In the last two years, Haiti’s democratically elected president was ousted by an armed band of “thugs,” a coterie of unpopular elites took power, politically motivated violence and human rights abuses spun out of control in Port-au-Prince slums and the nation’s already moribund economy inched closer to death. Without a doubt, hope had become a rare commodity in Haiti; that is, until René Préval won the February 7 presidential elections by a landslide margin. Haitians voted in droves, defying fears of violence, walking for miles to reach polling stations, waiting for hours in lines that stretched for blocks and enduring chaotic and disorganized voting centers. Suddenly, the gunfire and kidnappings that had haunted the streets of Port-au-Prince since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004 were replaced with a tangible calm.
The elections were declared a resounding success by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known by its French acronyms as Minustah), which had struggled to keep the country from slipping into violent chaos despite facing increasingly strident critiques from both the poor and the rich. Préval’s victory and the unexpected peace that came with it represented a vindication for the UN mission, which could now point to an irrefutable sign of progress for the first time since it arrived in June 2004.
[Minustah Chief Juan Gabriel] Valdés opened up the political space for everybody to participate, not only the political parties but also the voters,” said Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, who heads the UN’s peacekeeping missions in Europe and Latin America. “This is a big achievement. The other major achievement was to assure a stable and secure environment to the extent that it was possible to hold elections.
But just what role did the UN mission play in bringing peace to Haiti? In fact, the long-awaited elections, the self-proclaimed crowning achievement of Minustah, coincided with a noticeable rise in resentment among the poor against the peacekeepers. Six days after the elections, Haitians seized city streets and highways throughout the country in protest of the electoral council’s announcement that Préval’s lead had slipped below the 50% needed to avoid a second round of voting. Demonstrations and road blockades paralyzed the country, and a throng of protesters stormed the luxurious Hotel Montana, the election headquarters and a symbol of power and wealth in a country known for its crushing poverty. Throughout, the demonstrators expressed hostility not only toward their government, but also toward the UN mission. Many said they suspected the peacekeepers of conspiring with the government against Préval, who was president from 1996 to 2001 and once one of Aristide’s closest allies. More than one and a half years after the first peacekeepers had disembarked in Port-au-Prince, Minustah had worn out its welcome.
The demonstrations and road blockades were as unanticipated as they were potent. The electoral council—prodded by diplomats who had become unnerved by the road blockades and in particular by the scene of thousands of poor Haitians overrunning, albeit peacefully, the Montana—eventually acquiesced, modifying its method of counting blank votes so that Préval’s total jumped above 50%, more than four times the percentage obtained by his closest competitor. Tens of thousands of poor Haitians flooded the streets in celebration. Few of them credited Minustah with contributing to the happy ending.
For nearly two years, Minustah had backed an unelected government that alienated the majority poor population, favored former soldiers implicated in human rights abuses and suppressed Aristide’s Lavalas party. In private, UN officials frequently complained that the interim government of Prime Minister Gérard Latortue undermined their mission at every turn, dampening efforts at police reform, disarmament, human rights protection, reconciliation and elections. Yet Minustah was incapable of significantly changing the behavior of the interim government, and the peacekeepers themselves came to be perceived by many Haitians as part of the problem.
Unlike iraq, where the u.s. invasion without un approval rankled other world powers, the toppling of Haiti’s Aristide in February 2004 was a multilateral affair. Canada and France had joined U.S. President George W. Bush in undercutting support for Aristide by financing minority opposition groups waging an all-or-nothing campaign against the government. All three nations had declined to come to Aristide’s aid as bands of former soldiers and paramilitaries threatened to attack Port-au-Prince, and they later blamed the democratically elected leader for his own ouster. By some accounts, France had become even more antagonistic to Aristide than had the United States.
France, more so than other UN member-states, and fully aware of the U.S. Administration’s antipathy to Aristide, saw an opportunity in the Haiti question to achieve several foreign policy objectives,” according to one diplomat, with more than a decade of experience in Haiti, who asked to remain anonymous. “Make up to the U.S. after its rejectionist stance on Iraq. Secondly, get rid of a thorn in its side as Aristide’s high profile campaign to have France repay the monies it had ransomed from Haiti had become embarrassing. Thirdly, become a major actor once again on the Haitian scene as the U.S. became increasingly distracted and diverted from the deterioration of the situation in Haiti by its wars against international terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.”1
With strong backing from the U.S.-Canada-France triumvirate, the UN Security Council passed a resolution hours after Aristide’s departure, recognizing the interim government and authorizing a multinational force—composed of troops from the United States, Canada, France and Chile—to occupy Haiti.
Caricom, the regional bloc of 15 Caribbean nations, never recognized the interim government becuase it considered Aristide’s ouster unconstitutional. Its concerns assumed increasing relevancy during the initial weeks of the Latortue Administration, which was stacked with Aristide opponents who immediately began cracking down on Lavalas militants. But the Caribbean countries were not represented in the Security Council, which two months later voted unanimously to send a peacekeeping mission to replace the multilateral force and to prop up the interim government. Even China, which had resisted UN involvement in Haiti in the past due to the Haitian government’s recognition of Taiwan, chipped in with 125 riot police, its largest contribution ever to a peacekeeping mission.
Brazil, Chile and Argentina, all openly critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offered to send large troop contingents, making Minustah the first UN peacekeeping mission led by Latin American soldiers. Some analysts assert that Brazil was seeking to bolster its internationalist credentials as it jockeyed for a permanent seat on an expanded UN Security Council.2 Proponents of Minustah in all three countries defended their participation as a way of mitigating the potentially adverse influence of the United States, Canada and France.
“Our concern was to respect the constitutional authority, and not to favor any sector,” said Heraldo Muñoz, Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations. “One of the good things about Brazil and Chile and Argentina is that we had no vested interests—no geopolitical, ideological nor historical interests in Haiti—so we could have freer hands to try to focus solely on creating conditions for stability. We didn’t have hidden agendas.” But if the participation of these three Latin American nations made the UN mission less cozy with Haiti’s elites and more sensitive to the plight of the majority poor, few Haitians seemed to notice.
Until Préval’s victory, Minustah had produced strikingly few positive results despite the presence of as many as 9,000 peacekeepers and an annual budget of more than $500 million. The UN Security Council charged Minustah with protecting civilians from violence, reforming Haiti’s police force, shepherding efforts to disarm gangs and paramilitary groups, stimulating dialogue and reconciliation between opposing political factions, supporting the protection and promotion of human rights and assisting the government in holding free and fair elections. By January 2006, Minustah had arguably fallen short of fulfilling nearly every aspect of its mandate.
Without a doubt, the presence of the peacekeepers likely prevented an escalation of armed conflict and bloodshed, especially in the countryside, where UN troops eventually stamped out rebellions by bands of former soldiers who had established de facto rule. In Cap Haïtien, Lavalas militants were openly grateful to the Chilean troops stationed there for protecting them from the former soldiers. And a commonly expressed sentiment in some of Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods was that the violence would have been much worse without the presence of the blue helmets. However, the UN troops did not move on the former military until March 2005, when relations between the government and hard-line sectors of the former soldiers had definitively soured. Until then, the former military wielded de facto rule in Petit-Goâve and the Central Plateau, rounding up suspected chimères (pro-Aristide militants) under the nose of UN troops, who were under orders not to engage with the illegally armed Haitian soldiers. In Port-au-Prince, just a few minutes’ drive from the wealthy neighborhood of Pétionville, dozens of former soldiers armed with automatic weapons swaggered for months around a condominium complex owned by a suspected narcotrafficker before they were forcibly removed.
In Port-au-Prince violence has raged during most of the last two years. Haitian police officers fired into peaceful Lavalas demonstrations and raided the slums, killing suspected Aristide supporters in summary executions and rounding up others in illegal detentions and arbitrary arrests.3 In many cases, UN troops provided backup to the police during these operations, while on other occasions they were simply nowhere to be seen. The results of investigations launched by UN police into summary executions and into an alleged massacre of prisoners at the national penitentiary in December 2004 were never released. The UN police force that was supposed to monitor and train the Haitian police was rarely seen accompanying Haitian police officers during patrols or keeping a watch over police stations, where torture and extortion are commonplace. “The Haitian police are the biggest gang of all,” said one UN police officer who asked not to be named. “The problem is the UN is not forceful enough when it comes to standing toe to toe with the government. And the government knows it.”
In October 2004, slum-based armed groups loyal to Aristide responded, clashing with police officers, burning cars and shooting in crowded marketplaces, a backlash that the interim authorities dubbed “Operation Baghdad.” A year later, a spike in kidnappings that panicked foreigners and the capital’s relatively small middle and upper classes was tied, in part, to armed groups based in the enormous and devastatingly poor neighborhood of Cité Soleil, a bastion of Aristide support. Cité Soleil has been a virtual war zone for much of the last two years. First, a gang war erupted between two armed groups, one of them demanding Aristide’s return and the other championed by business leader André Apaid, a fervid anti-Aristide activist known to have close relations with top officials in the Bush Administration. The armed groups later unified in support of Aristide’s Lavalas party, and gun battles between them and the Jordanian peacekeepers, who patrol the area, became routine. Countless innocent residents of the bullet-pocked neighborhood have been wounded and killed by gunfire. Many, if not most, of the victims blame the peacekeepers, who were shooting as many as 2,000 rounds of ammunition a day according to one UN official.4
The UN’s attempts to reduce violence through a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program (DDR) were scuttled by the interim government, which persuaded the former soldiers not to give up their guns. The government also refused UN appeals to consider an amnesty for armed groups, including those supporting Aristide, which the UN deemed a precondition to stopping the violence in Port-au-Prince. A mainstay of post-conflict peacekeeping missions, DDR helped disband armies in Sierra Leone, Mozambique and El Salvador, but managed to collect only a few dozen weapons in Haiti by early 2006.5
Reconciliation and national dialogue never advanced—and no wonder. The interim government chose Micha Gaillard, a light-skinned member of the elite and leader of one of Haiti’s myriad fervent anti-Aristide political parties, with negligible popular support, to head its national dialogue commission. Meanwhile, the government locked up prominent Lavalas leaders who did not flee the country, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Father Gérard Jean-Juste, a longtime activist who feeds hundreds of children every day in his Port-au-Prince parish. Jean-Juste was selected as Lavalas’ presidential candidate, but the electoral council barred him from running because he was in jail, suspected of involvement in the murder of journalist Jacques Roche, but considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, convicted in absentia of masterminding a massacre in 1994, when he helped command the brutal paramilitary group known as FRAPH (the Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), was released from prison.
“Minustah represents a grievous setback for the UN,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). “Minustah was essentially out to lunch for most of its stint. There were exceptions when the UN was on the side of the general population rather than the elites. But in general, the UN mission to Haiti has been a gross failure not so much for what it did, but for what it didn’t do.” Birns added, “There was no preferential bias in favor of the general population. In fact, Minustah became more or less an arm of the Latortue government.”
Todd Howland, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial’s Center for Human Rights, argues that the UN mission was doomed from the beginning. According to Howland, Minustah differed from other peacekeeping missions because it entered the country without having first brokered a peace agreement between opposing sides in the armed conflict, which could have provided a framework for disarmament, dialogue and elections.
“It’s a totally inappropriate solution for the member-states to tell the United Nations to take sides in Haiti, but that’s what they’ve done,” said Howland, who worked in UN peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Angola. “It’s simply crazy that the UN was not allowed to do what the UN typically does to bring peace to a country. It needed to bring the parties of the conflict together to discuss how to resolve the underlying conflict. There needed to be a peace process, a peace negotiation. This is the only country in the world where you have a significant UN operation without a peace accord.” Howland continued, “People can think what they want to about Lavalas. Love them or hate them, it is shortsighted and costly to exclude them from this process. It’s not a question of good or bad. Lavalas is the major political force and that’s the reality in Haiti.”
UN officials frequently justified their passivity in the face of the Latortue Administration’s abuses and obstructionism by pointing to the limitations of their mandate, which is laden with language requiring the peacekeepers to “support” and “assist” the interim government. “The original mandate was structured so that the UN mission had very little independence of action,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Vice-President of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “For example, disarming and demobilizing illegal armed groups, protecting the civilian protection, reforming the police—all of those things were dependent upon the approval of the transitional government. And the transitional government had a series of political interests that frequently placed it at odds with the efforts of the UN mission to support stability, justice and democratic institutions.”
But according to a 2005 report by the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights, Minustah’s mandate was relatively robust, and it wielded exceptionally strong authority in the area of human rights. “The point is precisely that previous missions responsible for far-reaching successes, whether ultimately assuming a more established institutional presence or not, derived authority from mandates virtually indistinguishable in language and scope from that of Minustah,” writes Benjamin Litman, a co-author of the report. “Our firm belief is that Minustah’s narrow reading of its mandate stems neither from a lack of capacity nor from practical, circumstantial difficulties but rather merely from a lack of political will.”
As one UN official who served in peacekeeping missions in Europe and Africa and held a top position in Minustah said, “There’s nothing wrong with the mandate, it’s the way we’ve interpreted the mandate that’s the problem…. The UN is not supposed to just kowtow to anybody who is violating our principles,” said the official. “We’re here to do a job and not just please the government.”
According to a U.S. State Department official who asked not to be named, the United Nations was in “an extraordinarily difficult situation because you’re dealing with a government that is quasi-legitimate and is not doing a very good job in almost every respect.” The detention of Neptune was a “big deal” to the UN Security Council members, said the U.S. official, but frequent appeals made to the government went unheeded. “Valdés did try to put pressure on the government. He simply failed. Then you get into the issue of how to accelerate the pressure and it gets difficult. But there were high-level people down there all the time.”
The official conceded, however, that insecurity in Port-au-Prince was the primary concern of the Security Council members, and that apart from Neptune’s arrest, human rights abuses and the marginalization of Lavalas from the political process were given little importance.
The mechanisms we had to react were limited,” said Alejandro Torres, a member of the Argentine mission to the United Nations. “We could make known our concern to the government, but the government always gave its own reasoning and arguments.”
Were the limitations on influencing the interim government insurmountable or the result of a lack of political will? During a UN Security Council visit to Haiti in April 2004, a Latin American diplomat said his country was the only one to voice concern about human rights abuses in meetings with Latortue and Haitian President Boniface Alexandre. The two interim Haitian leaders replied that there were no human rights abuses—a statement that Latortue had brashly made to the press—and the subject quickly shifted to other matters. The diplomat explained that given the lack of interest among the other 14 Security Council members in holding the interim government accountable for committing human rights abuses, the best that could be done was to maintain the status quo in the hopes that the situation would not deteriorate any further.
The un mission was not only stymied by an uncooperative government; the peacekeepers themselves came to be accused of marginalizing Aristide’s Lavalas party while committing human rights abuses and covering them up.
Nowhere have the contradictions inherent in the UN peacekeeping mission been so explicit than in the sprawling slum of Cité Soleil. As recently as last January, Jordanian peacekeepers engaged in daily gun battles with armed residents of the neighborhood. Human rights groups have accused the peacekeepers of shooting indiscriminately with high-caliber weapons in the densely packed slum. Cité Soleil’s only public hospital, where bullet wound victims are often treated, was hit twice by gunfire coming from the direction of a semi-permanent UN outpost. One volleyball-sized hole was left in one of the hospital’s walls after being blasted by a bullet from a 20-millimeter cannon, a weapon that is mounted on the Jordanian tanks but is not used by the local armed groups.
Despite the wealth of testimonies and evidence collected by human rights observers, activists and journalists that indicate the UN troops have wounded and killed innocent civilians in Cité Soleil, the UN has not publicly admitted to being responsible in a single case nor offered the corresponding compensation to victims and family members. Investigations into alleged UN excesses in Cité Soleil have been shrouded in secrecy and never officially released. In contrast, when Jordanian peacekeepers mistakenly shot and wounded two Haitian police officers near Cité Soleil in December 2005, the UN immediately announced an investigation and called the incident “appalling.”
While the leaders of the armed groups in Cité Soleil are largely pro-Aristide militants, many of them are former civil servants fired by the interim government and have consistently claimed to be fighting for political objectives. But in accordance with the Latortue Administration’s position, the UN has consistently treated the slum’s armed groups as common criminals. Mimicking the interim government’s rhetoric, UN spokespeople and officials have frequently referred to armed supporters of Aristide as “bandits,” especially when reporting detentions or casualties inflicted by the peacekeepers. As a result, UN officials have refused to dialogue with them, and negotiations that could have potentially stemmed violence in the slum have remained a non-starter.
“What is being offered to the armed leaders in Cité Soleil? Death or long-term imprisonment. Why would the people in the armed groups play nice? Their own existence is at stake,” said one UN official, who complained that his efforts to reach out to pro-Aristide leaders of armed groups were frowned upon by his colleagues and superiors. “Everything associated with Aristide is considered tainted and has been sidelined by the UN. But Lavalas is not a criminal enterprise, which is the basic premise of the Bush Administration and one that the United Nations unfortunately has inherited.” He added, “The problem is that it’s not the good guys against the criminals. It’s a real conflict. There are those who support Lavalas and those who are against Lavalas. Instead, the UN has preferred to blame Haiti’s problems on a handful of bandits who are messing things up and pretend that besides that, everything is fine and dandy. It’s a simplistic analysis of the problem.”
Weisbrod-weber, the un’s head of peacekeeping in Latin America, identifies last December as the low point for the UN mission in Haiti. “The feeling of insecurity was pervasive and there was a feeling that things were spinning out of control,” he said. Four months later, he proudly declared Minustah “a success.”
But was Minustah’s turnaround a result of the UN’s good offices or of Préval? Despite Minustah’s many efforts to get out the vote, which included a barrage of radio spots and the giving away of thousands of plastic buckets promoting the balloting, in the end it was Préval’s candidacy more than any other factor that inspired Haiti’s poor to vote in the elections. And it was the poor themselves who made sure that a second round would be averted, potentially saving the country from renewed violence and political strife. In Cité Soleil, UN policy in the slum never changed substantially, and the peacekeepers played no visible role in bringing about the sudden calm. Instead, change came from the armed groups themselves, who for the time being have apparently shelved their weapons in the hopes that Préval would end the interim government’s hard-line policy.
Préval could not have chosen a more appropriate name for the coalition of political parties with which he campaigned: Espwa, or hope. For the first time in more than two years, many poor Haitians have hope that their country can change for the better. These expectations will be difficult to fulfill and Préval knows it. He has made few promises, but among them, is his assurance that he will ask the peacekeepers to stay longer.
The day the electoral council declared Préval president, residents of Cité Soleil were seen celebrating in the street alongside the feared Jordanian peacekeepers, who ordinarily never leave the safety of their armored vehicles. Does this spontaneous reconciliation augur better times ahead? It remains to be seen whether the change in Haiti’s government will represent a fresh start for the United Nations’ mission in Haiti, and an opportunity to repair its damaged reputation in the eyes of the poor.
1. Aristide insisted France repay the 150 million francs, with interest (estimated at nearly $22 billion today) that France demanded in compensation for property losses from the Haitian Revolution.
2. “Brazil’s Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti: Doing God’s or Washington’s Work?” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), December 6, 2004.
3. “Haiti Disarmament Delayed, Justice Denied,” Amnesty International, July 28, 2005. See, also, Reed Lindsay, “Police Blamed in Haiti Killings,” The Toronto Star, February 15, 2005; and Reed Lindsay, “Violent Tide Vs. Aristide Supporters,” Newsday, November 7, 2004.
4. Reed Lindsay, “UN’s Feared Blue Helmets Blamed for Haiti Attacks,” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 4, 2006.
5. Reed Lindsay, “Arms Amnesty Program Thwarted,” The Toronto Star, January 15, 2006.
About the Author
Reed Lindsay is a freelance journalist who has been based in Port-au-Prince since October 2004. He prepared this article as part of the Stanley Foundation Reporting Project.