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Latin America’s peacekeeping: R2P or the national interest?

Notions of benevolence and the responsibility to protect (R2P) usually form the basis of narratives employed by governments to justify their commitments to UN Peace Keeping Operations (PKOs). But idealistic principles aside, what drives states to make these sorts of commitments?

Influence over the intervened nation once peace is restored comes to mind, but limited influence over the post-conflict scenario of developing nations isn’t exactly a cost-effective bargain considering the large economic and human costs of placing troops on foreign soil.

Far more beneficial than any potential influence an intervening nation might have once economic exchanges are resumed is the international privilege of achieving a status of reliable peacekeeper or that of a “good international citizen”.

Many Latin American nations perceive aiding fragile states to recover from armed conflicts, humanitarian crisis or natural disasters as a fruitful way to promote themselves as a significant and benevolent regional actor.

Aside from this gratification, at least two other valuable benefits of peacekeeping are commonly observed in Latin America. Firstly, there is the domestic applicability of skills developed in the employment of military forces in PKOs, usually characterised by small-scale urban conflicts and insurgent populations. Military personnel with PKO experience are often later employed domestically in operations that rely on the military to assist or command efforts in one’s own territory to combat transnational crime and other hybrid threats. 

Skills developed in PKO are being increasingly employed in national efforts of domestic security as the inclusion of military forces as an elementary component of crime-fighting becomes ever more common in the region.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more on display than in Brazil, where the role of the armed forces in fighting highly-armed criminal forces is paramount.

Domestic employment of the military occurs often in Brazil to assist in a wide range of threats. In the last five years alone the army has been called upon to face large scale prison riots, police strikes, fire fighting efforts and even to assume total control over the police and security apparatus of State of Rio de Janeiro after the federal intervention in 2018.

Military officers with a background in peacekeeping are often selected to command such operations. The presence of individuals with PKO experience is observable not only in the top of the command structure but also in the lowest ranks where many of the soldiers have previously served in places like Haiti when Brazil remained engaged in the MINUSTAH for over 13 years.

Brazil has been so deeply engaged in PKO that this particular type of experience became a “must-have” in the curriculum of any officer aspiring to climb the military hierarchy. In president Bolsonaro’s cabinet, composed of an unprecedented number of military officers among the ministers, many have experience in conducting or even commanding PKOs including the ministers for defence, energy, secretary of government, institutional security and even the vice-president.

Participation in PKOs is also used by Brazil to achieve the goal of accumulating positive international prestige and serves as a key element in its historical pledge to obtain a permanent seat at the UN Security Council in an eventual reform. 

The second benefit of peacekeeping common to Latin America is the export of tactical and operational expertise. Having perfected skills in this particular type of military engagement, many nations are now able to transform their expertise in a valuable export service.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and others now have sophisticated training centres specifically dedicated to peacekeeping training. These centres offer not only training for military personnel but also to police officers, journalists, medical doctors, social workers and other civilians that will later be deployed to UN missions overseas.

These spaces are also where efforts of regionalisation occur through joint training, exercises and other initiatives that seek to regionalize PKO doctrines among Latin American nations. Argentina and Chile go even further in their bi-national cooperation, having created the Southern Cross Joint and Combined Peace Force in 2006.

By conducting various programs designed for military and civilian foreigners from the region and beyond, these centres play a major role in specialising their respective armed forces in this unique type of military engagement. Although directly monetizing PKO training courses may not be a highly profitable business itself, the additional rewards that it brings in terms of soft power and regional cooperation must be considered as national benefit.

With considerable gains to national interests being obtainable through a commitment to UN peacekeeping missions, it’s certain that Latin American nations will continue to play an important role in global peace, albeit still motivated by their own national interests.

Arthur Mac Dowell is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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