The problematic legacy of Haiti's UN peacekeepers

2 Nov 2017

Earlier in October, the most recent UN mission in Haiti, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which had been in place since 2004, was withdrawn from the island and was replaced with UN for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH). The UN Security Council claimed that the decision of withdrawal and replacement by a mission with a different mandate was due to the progress towards stabilisation achieved following the autumn 2016 Presidential elections. This decision by the UN Security Council provides the perfect opportunity for the history and legacy of the multiple previous UN missions to be examined.


Following many short-lived, unsuccessful Presidencies in the early twentieth century, stability was brought to Haiti by François Duvalier, commonly known as ‘Papa Doc,’ from 1957. However, this stability came at the price of tyranny. When Papa Doc died in 1971, he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as ‘Baby Doc.’ He continued his father’s tyrannical approach, and lived lavishly whilst the majority of the population lived in extreme poverty. Inevitably this caused serious resentment within Haiti, and in 1986 a rebellion broke out and Papa Doc fled to the United States. The country then returned to short-lived governments and eventually, in 1990, the latest in the line of provisional governments sought help from the UN to observe the elections later that year.


Thus, the UN Observer Group for the Verification of the Elections in Haiti (ONUVEH) was formed and sent to observe the preparation and holding of the elections. They were pleased with the process in which Jean-Bertrand Aristide, of the National Front for Change and Democracy, was elected as Haitian President. However, within a year, Aristide had been overthrown by a military coup that was condemned by the Organisation of American States (OAS), Latin America’s version of the EU, and the UN alike. As the domestic situation worsened, the UN and the OAS sent a new mission, the International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH), in 1993. This mission sought to appoint a Prime Minister of a government of national unity, to implement amnesty for the leaders of the coup and the return of President Astride, however, these proposals were rejected by the military government.


As a result the UN Security imposed an oil and trade embargo on Haiti in the summer of 1993. This approach was successful and negotiations were held which led to an agreement. Part of the agreement involved the creation of the United National Mission in Haiti (UNMIH) to assist in the realisation of other parts of the agreements – such as modernising the armed forces and creating a new police force. UNMIH concluded in 1996, but it failed to deliver long-term stability, largely because the military authorities largely refused to comply with their side of the agreement.


UNMIH was replaced by the UN Support Mission in Haiti (UNSMIH) in June 1996. Its focus was on establishing and consolidating a secure and stable environment for the Haitian government to act within – thus there was a military element to the mission. The mandate of UNSMIH was extended at the request of President René Préval in 1997 on the basis that the police force was still not able to deal effectively with anti-democracy groups operating on the island. When this extension came to an end, the UN Security General concluded that although Haiti had made some significant progress, there were still serious concerns about the police force’s capability to deal with any violence in the country and so the Security Council approved the UN Transition Mission in Haiti (UNTMIH) in November 1997. The mandate of UNTMIH lasted for four months and focused on the professionalization of the police.


After the mandate of UNTIMH ended in October 1997, President Préval requested for some UN experts to remain in Haiti to continue supporting the police force – the UN Security Council approved this in 1999 under the UN Civilian Police Mission in Haiti (MINPONUH). MINPONUH’s mandate came to an end in March 2000 and was succeeded by the International Civilian Support Mission in Haiti (MICAH) which was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 1999. Its mandate was to consolidate the progress of preceding missions, and especially to promote respect for human rights in Haiti.


Despite the progress made, the overthrow of Astride for a second time in 2000 put Haiti essentially back at square one. The acting President, Justice Boniface Alexandre, appealed to the UN for help in ending the violence that gripped Haiti following the coup. In 2004, the UN launched the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) which saw the deployment of 6,7000 UN-sanctioned troops and 1,622 UN police into Haiti. Originally MINUSTAH was to support the transitional government for six months, however, over the years its mandate had been adjusted and extended because of continual crises facing the country – one such crisis was the 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake. MINUSTAH’s mandate has been terminated and peacekeepers withdraw by mid-October.

The legacy of MINUSTAH is complex. The UN claim a lot of credit for the peaceful transfer of power to President Jovenel Moïse in 2016, something which many Haitians would argue strongly against. However, peacekeepers involved in unleashing unnecessary levels of violence against peaceful protests in the poorest neighbourhoods in the country’ capital. Additionally, they are blamed for causing a cholera epidemic when they allowed some raw sewage from their base to leak into one of the main rivers in Haiti. Finally, at least 134 of MINUSTAH’s peacekeepers have been involved in sexual abuse scandals where children as young as 12 were raped after being coaxed by offers of food. No-one has been judicially punished for these actions – the perpetrators have simply been removed from the mission.


The mandate of MINUSTAH’s successor mission, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) is “to help the Government of Haiti strengthen rule-of-law institutions, further develop and support the Haitian National Police and Engage in Human Rights monitoring, reporting and analysis.”


Although it is certainly true that the current political situation in Haiti is much more stable than it has been in recent years, the Presidential elections in November 2016 were hardly entirely calm or caused reassurance about the future stability of Haiti. The results saw an eruption of violent protests after the preliminary results were rejected by losing candidates. More recently, there have been widespread public protests against the latest budget plans, which included increasing taxes on fuel and property.


It seems premature for the Security Council to conclude that real progress towards stabilisation is occurring. That is certainly not what the regional and local press is implying. It has barely been a year since the latest President took hold of the reins of power in this historically extremely unstable nation state. Therefore, I am suspicious of the reasoning behind the UN’s decision. It most likely suggests that Haiti will no longer be a priority now that the UN needs to cut its spending. However, this is not a good time for Haiti to be less supported by the international community - though obviously it needs to be an international community whose support is actually in the best interest of the Haitian people, and it is definitely arguable that the UN missions have not been acting in this manner.


The best we can hope is that this new mission has been orientated around a commitment to correct some of issues and failings of previous missions and that it is sufficient to support the Haitian government through the issues they are facing, especially in light of the unprecedented amount of natural disasters that have affected the Caribbean in recent months. The first step in rectifying some of the damage done by the UN over the years would be to acknowledge and stop seeking legal immunity for their role in the cholera epidemic and the rape of children that occurred whilst MINUSTAH was in force.


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