Peacekeeping Needs More Uruguays, Not Fewer

Uruguayan peacekeepers could have done without the publicity of the last couple of weeks following the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man by Uruguayan members of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti. The subsequent protests by hundreds of Haitians against MINUSTAH, coinciding with the release of the movie “The Whistleblower” in New York, could not have come at a worse time, ahead of the UN General Assembly and MINUSTAH’s mandate renewal in October.

This unacceptable act captured on a cell phone video illustrates how, despite the tough “zero tolerance” language used by the UN for years and the 2005 Zeid Report, the UN continues to fail both in preventing and addressing sexual abuses committed by its peacekeepers, uniformed and civilian personnel, around the world. The UN has in a few instances repatriated individual officers or contingents with the cooperation of member states, but because members of military contingents are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of their respective troop-contributing country (TCC), it is up to the member states to cooperate with the UN and then prosecute the repatriated offender back at home.

In this regard, Uruguay is setting an example that other TCCs and the UN should learn from, and it should be praised for the way it dealt with these recent allegations. When MINUSTAH and the UN were still scrambling on how to respond to the allegations in the days following the release of the video, the Government of Uruguay officially apologized to the Government of Haiti and its people, almost immediately repatriated the four soldiers concerned, as well as suspended their commander. They also sent Uruguayan investigators to Haiti and promised reparations for the victims, committing to taking all appropriate disciplinary and, if required, judicial measures if the allegations are proven to be true.

Uruguay should also be praised for the way it has contributed to peacekeeping over the years, often sending troops far away from home and in response to pressing needs expressed by the UN department of peacekeeping operations (DPKO).

Uruguay’s contribution to the UN started with the deployment of some 800 troops in Cambodia in 1992, and grew steadily to around 2,400 soldiers currently serving in peacekeeping missions. This second-smallest nation in South America by area is the highest per capita troop-contributor to the UN, and, although it only has a population of 3.5 million, ranks as the ninth largest overall contributor. 

Back in 2003 during the Ituri crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Uruguayan battalion was the first one to deploy to Bunia to reinforce MONUC’s presence there, and would eventually lead the UN’s take over from the interim multinational force. Uruguay has since maintained over 1,300 of its troops in the UN mission in the DRC and another 1,100 in MINUSTAH. In 2008, when MONUC was desperate for helicopters, Uruguay again was one of only two countries to respond to the UN plea and contributed two helicopters to the mission.

Of course, Uruguay has its reasons. Contributing to peacekeeping has allowed Uruguay to sustain a relatively large army that it may no longer need at home–approximately 23,000–thanks to the reimbursements by the UN of a large part of its national military spending. If the idea of a standby UN peacekeeping force is ever to be realized, this Uruguayan “model” may be worth further study.

But Uruguay’s peacekeeping contributions may be at risk. In March of this year, Uruguay’s Foreign Minister and Defense Minister travelled to New York to speak to the UN Secretary-General and DPKO chief to express major concerns about their ability to contribute troops under current reimbursement conditions. As with other major TCCs, a rising domestic economy combined with low reimbursement rates has certainly played a factor in making troop contribution to the UN a losing financial proposition. The troop contribution equation for many has changed and responsible, dependable TCCs such as Uruguay may not be spared.