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.
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3. Just four years ago, over 100 Sri Lankan MINUSTAH troops—more than 10 percent of the entire brigade—were repatriated to their home country due to allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse, involving underage girls. The UN’s investigative arm found that “in exchange for sex, the children received small amounts of money, food, and sometimes mobile phones.” Acts of sexual exploitation and abuse were frequent occurrences at “virtually every location where the contingent personnel were deployed.” There is no evidence Sri Lankan troops were ever prosecuted. Recent news reports corroborate fresh allegations that Uruguayan soldiers impregnated local women in Port-Salut, including a 17-year-old girl.
4. MINUSTAH is implicated in last year’s suspicious “suicide” of a Haitian teenager named Gérard Jean-Gilles, who was found hanging inside a UN base in Cap Haitien. Haiti Liberté reported that former head of MINUSTAH Edmond Mulet obstructed an investigation carried out by Haitian authorities, invoking immunity to prevent the Haitian judiciary from summonsing a Haitian witness in the case.
5. UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal were responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti in late 2010, most likely by contaminating rivers with improperly treated human waste. Cholera proceeded to kill more than 6,200 and infect 440,000 Haitians in just ten months. New scientific research shows that MINUSTAH’s gross negligence most likely caused the lethal epidemic, but directly after cholera’s appearance, Edmond Mulet refused to admit the possibility of UN culpability. Despite public appeals by leading cholera and health experts, the United Nations, World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that an investigation into how the disease arrived in Haiti was not necessary, and could be harmful.
MINUSTAH’s denials further enraged Haitians, whose dramatic anti-UN demonstrations led to protesters being shot dead by UN troops. Despite this history, the Uruguayan contingent in Port-Salut is still accused of improperly disposing trash and waste water.
Epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux, who researched cholera’s transmission in Haiti, concluded last month that because there’s no reasonable doubt the UN brought the pathogen into the country, the UN “should accept responsibility and make amends to Haiti…for instance, by offering financial compensation or by supporting an all-out effort to make the country cholera-free again.”
6. The arrival of UN troops to Haiti in 2004 had dubious legitimacy at best, and the banner of a UN coalition is just a less controversial facade for the pursuit of US interests in Haiti. MINUSTAH was created at the behest of the United States, after the Bush administration orchestrated a coup d’état against Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a long-held aim. WikiLeaks revealed that in 2008 former US Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson considered MINUSTAH “an indispensable tool in realizing core [US government] policy interests in Haiti,” especially in “the current context of our military commitments elsewhere.” The “regionally-coordinated Latin American commitment to Haiti would not be possible without the UN umbrella,” which “helps other major donors—led by Canada and followed up by the EU, France, Spain, Japan and others—justify their bilateral assistance domestically.” Sanderson concludes: “Without a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping and stabilization force, we would be getting far less help from our hemispheric and European partners in managing Haiti.”
7. MINUSTAH is a highly partisan political force in a sovereign country and actively meddles in Haiti’s domestic affairs. For example, a cable from 2006 demonstrates that Edmond Mulet, then head of MINUSTAH, “urged US legal action against [forcibly exiled president] Aristide to prevent [him] from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
8. MINUSTAH’s mandate prioritizes security and military issues, contributing little to social and economic development. In 2010, the UN Security Council apportioned a whopping $850 million annual budget for MINUSTAH—nine times what it raised to fight the cholera that MINUSTAH had inadvertently introduced. Similarly, in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, Reuters reported that MINUSTAH put more emphasis on “handling security and looking for looters” than relief work and humanitarian assistance. Further compounding this problem, MINUSTAH soldiers cannot even communicate with most Haitians, who speak Creole, and are not typically accompanied by translators.
9. MINUSTAH has a record of spectacular failure in achieving its stated goal of providing stability. The distinguished medical journal The Lancet showed that 8,000 people—many of whom were supporters of deposed president Aristide—were murdered or disappeared in Port-au-Prince alone during a time when MINUSTAH was solely responsible for maintaining security. A 2005 Harvard Law School report found that MINUSTAH “effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince’s slums.” US priorities—hence, MINUSTAH’s priorities—were clear after the 2004 coup, according to a leaked cable from March 2005. James Foley, the top-ranking US diplomat in Haiti at the time, pushed for MINUSTAH “to take decisive action against the both armed rebels and pro-Aristide gangs, particularly in Port-au-Prince, for all the obvious reasons, but also to protect itself from charges of bias.” Considering that Aristide enjoyed broad support, particularly among the poor (he was elected with over 90 percent of the vote in 2000), Foley’s recommendation had wide-ranging consequences.
10. MINUSTAH has generated violence through repeated, indiscriminate use of force in densely populated urban areas, killing dozens of innocent civilians in raids. On July 6, 2005, MINUSTAH troops fired 22,000 rounds of ammunition into the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité Soleil in just seven hours, leading a Doctors Without Borders medic to report that “we treated twenty-seven people for gunshot wounds. Of them, around twenty were women under the age of 18.” A mechanic whose intestines were ripped apart by gunfire claimed that UN troops shot him in the back while he was walking down the main avenue. “Every day the Minustah is shooting people,” he explained. “They shoot in any direction and at any person, even babies, it doesn’t matter.”
Despite such carnage, a State Department cable from June 1, 2006, shows that wealthy Haitian elites pressured the US and UN to continue military sweeps in poor neighborhoods. Timothy Carney, then the top US diplomat in Haiti, acknowledged that “such an operation would inevitably cause unintended civilian casualties given the crowded conditions and flimsy construction of tightly packed housing in Cité Soleil.” But instead of advocating an end to the bloody maneuvers, Carney proposed enlisting “private sector associations” to “quickly assist in the aftermath of such an operation, including providing financial support to families of potential victims.”
MINUSTAH continued its ruthless policy of incursions: half a year later, another raid left at least nine dead. Slum inhabitant Rose Martel remarked, “They came here to terrorize the population; I don’t think they really killed the bandits, unless they consider all of us as bandits.”
No member of the UN has faced criminal penalties for these actions.
Countries such as Brazil, Nepal, Jordan, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Chile are engaged in a deeply resented military occupation. No amount of tinkering or symbolic reductions in size will address the gravity of the indictments against MINUSTAH. The troops should not be in the country in the first place, and have only added to the disasters the Haitian people confront.
The UN needs to end its occupation of Haiti.