HaitiHuman Rights

The “Enforcers”: MINUSTAH and the Culture of Violence in Port-au-Prince

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  • Although at first glance it may seem that Haitian protests against the presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) are due to scattered incidents of violence committed by its members against locals, a close examination reveals a pattern of systematic acts of heavy repression against the population.
  • Several international officials have indicated that Haiti does not offer a credible threat to international peace and security, which the UN Charter stipulates as the basis for MINUSTAH’s presence in the country.
  • Not only has MINUSTAH been ineffective at providing security for the average Haitian, but it also has ignored extra-judicial killings and perpetrated acts of repeated violence against locals in cases such as the infamous Cité Soleil raid.
  • According to numerous Haitian commentators, such violent abuses are MINUSTAH’s basic modi operandi for protecting the U.S.’ and other Western economic interests by targeting poor Haitians, many of whom are involved in Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s anti-neoliberal Fanmi Lavalas movement.

Many media reports, out of reluctance to criticize the UN body, have downplayed Haitian protestors’ outrage over the rampant violence perpetrated by United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), asserting that the demonstrations are merely protesting a few individual acts, such as the inadvertent introduction of cholera and the alleged gang rape of a young man. However, as President Michel Martelly (April 2011-present) asserted, these incidents are in fact pouring “gas on the fire” that has been steadily destroying relations between Haitians and the peacekeepers. [1] Although Martelly did not imply it, these relations are deteriorating due to a pattern of heavy repression against the population.

This violence has become much more calculated than the scattered acts reported by the U.S. media. Mark Schuller, an anthropologist specializing in the impact of international development aid, NGOs, and MINUSTAH in Haiti, explains that the Mission comprises the enforcers. “Many say that they are responsible for keeping Haiti a ‘leta restavek’ – a child servant state, owned by the international community. To many Haitian commentators, the [former] Préval government willingly gave up control [to MINUSTAH] in exchange for continued survival.”[2] The U.S. has been intent on protecting the neoliberal policies which, according to WikiLeaks cables from the State Department, have been threatened by the so-called “populist and anti-market economy” Fanmi Lavalas movement of the poor majority.[3] These policies have allowed Haiti, both before and after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991, 1994-1996, 2001-2004) started the Fanmi Lavalas movement, to become fertile ground for privatization, liberalization, and connections between the island and transnational corporations. In the process of suppressing the Haitian poor in general and the anti-neoliberal Fanmi Lavalas movement more specifically, MINUSTAH has perpetrated systematic acts of violence against residents of the island, while failing to provide predictable security for the average Haitian.

Haiti: An International Threat?
MINUSTAH was dispatched to Haiti under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, by which the “[Security] Council may impose measures on states that have obligatory legal force and therefore need not depend on the consent of the states involved. To do this, the Council must determine that the situation constitutes a threat or breach of the peace.”[4] The Mission’s presence in the country is thus based on the proposition that since 2004, violence in Haiti has threatened the international community. A close examination of the Mission, however, brings into question the efficacy of its international forces. Journalist Ansel Herz reported that in his 2009 interviews of participants protesting against MINUSTAH’s controversial deployment, many Haitians related that “they were tired of an occupation in their country [and] that the peacekeepers have an enormous budget, but very little of it is spent on… concrete humanitarian activity that could actually improve education and healthcare in this country.”[5] They believe that much of its time and effort has indeed been spent on security concerns instead of fostering genuine internal development.

Additionally, several reports have concluded that the Haitian situation has not “a threat or breach of the [international] peace,” as Chapter VII of the UN Charter stipulates.[6] According to journalist Herz’s review of WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, “dispatches from Ambassador Merten in Haiti repeatedly describe ‘only sporadic’ incidents of violence and looting,” with one cable asserting that the “security situation in Haiti remains calm overall with no indications of mass migration towards North America.”[7] As Ricardo Seitenfus, former representative of the OAS Secretary General put it, “the system of dispute prevention within the UN system is not adapted to the Haitian context. Haiti is not an international threat. We are not experiencing civil war. Haiti is not Iraq or Afghanistan.” He adds that the UN’s “mandate in Haiti is to keep the peace of the cemetery.”[8] In fact, according to the cables, Haitian businesspeople were “the most worried about security, especially for their factories,” asking MINUSTAH to provide security for their property rather than it being afforded to the Haitian people. [9] In assessing these cables, one could conclude that MINUSTAH’s security actions, such as the raids described below, may be in response to requests to protect the interests of private corporations and the real property of the well-to-do. They have not, however, effectively protected the lives and welfare of Haiti’s poor majority.

“Photocopy”: MINUSTAH’s Ineffectiveness
Many reputable journalists and academics report that MINUSTAH has done little or nothing to protect the average Haitian. Anthropologist Mark Schuller asserts that MINUSTAH troops are

ineffectual – according to our study [of residents’ experiences with MINUSTAH], most people who witnessed a violent act or a case of theft [report that] the MINUSTAH agent does nothing, or appears [or pretends] not to…see… In the Carradeux camp, one of the official relocation sites and…[a reputed] ‘success story,’… residents say that ‘bandits’ aren’t afraid of MINUSTAH because they don’t do anything. A research assistant…witnessed a fight. Rather than break up the fight, the troops moved their vehicle so it would be out of the way and not damaged by it. People in this camp call MINUSTAH ‘photocopy’ – they just are on the wall, looking down, but doing nothing.[10]

Journalists have documented similar incidents. According to Deepa Panchang of NACLA Report on the Americas, when violent criminals attacked a refugee camp in Cité Soleil, camp residents and NGOs appealed to MINUSTAH, which chose not to respond. When the criminals disrupted a tarp distribution operation by MINUSTAH two months later, “the UN police hung back.”[11] Moreover, the Mission’s attempts at humanitarian assistance reportedly have been less than effective, lending an unreal quality to the criticism brought against MINUSTAH for doing too little or too much. Tom Brown of Reuters writes that “none of the peacekeepers appeared to be involved in hands-on humanitarian relief in what emergency medical experts describe as the critical first 72 hours after a devastating earthquake strikes. Their response [to the 2010 earthquake]… was limited to handling security and looking for looters.”[12] A 2005 report by the Harvard University Law School entitled Keeping the Peace in Haiti? concluded that MINUSTAH had made “little, if any progress” in fulfilling its mandate to uphold a just political process and monitor and report on human rights in an effort to provide a stable, secure environment.[13] MINUSTAH has not only been ineffective in providing security and humanitarian assistance, but has actively ignored mass violence against the Haitian people.

Ignoring Extra-judicial Killings
During the 2004-2006 provisional presidency of Boniface Alexandre, who came to power after an alleged coup against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a study published in the prominent medical journal The Lancet found that out of approximately 8,000 extra-judicial killings in Haiti, about 4,000 may have been for political reasons.[14] The study also stated that “officers from the Haitian National Police accounted for 13.8 percent and armed anti-Lavalas groups accounted for 10.6 percent of identified perpetrators of [reported incidents of] sexual assault.”[15] During the tenure of the brutish provisional government, Gérard Latortue’s administration also purged hundreds of Fanmi Lavalas Party supporters from state jobs.[16] Furthermore, the Harvard University Law School report stated that MINUSTAH was aware of a mass grave but was “unwilling to investigate,” concluding that the UN mission “has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port au Prince’s slums.”[17]

The political violence after the purported 2004 coup was largely perpetrated against the poor Haitians who formed the pro-Aristide majority and the Fanmi Lavalas party.[18] By ignoring these atrocities, MINUSTAH apparently adhered to the guidelines of the U.S. State Department by systematically suppressing what it called “populist and anti-market economy” movements.[19] Even more disturbing, however, are the “credible allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by MINUSTAH itself,” as documented in the 2005 Harvard University Law School report.[20] One crucial example was MINUSTAH’s violent raid in Cité Soleil.

A Political Massacre: The Cité Soleil Raid
The provisional Alexandre administration used extra-judicial killings as a tactic to control members and supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas party, especially in slums such as Cité Soleil, which often happen to be party strongholds. Leaders affiliated with the party, such as Emmanuel Wilmer (also known as Dread Wilme), worked to protect their communities from paramilitaries and death squads; while some Haitians saw these community leaders as “resistance fighters,” the provisional government and the U.N. viewed them as gangsters responsible for violent crimes and therefore subject to summary justice.[21] In a May 2005 cable entitled “Haitian Private Sector Panicked by Increasing Violence,” former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley reported that local businesspeople were increasingly alarmed by the lack of security forces patrolling their property around the ports and in the industrial zone. Foley asked MINUSTAH for a “swift, aggressive” response to the private sector’s complaints about criminals, who were allegedly from poor neighborhoods like Cité Soleil.[22] He claimed that MINUSTAH’s failure to react put both the upcoming elections and the Haitian economy at risk.[23]

In response, former head of MINUSTAH Juan Gabriel Valdés developed a plan “in coordination with the private sector” and the police. “Weeks later,” 1,440 MINUSTAH peacekeepers, “backed by forty-one armored personnel carriers, sealed off Cite Soleil [sic] and attacked,” leaving casualties in their wake, including children.[24] Doctors Without Borders reported treating at least twenty-six gunshot victims from Cité Soleil that day.[25] While the UN admitted in 2006 that civilians may have been shot in the crossfire, “given the length of the operation and the violence of the clashes,” it insisted that MINUSTAH only fired in self-defense.[26]

In a follow-up to his previous cable, former Ambassador Foley wrote that “it remains unclear how aggressive MINUSTAH was, though 22,000 rounds is a large amount of ammunition to have killed only six people [the UN’s official death toll].”[27] Nevertheless, Foley praised MINUSTAH, asserting that “the security situation in the capital has clearly improved thanks to aggressive incursions in Bel Air [another poor neighborhood] and the July 6 raid against Dread Wilme in Cite Soleil [sic]… Post has congratulated MINUSTAH and the Brazilian Battalion for the remarkable success achieved in recent weeks.”[28] This praise, despite Foley’s skepticism about the official death toll, demonstrates MINUSTAH’s readiness both to sacrifice the welfare of poor Haitians for the security of the business community, and to protect neoliberal policies by violently suppressing the Fanmi Lavalas movement.

Timothy Carney, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires for Haiti in 2006, warned that further raids would “inevitably cause unintended civilian casualties given the crowded conditions and flimsy construction of tightly packed housing in Cité Soleil.”[29] In spite of this admonition, MINUSTAH’s raids “continued into 2006.”[30] These raids and the fatalities that followed were politically motivated atrocities aimed at suppressing poor Haitians in the so-called “Aristide Movement,” such as Dread Wilme, who fought back with determination against the provisional presidency and its paramilitaries.[31] According to journalist Naomi Klein, families of raid victims in Cité Soleil placed photographs of Aristide on the bodies of their loved ones, “silently insist[ing that]… poor Haitians are being slaughtered not for being ‘violent,’ as we so often hear, but… for daring to demand the return of their elected president.”[32] The raids were also intended to reduce property crime supposedly perpetrated by residents; that is, to provide security for the Haitian businesses by terrorizing a poor neighborhood, not, presumably, to provide safeguards for the entire community. Once again acting in the interests of the U.S State Department, which insisted in a cable posted by WikiLeaks that the “Aristide Movement Must Be Stopped,” MINUSTAH resorted to extra-judicial killings to crack down on poor neighborhoods known as strongholds of former President Aristide’s anti-neoliberal Fanmi Lavalas Party. [33]

Individual Acts of Violence
Although the cholera outbreak in Haiti and the alleged collective rape of a young Haitian have been widely reported, numerous other acts of violence have gone almost entirely unnoticed by the U.S. press. A young teenager named Gérard Jean-Gilles, for instance, was found hanging dead inside a UN base.[34] While the UN claims that he committed suicide, Ansel Herz reports that “people just across from the base at a hotel said that they heard his screams.”[35] According to the weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté, Edmond Mulet, the former Head of Mission of MINUSTAH, invoked UN immunity rules “to prevent the Haitian judiciary from summonsing a Haitian witness in the case.”[36]

After investigating another case of violence, the UN found that over one hundred Sri Lankan troops had allegedly raped underage girls, and, “in exchange for sex… [had given them] small amounts of money, food, and sometimes mobile phones.”[37] These individual acts of violence, while not the only cause for protest among Haitians, seemed to inflame the peacekeepers’ already troubled relations with Haitians.[38] Perhaps even more problematic, however, is the impunity enjoyed by UN troops in Haiti.

Enforcing Haiti’s Status as a Leta Restavek
The disturbing reports concerning the misbehavior of MINUSTAH peacekeepers in perpetrating violence against Haitians have not been met with effective prosecution. According to COHA Senior Research Fellow Greg Grandin and journalist Keane Bhatt,

[UN] troops are granted broad immunity for crimes committed in Haiti, and are only subject to prosecution in their home countries. Among the different governments participating in MINUSTAH, there are major discrepancies between their domestic laws and their willingness to investigate crimes. Even if prosecutions of peacekeeping troops do take place, it would be difficult to obtain witnesses and dependable evidence from Haiti.[39]

This immunity only compounds the contentious relations between peacekeepers and Haitians. Although on the surface, protests against the presence of MINUSTAH seem as though they are responses to tangible evidence of intermittent incidents of violence, abuse, and neglect, a closer look reveals a response to repeated human rights abuses as well as to those more isolated incidents. Many Haitians connect this systematic violence to MINUSTAH’s suppression of democracy in the region, such as its supervision of fraudulent elections and its efforts to thwart peaceful protests. They view MINUSTAH’s presence as “an occupation in their country,” enforcing the rule of a largely hostile international community rather than rule for and by Haitians, and contributing to Haiti’s status as a leta restavek, or child-servant state.[40] According to a number of these Haitian commentators, violent incidents such as the Cité Soleil raid are MINUSTAH’s methods of enforcing this prejudicial hierarchy by targeting poor Haitians, especially those faithful to the Fanmi Lavalas movement.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good,” but merely find themselves in circumstances where evil deeds seem natural.[41] Although presumably, most UN troops do not intend to “do evil” against the native population, many of their actions may be classified as such. When foreigners are awarded impunity and broad power to maintain security, they gain a remarkably large amount of de facto control over the population, allowing for human rights violations to occur. Although the Haitian police and armed forces also have perpetrated abuses against local citizens, both this “powerful foreigner” dynamic and the unpopular, damaging neoliberal policies it protects must be removed if Haitians are to find themselves on the path to true security and stability.

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