An explosive cell phone video released earlier this month documents the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man at the hands of five Uruguayan troops belonging to a contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti located in the southern town of Port-Salut. As the story spreads internationally, MINUSTAH—the UN Stabilization Mission is known by its French acronym—has become the target of demonstrations in Port-Salut, in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and in front of the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense in Montevideo. Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro ordered the immediate repatriation of the soldiers shown in the video, who now await further legal action in jail.
Earlier, as unconfirmed reports of misconduct began to multiply, Defense Minister Huidobro stated that “among such a large number of people, there will always be someone who behaves wrongly.” Two weeks after the cell phone video was released, MINUSTAH chief Mariano Fernández argued that “acts of a few should not also tarnish [the image] of thousands of military, police, and civilian personal serving MINUSTAH and Haiti impeccably since 2004.”
However, this is not a case of a few bad apples. MINUSTAH has had a consistently disastrous record of malfeasance in its seven-year military presence—much of it the result of institutional design. Although Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim—charged with the largest contingent of UN soldiers in Haiti—recently discussed a gradual reduction in troops, he also admitted that no timetable has been drawn up for their eventual withdrawal.
Here are ten reasons why a timetable for a speedy withdrawal of all UN soldiers from Haiti is necessary:
1. Haiti has not experienced an armed conflict, nor has it been a party to an enforceable peace agreement, the criteria for legitimately stationing UN peacekeeping troops. The UN states in its charter that it shall not “intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state,” unless they present a threat to peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. MINUSTAH arrived in Haiti using this justification, which has also allowed it to remain without the consent of the Haitian government. It would now be difficult to reasonably invoke this claim, seven years after MINUSTAH’s arrival and seemingly indefinite presence.
2. UN troops are granted broad immunity for crimes committed in Haiti, and are subject to prosecution only 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. Haitians themselves rarely hear about successful punishment abroad, heightening the perception of impunity. As long as this legal structure that fosters a lack of accountability persists, a full withdrawal is the only definite way to prevent future abuse.