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RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 13 2011 (IPS) - At a time when the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti has once again been drawing attention for alleged abuses, Brazilians have begun to ask themselves whether their first experience in leading such a force has brought them more headaches than prestige.
When he was named defence minister in early August, Celso Amorim said one of his chief focuses would be to “reformulate” Brazil’s participation in the peacekeeping operation in Haiti. The scandal involving alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man by Uruguayan peacekeeping troops had not yet broken out.
Brazil heads the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), where it has the largest contingent of troops: 1,280, followed by Uruguay’s 1,136.
On Thursday, Sept. 8, the foreign and defence ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) countries meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay adopted the position expressed earlier by Amorim, when he said the peacekeeping forces could not stay in Haiti forever, but that an irresponsible withdrawal was not a possibility either.
In a proposal to the U.N. Security Council, UNASUR will recommend the gradual reduction of troops until reaching the number present in the Caribbean island nation before the January 2010 earthquake.
The Security Council is set to reach a decision on the issue on Oct. 15.
Brazil assumed leadership of the mission that replaced, on Jun. 1, 2004, the U.S.-led multinational provisional force, in the midst of an explosive social situation after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The decision by the government of then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) was aimed at “demonstrating the country’s military capacity, in its campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council,” according to historian Marcelo Carreiro at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
“It had to prove itself capable of providing security on its own continent,” said Carreiro, an expert on international relations and national security and defence.
In an interview with IPS, the academic also cited a domestic reason for taking part in the mission in Haiti: the military leadership’s aim to train its troops to take part in maintaining law and order: “basically, to turn the defence forces into support for internal law enforcement.
“The operating conditions in Haiti would allow troops to be trained in urban settings very similar to the areas that would be the scenario of future military operations in Brazil – the favelas (shantytowns) – using guerrilla tactics, and would enable them to gain an in-depth familiarity with the particularities of the terrain.”
William Goncalves, an international relations analyst at the Rio de Janeiro State University, said the goal was “to demonstrate Brazil’s new foreign policy focus,” which he described as “a willingness to provide support to all of its neighbours, especially the weakest and most defenceless.”
Another analyst, Clovis Brigagao, concurs with Carreiro that “it was a kind of gambit” in Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Brazil needed to show that it deserved that seat, said Brigagao, director of the Centre of Studies on the Americas and coordinator of the Group of Analysis on International Conflict Prevention (GAPCon) at the Cándido Mendes University in Rio de Janeiro.
“Brazil assumed the military command of the mission to demonstrate to the international community that it had shifted away from its position of non-intervention in the affairs of another state,” and that it was acting on the basis of “the concept of solidarity,” Brigagao told IPS.
A kind of intervention that does not convince everyone, and that makes some uncomfortable.
The case of the assault on the local teenager by Uruguayan troops, apparently captured on a cellphone video, came on top of reports of underage sex – more than 100 Sri Lankan troops were sent home in 2007 due to accusations of sex with minors – mistreatment and excesses by members of MINUSTAH, and allegations that the peacekeeping mission was responsible for the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 6,000 Haitians.
Studies have shown that the genomes of the Haitian cholera strain are virtually identical to those found in Nepal at the time peacekeepers from that country were posted in Haiti in 2010.
“The presence of Brazilian troops in Haiti is unsustainable,” Joao Pedro Stédile, a leader of Brazil’s MST landless movement and of the international peasant movement Via Campesina, told IPS. “The military is merely playing a policing role.”
“The armed forces are only supposed to protect national sovereignty, in their own country,” he added, in a viewed shared by many social movements in Brazil.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), said Brazil was unintentionally playing into the hands of the U.S. government, which he said was the “main force” behind the toppling of Aristide.
“(Brazil) didn’t realise that what the United States was doing in Haiti was exactly what they did in Venezuela in 2002. They just organised a coup against a democratically elected government,” Weisbrot told IPS.
Carreiro questioned why MINUSTAH stayed in Haiti after fulfiling its goal of guaranteeing a minimum level of security for the transition to a new government. In fact, two elections have been held since the peacekeeping mission began, in 2005 and 2011.
“If MINUSTAH’s objective was to guarantee the conditions for elections to be held, and disarm the gangs, why is it still operating today? The local population is understandably seeing the mission more and more like an international occupation force,” he said.
The analyst believes MINUSTAH’s biggest mistake was “its starting point,” given that Aristide “never said he had resigned.”
“The string of developments that led to a power vacuum and the establishment of a transitional government were never completely clarified. That means MINUSTAH may well have backed a coup or external interference,” he said.
But Tullo Vigevani, a professor of international relations at São Paulo State University, said MINUSTAH had not failed but had achieved “possible results” in the midst of “an extremely slow” post-quake economic and social reconstruction process.
Among other achievements, he mentioned “the relative alleviation of the humanitarian crisis” and “a certain reduction in crime levels.”
Vigevani said Haiti “still has no state; it’s a non-state.”
Above and beyond their different assessments of the mission, the analysts agreed that Brazil’s military participation in the mission should be wound down, while channels of civilian humanitarian cooperation are strengthened.
“What the government and the people of Brazil should do is support economic and social development projects,” said Stédile.
Brigagao said: “The goals for which Brazil decided to participate in Haiti – creating security – have already been achieved, relatively speaking.
“What are needed now are other things, which are not necessarily military, but civilian development-oriented goals, such as creating infrastructure, like roads,” he added.
Goncalves said the success of a mission depends to a large extent on how fast it is completed. “When the presence of foreign military troops is extended in time, regardless of how good things are going, problems start to appear.
“In view of this, and also taking into account that at some point the Haitians themselves will have to assume complete responsibility for the future of their country, it’s clear that it’s time to start arranging the withdrawal; but that shouldn’t mean that Brazil will stop providing the assistance it planned to offer the country,” he said.
Apart from MINUSTAH, Brazil has participated in social and development projects in Haiti, as part of another aim of its foreign policy: South-South cooperation.
*With additional reporting from Elizabeth Whitman at the United Nations in New York.
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