After 13 years and more than $7 billion, the “touristas”—as the United Nations soldiers that currently occupy Haiti are commonly referred to—will finally be heading home. Well, sort of. While thousands of troops are expected to depart in October, the UN has authorized a new, smaller mission composed of police that will focus on justice and strengthening the rule of law. But the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, is not just thousands of foreign soldiers “keeping the peace.” It is the latest and most visible manifestation of the international community’s habit of intervening in Haiti, a habit that is unlikely to change.
World powers have always had a difficult time accepting Haitian sovereignty. When a slave revolt delivered Haiti independence from France in 1804, gunboat diplomacy ensured the liberated inhabitants would pay for their freedom. For the next 150 years, Haiti paid France a ransom for its continued independence. In the early 20th century, a new hegemonic power held sway, with U.S. Marines occupying the country for more than 20 years.
Two hundred years after Haitian independence, when the UN Security Council created MINUSTAH, it also mandated the formation of the “Core Group,” which included MINUSTAH’s leadership as well as diplomatic representatives from foreign governments and multilateral organizations. Since its creation, the group has influenced—subtly and not so subtly—Haiti’s internal affairs, with the backing of a heavily armed military force.
MINUSTAH was sent to Haiti in 2004 ostensibly to restore order following an armed uprising that removed the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But in addition to restoring order, the mission has functioned as a means of political containment, serving elite and transnational economic interests and ensuring a continuation of the political and economic status quo. It’s little wonder that many of Haiti’s poor majority view the mission as an occupying force, and have been calling for its departure since it arrived.
Through MINUSTAH and the Core Group, the international community has sought to manage Haiti in search of security and stability. But the question remains, security and stability for whom?
The End of MINUSTAH?
In April, the UN Security Council extended MINUSTAH’s mandate for what it said would be a final six-month period. In June, members of the Security Council traveled to Haiti on a fact-finding mission and met with President Jovenel Moise, members of parliament, top court justices, civil society organizations and business groups. Despite its history of political intervention, MINUSTAH’s responsibility for introducing cholera in Haiti has most complicated its transition.
According to sources involved with the trip, the U.S. had used its clout within the Security Council to keep the cholera issue off the agenda. But on the ground, there was no escaping it. The outbreak was raised in every single meeting, according to Bolivia’s ambassador to the U.N., who led the delegation.
Cholera was introduced in Haiti in late 2010, when MINUSTAH troops from Nepal improperly disposed of human waste into a tributary of one of the country’s main waterways. The UN denied any role and even worked to cover up its involvement. It wasn’t until 2016, after more than 10,000 had died and activists had brought multiple lawsuits against the organization, that the UN publicly admitted to having played a role. At each meeting during the Security Council’s visit, Haitian leaders criticized the UN for not doing more to address the impact of the cholera outbreak. The U.N.’s $200 million response plan is just 3 percent funded, and after pledging direct support to victims, it has failed to meaningfully consult with them.
Over a working lunch with civil society organizations, Security Council members sat across the table from the award-winning human rights lawyer Mario Joseph, who is representing thousands of the Haitian cholera victims in their quest for justice and accountability. Joseph was accompanied by Astride Edouard, a cholera victim, who was able to share her experience and speak directly with the visiting delegation. Outside the meeting, hundreds of demonstrators chanted and held signs calling for the UN to take action and live up to its promise to rectify its wrongs.
Cholera, though, is just the latest—and most publicized—chapter in MINUSTAH’s troubled legacy. For many in Haiti, MINUSTAH is synonymous not just with the spread of disease, but with rape and murder. According to estimates based on recent field work by independent researcher Mark Snyder, from just 2008 to 2015 there could have been upward of 600 victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by MINUSTAH soldiers—leading to hundreds of what are commonly known as “MINUSTAH babies.” In an investigation published in April, the Associated Press cited an internal UN report finding that, in one episode, nine children were victimized in a sex ring involving at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers. The UN has failed to provide accountability mechanisms for victims or hold perpetrators responsible.
The mission has functioned as a means of political containment, serving elite and transnational economic interests and ensuring a continuation of the political and economic status quo.
Far from being a case of a few bad apples, as the UN has repeatedly asserted, those implicated in the sexual violence have included high-ranking MINUSTAH officers. When three Pakistani troops in Haiti were accused of raping a teenage boy in 2012, the Pakistanis tried to cover it up. A meaningful investigation was thwarted when formal requests for the UN to lift the Pakistani soldiers’ immunity were not acted upon.
Then there is the case of Gerard Jean-Gilles, a teenage boy who ran errands for MINUSTAH soldiers in the city of Cap-Haitien. Accused of theft, he was found hanging dead from a tree inside the UN base the next day. The UN called it a suicide, despite credible allegations to the contrary, and once again stonewalled the Haitian judge’s investigation. According to the weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté, a Haitian official identified the UN as “the primary obstacle” to getting answers.
The United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, or MINUJUSTH, is set to replace MINUSTAH this October. It will focus on improving rule of law institutions, while continuing MINUSTAH’s efforts to strengthen the national police and providing human rights monitoring. But for the UN to have any credibility to take on the rule of law in Haiti, it must first start by confronting its own legacy.
After 13 years, however, it may be too late. In an interview with Haitian daily Le National, Joseph said that, at his meeting with Security Council members, he had stressed that “the negative legacy of MINUSTAH in the country is so great that MINUJUSTH is not welcome.”
On Feb. 29, 2004, Aristide’s second term as president was cut short in a coup—the culmination of a multiyear destabilization campaign financed by members of Haiti’s political and economic elite and backed by various foreign actors, directly or indirectly. After calling his ouster a “resignation,” the UN Security Council took only hours after the coup to authorize the deployment of a U.S.-led military force to Haiti, which included troop contributions from Canada and France. Two months later, MINUSTAH took over, sending 8,000 troops. Its mandate has been extended every October since.
MINUSTAH might be composed of troops from around the world and was initially led by a Brazilian general, but the U.S. government has heavily influenced the mission, and American officials still occupy many of its top positions. MINUSTAH “is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG policy interests in Haiti,” the U.S. ambassador wrote in a diplomatic cable to Washington in 2008.
When MINUSTAH took over for U.S. troops following the coup, it became enmeshed in what was fundamentally a political conflict. As the country descended into chaos, Haiti’s coup regime worked with officers from the disbanded military and economic elite to ensure that the country’s poor majority, which had determined electoral outcomes since the beginning of democracy in 1990, would be silenced.
In his memoir, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the former undersecretary-general for MINUSTAH, recalls having dinner with members of the Haitian bourgeoisie who relayed to him a simple message: “‘The UN mission has to do whatever it takes to purge Haiti of its dangerous elements; it has to rein in the dangerous class, the poor.’” With thousands of foreign troops propping up the undemocratic government, Haiti experienced an era of extreme repression—4,000 political killings from 2004 to 2006, according to one study published in The Lancet—aimed at destroying the grass-roots support that had brought Aristide to power.
Tainting MINUSTAH’s legitimacy from the start was the fact that it was ostensibly mandated to reform and strengthen the Haitian National Police at a time when the Haitian force was involved in extrajudicial killings, torture and targeted repression. Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest of Haitians including prominent politicians as well as allegations that police have beaten, tortured and executed detainees.
Soon, too, MINUSTAH itself began targeting gangs, conducting military-style raids into Haiti’s slums, leading some to question whether the mission had exceeded its mandate. In an as-yet-unpublished manuscript, McGill University researcher Lou Pingeot argues that these operations “placed MINUSTAH within a grey zone between armed conflict and law enforcement.”
In July 2005, more than 1,000 UN soldiers participated in one such operation targeting leaders of so-called “gangs,” a term that is often misused in Haiti to refer to political associations and community groups. The operation unfolded in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Haiti’s capital, with soldiers firing off more than 22,000 rounds of ammunition and some 75 grenades over the course of seven hours. More than a dozen civilians were shot, and at least several were killed; MINUSTAH later acknowledged the civilian deaths. The following year, a delegation of businessmen met with a top U.S. official and pleaded for further raids. The official did not object to such operations, despite acknowledging the high risk of civilian casualties.
The coup government held on to power for two years before finally holding elections, all the while receiving generous support from the UN and the international community. Though the government, aided by the Haitian elite, had tried to destroy Aristide’s political movement, locking up his supporters on bogus charges, Rene Preval, his former prime minister who had himself served as president from 1995 to 2000, won the 2006 elections.
In his inaugural address in May 2006, Preval pleaded with the international community to shift its engagement with Haiti from security assistance to development aid, saying that Haiti needed bulldozers, not tanks. His calls fell on deaf ears.
In 2008, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti made clear why there would be no such departure or reconfiguration of MINUSTAH. Such a move, she wrote—according to confidential documents released by Wikileaks—would leave the Preval government susceptible to renewed violence as well as “resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces.” This bolstered critics’ claims that MINUSTAH’s mission was to ensure investor rights, not human rights—in addition to stabilizing Haiti, it was part of an effort to reshape the country as more hospitable for private capital, transnational business and, in turn, the elite.
For a brief period, that effort appeared to pay dividends. Haiti’s economy grew, albeit slowly, for four consecutive years, and Preval managed to cobble together a ruling coalition based on a delicate balancing act between his grass-roots supporters and Haiti’s elite. Diplomats and investors declared a new dawn in Haiti’s development. Soon, however, this façade of stability would, quite literally, collapse.
Haiti’s Fault Lines
At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, with an epicenter just 15 miles from the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince, changed everything. When the earth stopped shaking, the National Palace lay in ruins. In total, some 200,000 Haitians perished, while 102 UN personnel also died, including the head of MINUSTAH. It was the deadliest natural disaster in decades, and the largest single-day loss of life in the U.N.’s history.
Whatever the Haitian people or their government may think about the UN’s presence in Haiti, the future of the mission is not up to them. Like MINUSTAH before it, the next mission in Haiti will operate under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows the Security Council to use military force to maintain peace, and does not require the host country’s consent.
The immediate humanitarian needs were immense and, if ever there was a time to refocus on development, this was it. Billions of dollars in international aid pledges did pour in, and thousands of foreign NGOs and development organizations arrived on the ground.
But the UN responded by sending 3,500 more troops. It may have been what foreign organizations wanted, but the soldiers were of little use to Haitians struggling to rebuild.
With more than a million still displaced from the quake, elections scheduled for that November were sure to be deeply problematic. But the U.S. and UN urged the government to hold them no matter what. Sure enough, the polls were flawed; many were unable to find their names on voting lists, and violent confrontations were reported across the country. By early afternoon on Election Day, a majority of candidates called for the vote to be annulled due to fraud and other irregularities. After charges that Preval had engaged in fraud on behalf of his chosen successor, who finished second, and amid serious pressure from the international community, the results were overturned in an arbitrary manner not based on any statistical justification. Instead of rerunning the election—as many had called for and the Haitian government had proposed—the third-place finisher, popular musician Michel Martelly, was allowed into the run-off election and went on to win the presidency.
Martelly received international plaudits with his “Open for Business” slogan, but if the goal was political stability, the Martelly years provided little. Not a single election was held during his first four years in office, and street protests against the government became a daily routine. MINUSTAH troops helped contain the demonstrations.
The situation was repeated when elections to replace Martelly were finally held in October 2015. Despite widespread reports of massive fraud and a burgeoning protest movement calling for the elections to be annulled, the UN and others in the diplomatic Core Group pushed for the process to continue—for stability’s sake.
Though a new election was eventually held in November 2016, the result was largely the same, and Jovenel Moise, Martelly’s handpicked successor, was sworn into office earlier this year. But the support of the international community and MINUSTAH for such a flawed democratic process has convinced many Haitians that this is simply a government put in place by the same foreign powers that have sought to dominate Haiti for centuries.
Meanwhile, voter turnout has declined in each of the three presidential elections held under MINUSTAH’s watch, falling below 20 percent in 2016. Haitians have lost their faith in democracy and electoral politics while the international community has continued to play an ever-greater role in the electoral process. In that climate, the elite is able to wield even greater influence over the country’s politics.
In a book published this year, Desmond Molloy, a former MINUSTAH official, wrote that the UN “underestimated the malignant nature of the continuing aspirations of the elite… in their subjugation and exploitation of the marginalized masses of Haitians.” The U.N., he continued, “failed to realize that for those holding power and wealth, nothing has changed.” But by facilitating this marginalization, the organization has ensured that any sense of stability in the current environment will remain incredibly fragile.
MINUSTAH’s Enduring Presence
Whatever the Haitian people or their government may think about the UN’s presence in Haiti, the future of the mission is not up to them. Like MINUSTAH before it, the next mission in Haiti will operate under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows the Security Council to use military force to maintain peace, and does not require the host country’s consent. It also means that if the Security Council so determines, foreign troops could be sent back to Haiti at a moment’s notice.
Whereas MINUSTAH helped establish a foreign-imposed notion of stability, many worry now that the U.N.’s new focus will continue to suffer from a lack of Haitian input. According to diplomatic sources, it was largely the U.S. mission to the UN that drafted the mandate of MINUJUSTH. One diplomat cautioned that while focusing on the rule of law might make sense, interpretations of what that means vary widely. It appears that foreign actors will continue to “decide what Haiti must do,” the source said.
But decades of international intervention have left a weak government that is unable to provide basic services to its citizens or confront the powerful interests that continue to wield undue political and economic influence over the country. Rather than upend this fundamental legacy—the root of Haiti’s instability—MINUSTAH and the international community have helped cement it, at a cost of $7 billion.
The legacy of cholera and sexual violence, combined with Haiti’s enduring economic insecurity and violence, make it hard to consider MINUSTAH a success. The fact that the Security Council has mandated a follow-up Chapter VII mission to monitor human rights and strengthen the rule of law, despite the absence of an armed conflict, may well be a silent admission of failure.
One of the Haitian parliament’s first actions upon being seated in 2017 was to issue a statement in support of Guy Philippe, the notorious paramilitary commander who led the rebellion of former military officers that helped topple Aristide in 2004. Philippe, who campaigned with Moise, was arrested and extradited to the U.S. in early 2017—after winning a Senate seat, but before taking office—to face drug trafficking and money-laundering charges. He pled guilty, and began serving a nine-year prison sentence in early July.
Since then, parliament has passed a harsh defamation law, seriously curtailing reporters’ ability to investigate those in power. Another law passed in May gives the president authority to exert greater control over the government’s financial crimes unit. Moise, who is the subject of a money-laundering probe, used his new power to replace the director overseeing the investigation.
While the UN has spent billions training and equipping the Haitian National Police, the government has taken steps to politicize the institution. When MINUSTAH first arrived in Haiti, it stood by as the police force participated in extrajudicial killings and political persecution. Thirteen years later, many fear a return of the same. The current head of the police was previously a regional director who oversaw the creation of special police units that have been accused of using excessive force and targeting political enemies.
Perhaps most worryingly, Haiti’s current political leaders are intent on restoring the country’s military, which Aristide, the twice-deposed president, had disbanded in 1995 due to its involvement in coups and human rights abuses. The former officers who helped oust him have been fighting to restore the force ever since. The UN is publicly opposed to this, though it has done little to dissuade its creation. In early July, Haiti’s defense minister announced that some 500 troops would begin training.
MINUSTAH was not the first UN force sent to Haiti. With the UN mission remaining under Chapter VII, it’s unlikely to be the last. The outsourcing of Haitian sovereignty looks set to continue, but the UN has lost the credibility needed to be an honest check on the deteriorating rights situation. Changing the mission’s name won’t change its history.
This article was first published in July in World Politics Review. Jake Johnston is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, where he’s the lead author of the CEPR blog, Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch.