Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Peacekeeping Missions Are a Way of Promoting Human Rights

Diálogo interviewed General of the Army Juan José Saavedra Fernández, the chief of Uruguay’s Defense General Staff.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 23 October 2017

Army General Juan José Saavedra Fernández, chief of Uruguay’s Defense General Staff, spoke with Diálogo during the 2017 South American Defense Conference, which was held from August 22th to 24th in Lima, Peru. (Photo: Uruguayan Ministry of National Defense)

The South American Defense Conference 2017 (SOUTHDEC) was held from August 22th to 24th in Lima, Peru, where Diálogo spoke with Army General Juan José Saavedra Fernández, the chief of Uruguay’s Defense General Staff. Gen. Saavedra talked about women’s integration into the Uruguayan Armed Forces and the international recognition that Uruguay enjoys due to its historic contribution to United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Diálogo: Is the Uruguayan Defense General Staff equivalent to the general staffs of other nations?

Army General Juan José Saavedra Fernández, chief of Uruguay’s Defense General Staff: Practically, yes. The [Uruguayan] Defense General Staff is an organization that was established just a few years ago; six, to be exact. A new law, the Defense Framework for the Uruguayan Armed Forces, came to replace what was previously the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The important thing is that it was given a higher rank. The Defense General Staff is at the same level as the commanders of each military service branch, which is why it has the same hierarchy as the commanders of the Uruguayan Armed Forces—–the commander of the Navy is its fleet admiral, the commander of the Air Force is its general, and the commander of the Army is an Army general. Therefore, the director of the General Staff can be a general officer of any service branch. The Defense General Staff is the highest military advisory organization within the Ministry of Defense.

Diálogo: What is missing, or what is the next step for countries to put the information sharing pieces together to more efficiently combat these new threats?

Gen. Saavedra: I think that, first, there have to be very clear and specific objectives, because everything is fine in these kinds of meetings, but there is a lot of talk, almost academic, at the theoretical level—. So things need to be brought down to earth. And when we talk about the specifics, we realize that our challenges are the same, they’re similar for the entire hemisphere. I think what we’re lacking is to clearly define what the challenges really are—which ones are our shared objectives—and setting timelines for them, because obviously, these are nations in a dynamic world where governments change, objectives change, and situations change. But on specific issues, I think there are objectives that can be established on the basis of important cases that are of use to us and that engender trust for sharing information in every sense. Today, there are targets such as terrorist threats, the kind of terrorism that’s hitting hard in all corners of the world, knocking on everyone’s door. I think it’s a target that we all need to be fighting and sharing information in that regard. It seems to me that there’s been progress, but that we still have challenges to overcome.

Diálogo: There is a lot of discussion about these new threats. For some countries, drug trafficking and cyberattacks are among them. Which of these new threats does Uruguay face?

Gen. Saavedra: I think that all of these problems, such as organized crime, or these new threats, as they are called, are evolving so quickly that even though we may not see them as being such palpable threats today, they have to be taken into account. I believe it is the responsibility of the political and military leadership in every country that we give them the importance they deserve and that we work in a comprehensive way to confront them, preparing ourselves for them—–and in addition to preparing ourselves, that we achieve something else that’s quite important, which is prevention and deterrence. That is an essential piece of it: making the potential enemy—the threat—see that it’s not worth traveling to our countries, because we’re going to fight and we’re going to beat them.

With respect to cyberdefense, that’s a problem that has been evolving quite rapidly, just like everything else having to do with cyberspace. Those of us who are of a certain age are surprised by the new things cropping up there. They are palpable, and they are the new reality. Uruguay is facing that. A new cyberdefense division within the Ministry of Defense has been established. There are commercial activities that are very important to Uruguay—everything related to ranching and food production—which are based on data that is stored and kept on file. We have to protect those interests and give them importance. That level of coordination among different countries already exists. For example, we already have functioning coordination with the United States. As with anything, it could be improved and refined, but I think we need to stick with it, continuing our coordination and working together. It’s a matter of trust. There are shared goals that are important to other nations. We have to make them clear. It’s important to define them, make them clear, and trust each other. That’s the direction in which we need to work.

Diálogo: What progress is being made on the issue of gender inclusion in the Uruguayan Armed Forces?

Gen. Saavedra: We understand that the role of women in modern society is fulfilling the same role as men. Meaning that when we talk about gender, they have the same obligations and the same rights, of course. The Uruguayan Army and the Uruguayan Armed Forces were the first in the region to authorize and integrate women into all units, as pilots, officers and sailors, or as infantry and cavalry officers—which are the most complex branches—and in artillery, engineering and communications. And today, they keep advancing in their careers without any problem. We already have women filling command positions in combat units and performing the same duties as the men. We feel that that should continue as-is. And besides, our experience—for example in peacekeeping missions, something that is characteristic of the Uruguayan Armed Forces—has been very positive. Having women in peacekeeping missions has allowed us to get closer to the people we’re trying to assist, providing them the security that is so important for them to be able to achieve peace.

Diálogo: It could be said that women are the face of Uruguayan peacekeeping missions, could it not?

Gen. Saavedra: Yes. For the Uruguayan Armed Forces, it’s a point of pride that our female personnel have been in these missions and that they have been participating fully in them. We’ve been saying that women and men alike are carrying out the same duties in an egalitarian way, and because we participate in peacekeeping missions with other nations—many of them with different cultures in which women are not so integrated—we have emphasized that as an opportunity [to promote women’s integration into the Uruguayan Armed Forces]. For us, it’s an honor to have women taking part in peacekeeping missions and in all the activities of the Uruguayan Armed Forces.

Diálogo: With the end of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), will the Uruguayan service members who are participating in that mission be deployed elsewhere?

Gen. Saavedra: Yes. We like to say that collaborating in peacekeeping missions is our vocation. Some years ago, around 1990, in Cambodia, our first deployment was an odyssey for Uruguay. Traveling 28,000 kilometers to the border with Laos was a real exploit. From that moment, we found that we had an opportunity. Since 1993, we have proudly served in missions in Africa, where we are currently present, and today, mainly in the Congo. Everything that we might collaborate on has added to the professional development and personal development of all members of the Uruguayan Armed Forces, across all three service branches, and we feel that it’s good to continue this. Right now in the United Nations, there are new regulations regarding these new deployments. We’re working to come up to speed on that, and we’re seeing what we can do to be more efficient and how we can better work together in new peacekeeping missions in Africa; missions that are certainly more complex and that belong to a new generation, requiring us not only to have special professional training but also a different awareness. We’re working in that regard, and we’re optimistic that by next year we’ll be able to be on the other side, working together in missions and collaborating on peacekeeping, which is somewhat difficult.

Diálogo: How do the Uruguayan Armed Forces deal with the issue of human rights in peacekeeping missions?

Gen. Saavedra: We feel that one way of promoting human rights is precisely to be in peacekeeping missions. We go to countries where human rights were violated for centuries—–women’s rights and children’s rights. We all know about issues like child soldiers and human trafficking... Peacekeeping missions are a tool that has proven to be useful for promoting human rights, for promoting gender equality, for promoting stabilization in societies that have gone through hard, sad, and difficult times, such as wars, so that they are able to move forward and so that those societies make advances in their own progress, in their own development. One fact that is very important is the full force of human rights. In that regard, we are convinced that we need to go back to the countries where we’ve been throughout the past 17 years—Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, and even Congo—and also where we’ve been as observers—Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia—to see how they’ve advanced. Even though they haven’t managed to solve all their problems—hardly any nation is able to completely achieve that—they’re headed in that direction, just as we all are. Somehow we’ve contributed to that happening, and we take pride in having done so and in being able to keep doing so.

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