Brazil is at the cutting edge of a new style of mutual, multilateral intervention that promises a break from the tactics of the past
When I was in Sri Lanka a few months ago I came across a young Brazilian working on what is known as an "accompaniment" project. Pioneered in Colombia and East Timor by Peace Brigades International, this involves physically escorting activists or community leaders whose lives are believed to be in danger, in the hope that this may provide them with some type of protection. I asked him what had brought him to Sri Lanka and he explained that he had studied international relations, was interested in the India-Brazil-South Africa alliance his government was building and wanted to work in one of the countries associated with it.
Last week I attended a seminar in Rio de Janeiro on UN peace-keeping operations, which posed some similar questions about where Brazilians see themselves in the world. Brazil leads the UN mission in Haiti and the seminar included its senior military and civilian leadership. It also brought together UN and humanitarian aid staff from headquarters and other missions, together with international defence analysts, diplomats and academics to discuss operational aspects of various missions.
The UN General Assembly recently initiated a debate about humanitarian interventions and the "responsibility to protect" doctrine with many countries expressing concern that these rather vaguely-defined concepts could just be a new name for old-fashioned imperialism. Brazil is amongst the sceptics, but also seen as a swing-vote country, which has come down on different sides depending on the particular issue or country being debated. President Lula has made foreign policy a priority. Brazil wants a seat on the UN Security Council, and is looking for allies. It has also heavily promoted increased trade with Africa and Middle East, regional integration through the creation of bodies such as Unasul, and south-south cooperation, through IBSA.
Although the latter bodies remain largely on paper, Brazil's leadership of the Haiti mission provides a tangible expression of its increasing international assertiveness. It could also have a significant influence in the wider debate about such interventions as it is now generally accepted that the future of international peace-keeping operations will be regional.
Much of the debate is now very familiar: what are the circumstances in which state sovereignty can be over-ridden in the face of widespread human rights violations and suffering; who should have the authority to authorise such interventions; is there a threshold level which gives them legitimacy; and how should the intervening bodies – civilian and military – coordinate their efforts? These issues have been discussed for many years. However, many of the phrases have quite a different resonance when spoken with a Latin American accent.
Latin America has only emerged from its own dictatorships comparatively recently and, as current events in Honduras demonstrate, military coups are still a feature of the political landscape. So when Brazilians talk about the need to "export democracy" or strengthen civil society in places like Haiti they can do so from personal experience. "We empathize with Haitians, because they are just like us", said Professor Antonio Jorge Ramalho, an adviser at the Brazilian ministry of foreign affairs. "We look at their society and we see our own."
The event was organized by Viva Rio, one of the most prominent non-governmental organizations in Brazil, which is also running social programmes in Haiti. Rubems Cesar Fernandes, Viva Rio's director, drew some of the parallels between its disarmament campaigns and reintegration projects in both places and stressed the importance of cultural affinity in expanding the space for sustainable peace.
Many on the Brazilian left initially opposed their country's participation in the Haitian mission, seeing it as bound up in George Bush's "war on terror" and in legitimising the overthrow of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Some also worried about the potential behaviour of the Brazilian army, given its reputation for brutality in the favelas. But despite some isolated incidents most of these fears have largely not been borne out. Indeed the missions could be seen as having developed some good practices for community policing.
Like all UN missions the Haiti one is not without its problems. The gross disparity of income between intervening forces and the local population is always resented and the huge cost of such missions always raises questions about whether the money could be better spent. However, this needs to be balanced against an assessment of the human and political costs of allowing failing states to fail and the real alternatives on offer in such situations. Despite the catastrophic failure of western-led "liberal interventionism" in recent years, there has been steady progress in creating a multilateral peace-keeping framework, which is becoming increasingly effective at the operational level.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017