Shortly before next fall, 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers from a still-unspecified number of contributing countries will set boots, tires and tracks on the ground in Central African Republic – a noble gesture stemming from the UN Security Council which voted the resolution enabling the mission. But the decision to send blue-helmet soldiers into an active war zone ignores a dangerous historical precedent which once led to thousands of avoidable deaths. Politicos wishing to engage Canadian soldiers in the endeavor should open a military history book first.

There is little dispute around the need for the international community to step in Central African Republic’s current crisis. According to mission background information provided by the UN, civilians are dying by the thousands. Two and half million people need humanitarian assistance and 650,000 more have fled the massacres by Christian and Muslim militias butchering each other, as well as those civilians who don’t share their respective faiths.

Another human tragedy amidst an unresolved political crisis which leaves the current government powerless to act on its own. The French military is already there fighting off militias under Operation Sangaris. But having a former colonial power perform “world police” duties comes with its own negative impacts, chief among them accusations of neo-colonialism by local and international opposition groups leading to the erosion of the mission’s legitimacy, hence the need for an international military effort under a United Nations resolution.

The current situation in Central African Republic is somewhat similar to what happened in the Balkans 20 years ago – warring factions waging bloodshed over religious and cultural identity disputes. The multinational United Nations Protection Force deployed there notably failed to stop the massacre of 10,000 civilians in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica because their rules of engagement only allowed them to return fire in self-defense and prohibited them from directly engaging combatants even in the face of blatant war crimes.

Only by disobeying those rules did UN soldiers managed to save lives, the prime example being the Battle of Medak Pocket, in which a Canadian battalion whose heavier weapons were M113-mounted .50 caliber Browning machine guns and Carl Gustav light anti-tank recoilless rifles fought off a 2500-strong Croatian force supported by T-84 tanks. A milestone in Canadian military history, but an overall failure for the UN.

Lessons learned must lead to action. The Balkans showed that Cold War-era peacekeeping involving blue-helmet-wearing soldiers patrolling well-negotiated buffer zones such as in Cyprus or Egypt, gave way to getting stuck between still-warring groups out for blood and well aware of the peacekeepers’ inability to fight if not directly attacked.

So if the upcoming UN mission in Central African Republic is to succeed, it will definitely need serious muscle. Rules of engagement comparable to those given to ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan. A clear mandate to protect civilians and prevent genocide – a word noticeably absent from the UN resolution. Troops equipped with heavy weapons and vehicles as a deterrent. Flexibility for field commanders to conduct negotiations at a tactical level within a decentralized command structure free of bureaucratic red tape. Availability of unconventional combat support element including PSYOPS and SOF assets for more delicate tasks.

Canada’s New Democratic Party wants in on the mission, citing Canada’s former image as a global peacekeeper. Unfortunately, wars aren’t fought and won on good sentiments. While peacekeeping remains a concept with some potential for sustainable peace, it must carry a good measure of realism and the United Nations must give its soldiers every means necessary to help prevent any future genocidal venture.