants has not changed, although operationally it has moved into the 21st century of course!

We all know that Pearson’s original concept called for Canadian troops to make up the thin blue line, but the Egyptians led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, rejected that, and thus the idea of a multinational peacekeeping force was born. Canadians subsequently participated in UNEF, UNDOF (Syria) UMOGIP (India and Pakistan), UNFICYP (Cyprus) and so on, right on through the decades up to and including UNMEE (Ethiopia and Eritrea)and more recently and in a limited way, in Sudan.

Many people ask me why Canadians are less involved now than ever before in peacekeeping. In spite of what the media will tell you about the political reasons, there is a very simple financial reason.

The main donors, called Troop Contributing Countries or Police Contributing Countries (TCC/PCC), to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations  (UN-DPKO) now are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and increasingly, China. Each one of those countries is known to have a huge standing army and police force. The UN pays each TCC/PCC a flat rate per Force member or police officer who participates in a Peacekeeping (PK) Mission. This amount is in turn based on what the donor government pays its military or police officers. And in most cases, when troops or police go to the UN, each government makes a “profit”. In other words – sending troops to a UN PK Force helps to finance its standing army or police force.

Clearly the cost to, let us say, a South Asian government to send 1000 troops is relatively small – low salaries, low cost of housing, low cost of living, etc. Here in Canada, it costs a great deal more to pay, house and feed members of the forces or the RCMP.  So the UN would have to pay a considerably larger amount for 1000 Canadians than it would for 1000 Nigerians, let us say, or Indians.

Having said that, I have met and worked with Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs), Deputy SRSGs, UN Force Commanders and UN Police Commissioners from all over the world in the many PK missions where I have worked and they all make a strong push for there to be more Canadians in senior leadership positions – that might be Force Commanders, Police Commissioners, SRSGs, DSRSGs. And for that to happen, it does require a strong political will on the part of the Canadian Government. But I also believe that all of us who make up interested groups, such as the RCMP, the Canadian Forces and academic and civil society groups should increase our united and subtle pressure on the government of the day to increase Canadian involvement in the UN.

George Somerwill interacting with his audience at Balsillie School of International Affairs.

George Somerwill interacting with his audience at Balsillie School of International Affairs.

Of course we have over the decades had many notable Canadians who have filled senior UN posts. Louise Frechette as the first Deputy Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, Stephen Lewis as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Major-General Romeo Dallaire as the UNAMIR Force Commander. Each one of them, when asked to step up to the plate, did not flinch. They did not hesitate; they did what was asked of them. I am sure there are still many Canadians today who would and could very successfully continue in that tradition.

And this brings us back to where we began tonight. As individuals, we often set out on a path – our life’s work or however we want to call it – and we are totally unsure of where our decisions will take us. We are naïve, we think we can change the world and sometimes we can be brutally disappointed when things do not work according to the plan we had set for ourselves.

And yet how we deal with those individual challenges has a huge impact on how we as a country see ourselves. We live now in a world where people seem to be always looking out for number one. The concept of service – I mean public service or service to a wider humanity – a concept which Canadians of previous generations did not shy away from, appears on the surface to be in retreat.

I hope that within this group tonight there are many of you – perhaps you are already leaders in your fields or perhaps you will become leaders in your fields – I hope that you will take the opportunity of this conference to formulate some new directions for Canada to take a lead in supporting the people of the Sudan and the wider Horn Of Africa.


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