MINUSTAH, Argentina, and the future of Latin America’s role in peacekeeping

A UN peacekeeping truck in Haiti following the 2010 Earthquake, Wikimedia Commons

By Pablo Scuticchio, Guest Writer

After ten years as a ranking member of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Argentina announced the withdrawal of most of its forces. Its units stationed in Gonaïves and Port-au-Prince will leave by April.[1] As other contributing Latin American countries have expressed their intention to follow suit, Buenos Aires’s revised stance towards peacekeeping deserves a closer look.

Latin American participation in peace operations was a rare occurrence throughout the 20th century. When authorized, contingents were modicum and limited to observer status. This tendency began to revert by the early 1990s. Argentina enthusiastically joined the global wave of optimism with peacekeeping. At its height in 1992-1996, the country was among the top five UN troop-contributing countries.[2] And in 1998, Buenos Aires was simultaneously taking part in 17 missions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Though initially a rara avis by Latin American standards, Argentina’s newfound outlook was a regional bellwether for things to come.

Why did Argentina get involved in peacekeeping on the first place? Adherence to multilateral security was a guiding principle. Still, policymakers had additional motives. Buenos Aires desired to revert its status as a global pariah. Between 1976 and 1983 its military junta was responsible for massive human rights violations and the disastrous Malvinas Islands invasion. Though under civilian leadership, late 1980s Argentina still had a reputation of being too unpredictable. Peacekeeping was intended as a bold gesture for advertising Argentina’s commitment as a responsible international player.

As a young democracy, Argentina suffered from deep-seated military discontent and recurrent insurrections by carapintada junior officers. Decision makers anticipated sustained participation in UN peace operations would generate two assets. First, redirecting the armed forces into more constructive roles was a blessing in itself. And secondly, staff secondment under civilian hands was a valuable tool for breaking the ranks of unruly military cliques. Loyalty was rewarded with enhanced salaries and prestige in a peacekeeping appointment.

By the end of the millennium, Argentine enthusiasm with peacekeeping receded amid economic turmoil. Once conditions stabilized, civilian administrations sought to kick-start Argentina’s involvement but under a novel approach. The new game in town was quality over quantity. Rather than spreading out, troop contributions would focus on fewer missions. Accordingly, the institutional groundwork of the Ministry of Defense was reinvigorated. Specialized peacekeeping support agencies were created; new cadres of trained public employees addressed persistent personnel shortages. Critically, UN financial reimbursements for troop contributions were redirected towards the Ministry of Defense, leaving the Ministry of Economics interference out of the equation.

The centerpiece of this renewed endeavor was the commitment extended to MINUSTAH in 2004. Argentina had already participated in most of the long string of UN stabilization missions in Haiti during the 1990s. However, MINUSTAH was the first time that a sizable number of Argentine troops were deployed in a Latin American country under a Chapter VII mandate—which allows peace enforcement operations.[3]

What was really groundbreaking in MINUSTAH was the new strategic concept that animated it. Following a “lessons learned from the 1990s” policy recommendation, it was argued that peacekeeping would yield better results if mission command was entrusted to committed regional partners.[4] Echoing this view, government officials and analysts reasoned that South America should step up as a nascent exporter of international security.[5] Haiti was presented as the ideal working ground for showcasing the “South American way” of peacekeeping.

Much of the cooperative security initiatives emanated from Buenos Aires itself. The summit that eventually led to the “2×9” framework—the MINUSTAH consulting mechanism between troop-contributing South American countries—first convened there in 2005.[6] One year later, Argentina and Chile created the combined joint Cruz del Sur Brigade. And in 2008, Argentina and Perú established the combined José de San Martín military engineers company. Both of them were peacekeeping forces intended for deployment in Haiti.

And it was Argentina again who lead the march in, though this time in the opposite direction. Its Defense Minister confirmed that most of the troops in Haiti would withdraw immediately. It came as no surprise since Buenos Aires showed signs of uneasiness about its peacekeeping policy for some years. This change of heart was evident during the last round of reforms inside the military establishment. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Ministry of Defense—the administrative agency that oversees Argentina’s peace operations—was downgraded to the rank of undersecretary. The Cruz del Sur Brigade and José de San Martín military engineers company, flagships of MINUSTAH´s regional outlook, were never deployed at all in Haiti. And the track record of the 2×9 mechanism remained irrevocably stale.

Like Argentina, most South American countries focused on a single peace operation. But after a decade with little to show, Haiti has satiated their hunger for further peacekeeping missions. Scandals have tarnished MINUSTAH´s reputation. The mission experienced its “Abu Ghraib moment” in 2011 when a video ostensibly showed Uruguayan marines sexually assaulting a Haitian teenager.[7] The ripples were felt far and wide in the region.

Following Argentina´s precedent, officials from Brazil, Chile and Uruguay made it clear they also plan to drastically reduce their contingents in Haiti. Hobbled by security obligations elsewhere and keenly aware of the costs of sending troops abroad without a clear set of objectives, the much touted golden age of Latin American peacekeeping seems to have been prematurely cut short.


Pablo Scuticchio is an International Politics graduate student at San Andrés University in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is interested in Latin American security studies. He can be reached at pscuticchio@gmail.com


[1] “Most peacekeepers in Haiti to return home,” Buenos Aires Herald, February 25, 2015. Available at http://buenosairesherald.com/article/182888/most-peacekeepers-in-haiti-to-return-home.

[2] Arturo C. Sotomayor Velázquez, “Democratization and Commitment to peace: South America’s motivations to contribute to peace operations,” in South America and Peace Operations: Coming of Age, ed. Kai Michael Kenkel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 47.

[3] Rut Diamint, “From fear to humanitarianism: changing patterns in Argentina’s involvement in peace operations,” in South America and Peace Operations: Coming of Age, ed. Kai Michael Kenkel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 141.

[4] Michael Hirsh, “Calling All Regio-Cops: Peacekeeping’s Hybrid Future,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec (2000). Available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/56619/michael-hirsh/calling-all-regio-cops-peacekeepings-hybrid-future.

[5] Rut Diamint, “From fear to humanitarianism,” 145.

[6] The direct precursor of the 2×9 forum were the 2×4 round of talks between the Foreign and Defense Ministries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Later incarnations expanded to include Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Perú

[7] Mark Weisbrot, “Is this Minustah’s ‘Abu Ghraib moment’ in Haiti?,” The Guardian, September 2, 2011. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/03/minustah-un-haiti-abuse


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