By Matthew O’Riordan-Ross

On March 22, 2019, the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy hosted a moderated panel discussion which considered the question of whether Canada is doing enough to address the UN peacekeeper sexual abuse crisis. This event was the product of months of effort and coordination by a group of students (including myself and four peers) in PCJ362: Service-Learning taught by Dr. Dylan Clark. PCJ362 places students into NGOs with operations in the local area, and in my case that NGO was AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign. Code Blue was founded in 2015 in order to bring more attention to the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel – civilian and military – and ultimately, end impunity for sexual violence by UN personnel.

At Code Blue, my team worked with Kaila Mintz, Code Blue’s Coordinator, to design an event which would examine the peacekeeper dimension of the sexual abuse crisis from a Canadian perspective. Central to that perspective is Canada’s foreign policy. Since 2015, the Government of Canada has placed a great priority on the creation and implementation of a “feminist foreign policy.” Canada is the second country after Sweden to adopt such a focus in foreign policy. This new focus is clear in initiatives such as the Feminist International Assistance Policy which redirects funding towards equality and empowerment projects for women and girls, the Canada National Action Plan (C-NAP) on Women, Peace and Security, and the Elsie Initiative on Women in Peace Operations. However, as with any foreign policy, it has not been without contention; lauded by supporters as a step forward while seen by critics as a token public relations move, or as a misguided policy that is too abstract to effect beneficial change. In this context, our panel discussion provided an opportunity to not only learn more about the crisis, but also to situate Canada’s response within the larger foreign policy picture.

Introduced by incoming PCJS Academic Director Sydney Narciso-Wilson, our panel consisted of Major (Retired) Dr. Karen Breeck, Kaila Mintz, and Sandra Biskupski-Mujanovic, and was able to capitalise on the different perspectives each offered. Dr. Breeck served in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Royal Canadian Medical Service physician for twenty years, and more recently has been involved in military advocacy through her work in the Women, Peace and Security Network and As a result, Dr. Breeck offered deeper insights into gender and the Canadian military, as well as “blue on blue” (between peacekeeper) sexual trauma. Kaila Mintz, as Code Blue’s Coordinator and with years of past experience at Global Affairs Canada, offered a civil society and NGO perspective and elucidated Code Blue’s position on the issue. Sandra Biskupski-Mujanovic, a PhD candidate at Western University specializing in transitional justice and post-conflict reconstruction, provided a current academic perspective, including on issues of encouraging women to participate in peacekeeping. The panel moderator was Gerald Bareebe, a PCJ Fellow and PhD candidate studying the military and post-conflict reconstruction in Rwanda and Uganda. Gerald’s research was also previously introduced in entry 89 of the PCJ Student Blog.

Through their different perspectives on peacekeeping operations, each panellist contributed to a discussion which considered many dimensions of the UN peacekeeper sexual abuse crisis and Canada’s response. With respect to the nature of the problem, Kaila said that the culture of the UN, as well as a lack of deterrence, can create a climate of impunity. Dr. Breeck recognized the relative insignificance of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in peacekeeping operations, and it was interesting to learn that there are often more Canadian police deployed to UN missions than there are soldiers. Of course, this is partly because the UN does not look to countries such as Canada to fill out troop numbers, and Canada itself can offer more to the UN in other areas such as funding and specialist capabilities. Sandra revealed that there are fewer Canadian female personnel deployed in UN missions today than there were during the Harper government years, despite Canada’s championing of initiatives to increase the proportion of female personnel. Audience members learned a lot about the current state of affairs in UN peacekeeping – regardless of their own prior knowledge of the area – because we were fortunate enough to draw on such diverse bases of experience in the panel.

Likewise, the panel’s consideration of Canada’s response also capitalised on the different perspectives each speaker offered. Kaila discussed Code Blue’s desire for an independent special court mechanism and a temporary oversight panel to oversee and examine individual cases in the future. These solutions could help the UN to “get its own house in order,” and according to Kaila, the process of doing so could begin with advocacy from only a few member states. Canada’s bid for a seat at the Security Council should be instrumental in achieving that. Sandra pointed out the need to move beyond “simple solutions” such as merely increasing the number of female peacekeepers, as such solutions would likely introduce only superficial changes short of the institutional change required. In addition, Sandra remarked that, although she expects most reform to affect forward-looking policy, there is still room for local truth-telling initiatives to address past incidents, as these provide victims with a supportive forum to share their perspectives. As the role of the CAF in peacekeeping operations is relatively small, it was especially apt that Dr. Breeck stated that all Canadians have a role to play – for example through political involvement and awareness – in ensuring that Canada leads by example on this issue. In addition, as Dr. Breeck pointed out, we must also be aware of unintended consequences following well-meaning reforms. For example, in the case of increasing the number of female peacekeepers, Dr. Breeck stated that there is insufficient data on “blue on blue” incidents, and as a result it is difficult to predict whether more female peacekeepers will result in more “blue on blue” sexual violence. Overall, our panellists predictably agreed that Canada can do more, although they did recognise the importance of foreign policy initiatives such as C-NAP in developing feminist interventions and in holding the government to account for its commitments. Of course, one must also consider the circumstances of Canada’s response, which comes at a time when foreign policy must try to navigate unforeseen challenges such as the NAFTA renegotiation.

Following an active question and answer period, we held a reception for the speakers and audience which featured a variety of foods, including excellent miniature Syrian meat and vegetable pies. During the reception, my group had some time to think about our experience in PCJ362 working with Code Blue. We found that we learned a lot about the issue of impunity for sexual abuse in the UN, and that the panellists were able to convey much of that (although the panel was primarily concerned with peacekeepers rather than civilian staff, who face different accountability processes). Further, the experience gave us insights into what it means to work with NGOs – where immediate challenges are often unrelated to the wider issues that garner attention – something which may allow better-informed decisions about what we hope to do in the future.