President Kirchner sent a bill to Congress today [21 May] requesting authorization for Argentina to join the peacekeeping mission being carried out by the United Nations in Haiti, and it could be dealt with by the Senate next week.

“The mission will be to stabilize peace rather than to re-establish it”, and will be of a multinational, regional nature, as contingents from Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile are taking part, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa said at a news conference given alongside Defence Minister Jose Pampuro at Government House.

The foreign minister admitted that “it was logical that there should be doubts” among legislators regarding the position to be adopted by Argentine forces once on the island and that it was also “logical that the matter should be discussed in Congress”, for which reason he placed himself at the disposal of Congress to “inform” on the initiative.

“Both Minister Pampuro and I are at the disposal of Congress to provide information” on the role of Argentine troops in this peacekeeping mission, he said.

Justicialist Party sources in the Senate estimated that the bill could be considered next week, in view of the fact that it will need to be dealt with quickly, as the Argentine troops should leave for the island before 1 June to join the remaining contingents, totalling 6,700 members of the armed forces and 1,622 police.

“To a certain extent, we are pressed for time; nevertheless, the legislature will be given as long as it needs to approve the bill. It is of course a mandate which should be granted by the legislative branch and that is the way it will be,” said Pampuro. The foreign minister, meanwhile, explained that “Argentine involvement” in this mission formed part of a lengthy “history of Argentine involvement in peacekeeping actions”.

Argentina has provided troops for international peacekeeping missions since 1991, and since then some 15,000 men, mainly from the armed forces with some from the border police, have carried out tasks abroad under the umbrella of the United Nations.

At present Argentina has 302 servicemen deployed in Cyprus and 190 in Kosovo. There is also an army representative in East Timor, another in the Middle East and one in Western Sahara, as well as four delegates at the United Nations and one at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

Defence Minister Pampuro highlighted the fact that Argentine involvement in this peacekeeping mission “was an unprecedented experience” in the region and possessed an “integrating” character for the armed forces in Latin America, since for the first time they will act together to stabilize a country within the same region.

“For the first time the armed forces of Latin America have put on their trousers to take responsibility for guaranteeing stability, this time on that island,” Pampuro stressed.

Argentina will contribute 500 troops, with Chile and Uruguay also providing 500 each, while Brazil, in charge of the mission, will send 1,200 servicemen. The 500 men will be sent in two batches: a first contingent of 350 who “are already prepared and have received their vaccinations”, 160 of whom belong to the Third Army Corps based in Cordoba while the rest are marines. At a second stage a further 150 men will be sent.

There are also plans to send two vessels with three helicopters, a field hospital and mobile units “to be used for the movement of our troops, which will no doubt have their area of operations in Port-au-Prince”, said Pampuro.

“As soon as Congress approves the departure of the troops”, the 500 members of the armed forces and the logistical support vessel forming part of the mission will leave, explained the minister.

The force will act under the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1542, which had been approved unanimously. It will carry out its tasks under the general framework of chapter six of the United Nations charter dealing with peacekeeping forces rather than peace enforcement forces.

On the matter of the total cost of the operation, Pampuro said that “for the first six months it will be between 8m and 10m dollars. Initially, Argentina will bear the cost but the United Nations has a reimbursement facility, such as is being used in the case of our missions in Cyprus and Kosovo, where the reimbursement is almost total”.

The justification for this mission lies in the major convulsion in political and social order taking place on the Caribbean island, which is running the risk of becoming “a humanitarian catastrophe”, as was recently pointed out by the ministers of defence of Argentina, Chile (Michelle Bachelet) and Brazil (Jose Viegas Filho) during a symposium which recently brought them together in Buenos Aires to discuss regional security.

At the same meeting, Pampuro had already warned of “likely difficulty” in getting the bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies, although he considered it inevitable that the law would be given prompt treatment and would be passed by “a large majority”.

The bill must be dealt with by the Security, Foreign Relations and Defence committees, and sources in Congress indicated that opposition blocks may vote against it.