By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
April 3, 2005
It has been more than a year since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown, but U.N. peacekeepers are having trouble fulfilling their mission.
A year has gone by, and what has Haiti got to show for international relief efforts?
Tortured and executed bodies keep appearing. Peacekeepers come under daily attack. The country’s main jail is emptied during a mass escape.
More than a year after an armed revolt toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the United Nations presence in Haiti is coming under a barrage of criticism.
“From top to bottom, they have done just a terrible job,” said James Cavallaro, associate director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.
“It’s a scandal, and the international community need to know about it,” said Cavallaro, one of the authors of a report published last week by Harvard Law School and Brazil’s Global Justice Center, which accuses the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti of failing to fulfill its mission.
U.N. officials acknowledge problems but reject accusations that the mission is a failure. “Criticism is fair, but things are changing,” said Thierry Fagart, head of the U.N.’s human rights office in Haiti.
Underscoring the concerns, the entire 15-member U.N. Security Council will visit the country this month for a firsthand look at the Caribbean trouble spot.
U.S. officials for months were tight-lipped about the lack of progress in Haiti, not wanting to embarrass the Brazilian-led, 7,400-strong U.N. force there. But concern is mounting that something needs to be done quickly to guarantee a stable political climate for presidential and legislative elections in the fall.
The chief problem is the U.N.’s failure to rein in armed groups that have terrorized the population. More than 400 people have died in the violence the past six months.
The remnants of a ragtag rebel army that led the uprising against Aristide last year continue to hold sway in parts of the country, occupying police stations. Meanwhile, pro-Aristide gangs in the sprawling slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince, hold entire communities hostage.
Allegations of political repression and human rights abuses by the Haitian National Police also have undermined the U.N.’s efforts to provide backing for Haiti’s weak interim government, which was appointed after Aristide’s departure. Evidence points to the frequent use of summary arrests and executions of suspected Aristide supporters.
Critics say the U.N.’s response to these challenges to law and order has been woefully inadequate.
The U.N. was hamstrung by the slow arrival of military and police contingents from all over the world. Few speak French, or Haiti’s native tongue, Creole. Recruiting for the political staff was also slow, in part because of competition for U.N. resources in other parts of the globe. The U.N. is engaged in 16 operations worldwide.
Operational tactics in Haiti have also complicated the situation. The U.N military commander opted to move cautiously at first, anxious not to alienate the local population by use of excessive force. But early efforts made little impact.
The U.N. recently announced it would step up actions against the illegal armed militias and gangs, but it’s not an easy task.
Two U.N. soldiers were killed in Haiti in mid March, the first fatalities since the mission began last year. They died when U.N. troops met heavy resistance trying to evict armed rebels from a police station in the town of Petit-Goave.
Critics say the U.N. has partly itself to blame. By leaving the armed groups untouched for so many months, the groups became emboldened and entrenched. Officials also suspect ties to smuggling rackets at Haitian ports, as well as drug trafficking.
The failure to deal with the armed groups was only the tip of the U.N.’s problems in Haiti, according to Cavallaro, who led two fact-finding trips in the past six months.
Besides disarming the armed groups, the U.N.’s role in Haiti includes strengthening public institutions, promoting political dialogue and human rights monitoring.
Little has been achieved in those areas. The country’s main political party – Aristide’s Lavalas Family party – is mostly in hiding or exile. With elections just months away, little effort appears to have been made to reach out to its leaders.
“The U.N. has made no effort to contact us,” said Lavalas party chief Jonas Petit, now living in exile in Pembroke Pines in Broward County. “It’s clear they don’t want the Lavalas Family involved in the political process.”
It’s not all the fault of the U.N. Promises of $1.3-billion in international aid have been slow to materialize. A donors’ conference in mid March looked into ways to create jobs by speeding up funding for 400 key projects.
The current fragility of law and order was highlighted last week when pro-Aristide gunmen celebrated the murder of a top gang leader in the Cite Soleil slum. His body was dragged through the streets, his head smashed with rocks. Armed men manned gang roadblocks and pillaged a police station. U.N. peacekeepers made no effort to intervene.
In mid February, 481 inmates escaped from the national penitentiary after six gunmen burst in through the main gates. Security was so slack that two former Aristide cabinet members, including ex-Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, walked home for their own safety. After reportedly dining on cheese and wine, they turned themselves in that evening.
Some prisoners were quickly rounded up in a series of bloody police raids on the slums, in which several people were killed. Others surrendered, saying they were safer in the cells than being hunted down by the police.
Stories of shocking police abuses abound. “There are so many reports of killings. It appears to be a deep-rooted trend,” said Ettore di Benedetto, director of the Haiti office of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “It’s a blind violence that is completely unjustified.”
A report issued in January by the University of Miami’s Center for the Study of Human Rights alleged that police brutality was targeted against pro-Aristide slum dwellers. The report included graphic evidence of police executions.
Its author, Philadelphia lawyer Thomas Griffin, says he witnessed one incident where police entered a building firing their weapons.
“The police all came out without a scratch,” he said. They left several dead bodies behind. How they died was no big secret among officers.
“They just told me straight out they did summary executions,” Griffin said. “They are ordered to by their superiors. It’s routine.”
Griffin believes the killings are politically motivated, aimed at “wiping out” the pro-Aristide movement. Others aren’t so sure it’s that clear-cut.
But evidence keeps mounting. When police opened fire Feb. 28 on unarmed demonstrators, there was no question who they were targeting. The march was called by Aristide supporters to mark the anniversary of his fall. Two people were killed.
U.N. officials admit human rights violations are a major problem. Stopping the executions is a priority, they say. But working out who is behind the killings won’t be easy. “There are lot of men wearing police uniforms who are not policemen,” said Fagart, the human rights chief.
Like every other component of the U.N. mission, the human rights effort is suffering from a late start. Fagart arrived Jan. 25. The office now has a staff of 48.
“We are operational now,” he said.
Haiti anxiously awaits the results.
David Adams can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org