Mar 9, 2014
The U.N. in Haiti: Time to Adapt or Time to Go
Posted on Sep 1, 2011
Staying in a hotel only feet away from a tent encampment where thousands of Haitians sat in darkness throughout long evenings of pounding rain, an American filmmaker and I watched as a group of rather surly, well-fed men identifying themselves as police advisers with MINUSTAH literally drank themselves into oblivion over the course of two days. This took place under the gaze of local Haitian staff and other guests. Speaking to others in the capital, I discovered that such behavior is evidently not an uncommon occurrence, and it creates the unfortunate perception of a fraternity party amid an apocalypse, and makes the mission appear very removed from the daily struggles of the Haitians it is ostensibly there to protect.
By any estimation, MINUSTAH has done many things for Haiti during its years in the country. During a 2004-06 campaign of violence in the capital by various armed groups dubbed Operation Baghdad, a ghastly wave of kidnapping, arson and murder affected all levels of society, and at one point an average of one police officer was being killed every five days. The security forces of the interim government then in power often responded to this by broadly targeting the impoverished male population of the capital’s slums with extrajudicial executions. In tandem with Haiti’s police after Préval’s 2006 inauguration, MINUSTAH largely brought this period to an end, something for which Haitians should be grateful to it.
Likewise, when elements linked to political actors used the population’s legitimate anger over the rise of food prices as a cover for violent attacks against government installations and figures in 2008, it was likely only the presence of MINUSTAH that saved Préval from being toppled by a coup organized by these same elements.
MINUSTAH has built roads and worked hard to create a space where nonviolent political debate can take place. Haiti, however, ultimately needs to be governed and administered by Haitians, not as some eternal international protectorate. Having stood with Haitians through some of their worst days, the United Nations is now being seen more and more as an occupying force despite the fact that it has been in Haiti at the invitation of two democratically elected heads of state for five of its seven years there.
Simultaneously, with so much hostility building up toward the mission in the country’s agricultural areas and elsewhere due to the cholera epidemic, the mission might do well to engage with Haitian peasant organizations in an effort to help revitalize the country’s ailing rural economy. Though peasant groups such as Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan and the 200,000-member Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay (the latter led by veteran peasant leader Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, winner of the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize for grass-roots environmentalists) have been largely hostile to MINUSTAH’s presence, a détente between the groups could help foster the transition from strict peacekeeping to development, which is needed if the mission is to succeed.
Neither the United Nations, the United States nor any other foreign body can fix all of Haiti’s ills. Ultimately, the Haitians have to do it for themselves. Among Haiti’s political class, Haitians have to stop killing one another, Haitians have to stop being corrupt, Haitians have to stop paying and accepting bribes, and politics must no longer be viewed as a blood sport of winner take all where one side celebrates total victory and one side weeps in abject defeat and marginalization.
This has been the tradition of Haitian politics for more than 200 years, but it has not been the tradition of the majority of Haitians who have historically been excluded from the political process, and whose generosity, industry and fundamental decency impress all those who meet them.
The Haitian people understand this better than anyone else. In its current incarnation in Haiti, the United Nations mission has become an obstacle, rather than an asset, to the country taking ownership of the issues that confront it.
It is time for the mission to refocus on new tasks, or to leave while the Haitians can still see it off as a friend.
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