A current conflict in historical perspective

Last Wednesday at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Laurier North American studies professor Kevin Spooner presented a lecture on Canada’s involvement in the peacekeeping effort in the Congo between 1960 and 1964.

“There’s very limited historical scholarship on Canadian peacekeeping in this historical period,” explained Spooner about his over-a-decade-long research project, a subject he has been working on since the early ’90s. 

Spooner gave an in-depth look into the violence that occurred after the Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960. Unrest followed for the years after the declaration of independence, including Belgian paratrooper deployment to the area, ­­­Katangan attempts to gain independence, and a power struggle among Congolese political figures.

The violence that ensued led to United Nations peacekeeping force Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) deployed to the area. At its peak, some 20,000 UN soldiers were sent to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). John Diefenbaker, the Canadian prime minister at the time, sent Canadian signalers who were valuable assets to the mission because of their bilingualism.

Spooner interestingly outlined how the ONUC peacekeeping force’s role “broke all the precedents” of Cold War intervention.

“Typically, peacekeeping was used between states … whereas the peacekeeping mission in the Congo was entirely within the state,” explained Spooner.

He also outlined how ONUC’s mandate was expanded to include “maintaining the territorial integrity of the country,” “preventing civil war” and “securing the removal of all foreign military personnel,” which led to the enabling of an increased use of force.

“This is a much more ambitious agenda,” concluded Spooner. “In the end … [ONUC] managed to accomplish its mandate for the most part.”

In terms of how the conflict has affected peacekeeping today, although Spooner did not delve into the issue extensively, it was clear this mission is still important almost 50 years later.

“The cost was $400 million,” Spooner said.

“The debt crisis the United Nations consistently has today is partially the result of this because it couldn’t afford the peacekeeping mission and it kept borrowing money to pay for it, in part because the Soviet Union and France refused to pay their portion of the cost of the mission.”
Spooner also addressed Canada’s declining role as peacekeepers on the global scale.

“There is a tremendous irony here because Canadians tend to identify themselves and the nation as a whole as a peacekeeping nation,” said Spooner. “The reality is that we haven’t been peacekeeping in any meaningful and significant way for about a decade now.” 

Today, the Mission of the United Nations Organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) is operational in the country.

Spooner’s lecture gave insight into Canadian involvement in a significant peacekeeping mission that still resonates today despite a lack of Canadian involvement in the conflict.

As of Sept. 30, 2009:

The number of total uniformed personnel

The number of troops included in previously mentioned statistic

Number of military observers

1,088 and 1,006
The number of police and international civilian personnel currently on the ground

Local civilian staff

UN volunteers

Number of deaths of these personnel recorded thus far

$1.35 billion
The approved budget for July 1 2009 to June 30 2010 MONUC mission in the DRC.

Mission of the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo