Haiti and the UN
Time for the peacekeepers to start handing over, but not to a new army
Oct 15th 2011 | PORT-AU-PRINCE | from the print edition
THIS week the United Nations Security Council is set to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as Minustah, for an eighth year. Despite early success in stabilising Haiti, the mission has been undermined by tragedy and further weakened by mistakes and mounting unpopularity. But as Haiti struggles to rebuild itself after last year’s devastating earthquake, the country and its new government risk being distracted by a debate about whether to replace the UN force by resurrecting an army of its own.
Minustah was deployed after the controversial ousting by local rebels and their foreign backers of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a divisive leftist president, in 2004. The UN troops spent their first two years helping to evict armed gangs from urban slums. Having propped up a widely disliked interim government, the UN helped to organise a presidential election. With security broadly restored, Minustah’s raison d’être became fuzzier. René Préval, elected president in 2006, called for it to provide “tractors not tanks”. Along with the rest of Haiti, Minustah suffered in the earthquake: 102 UN staff died, most when the hotel it used as its headquarters collapsed.
Public hostility to Minustah, expressed in graffiti and now billboards, intensified after the sloppy sanitation practices of UN troops from Nepal appeared to be the source of a cholera outbreak last year that killed more than 6,400 people. Protests against the “occupation” grew after the alleged sexual assault of a young man by Uruguayan soldiers in August. Haitian lawmakers last month passed a motion calling for the peacekeepers to go in 2014.
Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, appealed to wounded national pride during his campaign, promising a cut in peacekeeping troops and their replacement by a newly reconstituted Haitian army. But he has since changed his tune.
Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, is recommending that the force be reduced from 12,000 to 9,000, its pre-earthquake strength. Mr Martelly now opposes that cut. “There is nothing more irresponsible and dangerous [than] to let these missions leave without an effective national alternative,” he told the UN General Assembly last month.
Mariano Fernández, a Chilean diplomat who heads Minustah, said the mission should not close until it was clear it would never have to return. That would require a much more competent state. Haiti lacks a permanent electoral council and reliable land registry, for example.
Instead of concentrating on those tasks and on rebuilding after the quake, Mr Martelly is pushing forward with his plan to revive the army. After a sombre history of coups and brutality, it was dissolved, though not constitutionally abolished, by Mr Aristide. The government’s justifications, in a document circulated to foreign embassies, are thin: job creation and restoring sovereignty can be better achieved by civilian means. Haiti faces no external military threat. What it needs is a bigger and better police force.
Strengthening the Haitian National Police has been an ostensible priority of aid donors and Haitian governments for more than 15 years. But like so many endeavours in Haiti, the job was stymied by political instability, lack of co-ordination, and, in the early 2000s, donors’ distrust of Mr Aristide. It is part of Minustah’s mission to to support an expansion of police numbers, from 6,500 to 14,000 this year. In fact, there are only around 10,000 police in Haiti, but the police academy turned out 900 new officers this year. There are new vetting mechanisms. Many Haitians say the police are becoming more professional.
But the quake knocked out a fifth of police stations and the force’s headquarters, and allowed 5,000 prisoners, including some notorious criminals, to flee jail. The police director has complained that he lacks enough money to recruit extra officers or to finance a career structure.
It is surely time for Minustah to be wound down. Most of its troops do not speak Creole or French. The mission is in practice unaccountable for abuses. Haitians have little say in what it does. Its main role in public security is as a deterrent; even on the quietest days, its troops patrol in armoured personnel carriers, pointing automatic weapons out of the windows. Haitians do not need more of that—even if it were to come from their own army. Mr Martelly has begun badly.
from the print edition | The Americas
Reprinted from The Economist Magazine of October 15, 2011.