Dan Coughlin, The Nation
October 6, 2011
United Nations forces that have occupied Haiti since June 2004 were poorly trained, spied on student groups, mismanaged and staged elections, and recklessly shot, killed and wounded hundreds of civilians, according to secret US diplomatic cables.
The controversial 12,000-strong UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) intervened in the Caribbean country in the wake of the bloody February 2004 coup that ousted democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party. But the military and police mission, with an annual cost of more than $850 million and led by Brazil with key support from other Latin American countries, is up for renewal before the UN Security Council on October 15, and Haitian and international opposition is widespread.
The 2004 Security Council resolution establishing MINUSTAH called for it to ensure a “secure and stable environment,” reconstruct Haiti’s police force; engage in a comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program; organize elections; and protect human rights.
But the 1,918 secret US State Department Haiti cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks describe an extraordinary litany of failures and the political polarization of the mission, the third-largest UN military force anywhere in the world.
In one “astonishing” case, according to the cables, UN troops fired 28,000 rounds in just one month in Cité Soleil, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince known for resisting the UN occupation and the February 2004 coup that ousted Aristide.
“Civilian casualties [from UN forays] in Cité Soleil…[rose] from 100 wounded in October  to between 170 and 205 in December ,” wrote then Chargé d’Affaires Timothy M. Carney in a secret January 19, 2006, cable. “Half of these are women and children. Assertions that all were used as human shields strain credulity.”
Just six months prior, acting under intense US and Haitian elite pressure, 1,440 UN troops sealed off the pro-Aristide slum, firing 22,000 rounds and causing dozens of casualties in just one seven-hour night-time raid on July 6. UN troops continued their attacks throughout the year, regularly firing 2,000 rounds a day, one UN official told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Now, one of the key aggravating issues sparking resistance to an extension of MINUSTAH’s mission is the raging cholera epidemic that has killed more than 6,200 people and infected some 440,000 Haitians. Several scientific studies tie the outbreak of the South Asian cholera strain to Nepalese troops stationed in the center of Haiti. But the UN leadership has tried to deny that charge, which surfaced almost simultaneously with the disease last October. “It’s really unfair to accuse the UN for bringing cholera into Haiti,” said MINUSTAH chief Edmond Mulet at the time. Still, the UN and international organizations have not brought the epidemic under control.
In recent weeks, anti-UN sentiment has grown further in response to a video showing Uruguayan troops apparently sexually assaulting a young man in the southern town of Port-Salut. This follows the expulsion of 111 Sri Lankan soldiers for sexual exploitation and the abuse of under-aged minors in November 2007. “Among those repatriated are the battalion’s second-in-command and two company commanders at the rank of major,” noted one secret 2007 cable.
Furthermore, new information has emerged around the case of a teenager found hung in a UN base in Haiti’s northern city of Cap Haïtien.
Events like these have sparked deep anger toward MINUSTAH, which, since its June 1, 2004 deployment to 26 towns and cities across Haiti, has repeatedly faced the fierce nationalism that imbues Latin America’s first independent republic and the hemisphere’s first to abolish slavery. The secret cables describe repeated clashes between Haitians and UN forces, many of which ended in deaths.
An October 2011 report from the HealthRoots Student Organization at the Harvard School of Public Health notes that, “On many occasions, MINUSTAH has gassed and even killed unarmed protestors for using their right to free speech and political expression for demands for greater accountability from MINUSTAH and even withdrawal of the force from the country.”
To help counter this local opposition, the UN set up to its own intelligence apparatus, the Joint Mission Analysis Cell (JMAC), with a “network of paid informants” to spy on groups it felt were a threat, according to a Sep. 15, 2006 cable. A cable three months later explained, “MINUSTAH had focused over the past several weeks on attempting to identify elements among [a student] group that posed a threat to its mandate.”
UN forces used the intelligence information it gathered to justify military action against pro-Aristide strongholds.
Outgoing Haitian President René Préval sharply criticized the UN role in April, saying, “Tanks, armed vehicles and soldiers should have given way to bulldozers, engineers, more police instructors and experts on reforming the judicial and prison systems.”
New right-wing President Michel Martelly, who succeeded Préval in May, has invited the UN troops to stay. However, he is seeking to channel anti-MINUSTAH outrage into support for his bid to restore Haiti’s disbanded army, a move strongly opposed by many Haitians.
Other key actors, including Brazil’s military leadership, are looking to exit, however gradually. New Brazilian Defense Minister, Celso Amorim said that “he supports the withdrawal of Brazilian troops from Haiti,” but has proposed a time-table lasting until 2015.
But the main driver behind MINUSTAH is Washington, the secret cables show.
Washington Pushes for Continued UN Presence
US Ambassador Janet Sanderson insisted in an Oct. 1, 2008 cable that MINUSTAH has been “an indispensable tool in realizing core USG [US Government] policy interests in Haiti.” The UN is establishing “domestic security and political stability” there, she wrote, all necessary to prevent the resurgence of “populist and anti-market economy political forces” and an “exodus of seaborne migrants.”
“In the current context of our military commitments elsewhere, the US alone could not replace this mission,” Sanderson concluded.
Furthermore, a February 2006 Government Accountability Office report estimated “that it would cost the United States about twice as much as the United Nations… to conduct a peacekeeping operation similar to the…’MINUSTAH’. The UN budgeted $428 million for the first 14 months of this mission. A US operation in Haiti of the same size and duration would cost an estimated $876 million, far exceeding the US contribution for MINUSTAH of $116 million.”
A key goal of the US and UN mission has been to rebuild the Haitian National Police (HNP), which collapsed in the wake of the February 2004 coup and which former US Ambassador James Foley complained Aristide had “undermined…by placing criminal gang members [i.e., pro-Lavalas popular organization militants] directly into their ranks,” in a May 3, 2005 cable. But seven years later, the force has been, if anything, debilitated due precisely to its anti-Lavalas politicization, the integration of coup-making former soldiers, and the ham-fisted meddling of the UN and US Embassy.
According to an August 2, 2006 cable, MINUSTAH’s then-chief, Edmond Mulet, believed that “The HNP is an example of the international community’s failure to work in concert. Each donor country has pushed its own policing model and donor efforts contradicted one another.”
“The HNP continues to suffer from corruption among its ranks, a broken system of justice, substandard command and supervisory control, inadequate levels of training, and scant equipment resources,” noted another secret cable from May 6, 2005, a description that is equally applicable today.
As for the Disarmament, Demolition and Reintegration program, its chief, Desmond Molloy, said that he set a target of 10,000 DDR participants when the program launched in October 2004. “He lowered his expectations to a hopeful 2000 by June 2006, but would be happy with 500,” said one secret cable in February 2006.
When the DDR supposedly demobilized 300 former soldiers in Cap-Haïtien, it collected a mere “seven dilapidated weapons included six M-14’s and 1 sub-machine gun,” a March 15, 2005 cable by Ambassador Foley explains.
Still more cables also slam the UN “mismanagement” of elections, saying the UN mission’s “overall lack of elections administration experience or expertise has crippled MINUSTAH’s ability to prepare for elections.”
Nevertheless, the US pushed ahead with exclusionary 2006 presidential elections in Haiti so that Latin American countries could have political cover to send troops, the cables show.
“[T]he important thing was to have elections, noting that it would be difficult for countries contributing to MINUSTAH to maintain their presence without elections,” said then Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon to a European counterpart in a wide ranging 2006 meeting on Latin American issues.
Despite this charade, there were growing concerns in Latin American governments about MINUSTAH’s sovereignty-trampling role, the cables show.
“Bolivia’s energy minister published an article in November, 2006 calling MINUSTAH a ‘US occupation force,’” noted an Apr. 20, 2007 cable. “Later, President Evo Morales suggested prohibiting war in Bolivia’s constitution and asked if a country with such aspirations should contribute to MINUSTAH.”
In response to the “anti-MINUSTAH news reports from La Paz,” the UN organized a high-level delegation from Bolivia, led by the defense minister, to visit Port-au-Prince, where they were suitably “impressed by the UN operations.”
“The important contribution of Latin American countries to the UN force here cannot be overstated,” concluded the cable’s author, Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Tighe.
Both Haiti’s 2006 and 2010 presidential ballots, largely carried out by the UN, took place without the participation of one of Haiti’s most popular political parties, Fanmi Lavalas, led by Aristide, who was in a US- and UN-imposed exile at the time of both polls.
“In terms of the construction of a democratic climate and tradition, we have regressed in comparison with the periods preceding MINUSTAH’s arrival,” said Haitian economist Camille Chalmers, the executive director of the Haitian Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development (PAPDA), echoing a common refrain that the elections are more about the needs and interests of the US than of the Haitian people.
The UN’s human rights record is equally dismal. Apart from their direct military attacks on pro-democracy neighborhoods, like Bel Air and Cité Soleil, UN troops “effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Prince’s slums,” notes a 2005 report by the Harvard Law Students Advocates for Human Rights.
MINUSTAH, the HNP, and paramilitary forces supported by the Haitian business elite killed an estimated 3,000 people and jailed thousands of coup opponents and Fanmi Lavalas supporters during the consolidation of the February 2004 coup through 2006.
One US Embassy official only said, “[T]here has been no tangible UN contribution to improving the human rights situation,” in a January 4, 2006 cable.
The Harvard Public Health School students study noted simply, “[I]t is MINUSTAH itself that threatens security and advancement [in Haiti].”
Perhaps more than any other single issue, it is the cholera epidemic—which even the UN’s own reporting acknowledged has been tied to the poor sanitary practices at a UN base—that has led to today’s anti-UN sentiment. Throughout Haiti, graffiti proclaims “UN=Kolera.” But the cables show that UN sanitation standards were already an issue over two years ago, well before the current cholera outbreak began.
“Construction of roads and drainage canals at the [US-funded Police] Academy has been impacted by MINUSTAH’s inappropriate management of human waste at the Jordanian camp on the Academy grounds,” noted a January 7, 2009, cable.
The outrage over cholera’s introduction into Haiti has now merged with that over the images of five Uruguayan UN soldiers apparently sexually assaulting a Haitian man in July. The victim and his family began pursuing legal action against the troops, but they were almost immediately spirited out of the country.
As the October 15, renewal of MINUSTAH’s mandate in the UN Security Council looms, Haitian rejection of the force is growing. Defense Ministers Union of South America Nations (UNASUR) met on September 8 and recognized the need for withdrawal. And among Haitians, even among those who once supported the UN mission, support is falling away.
“I’m not one those anti-UN people,” wrote Boston-based Haitian blogger Reginald Toussaint in May. “I like the idea of a United Nations and, for the most part, I think they do good work…. However, in the case of Haiti, they are causing more harm than good.”
One of the most compelling cases against the UN occupation was made in a long August 15 article by Haitian columnist Dady Chéry on the Axis of Logic website. Among the “Top Ten” reasons for the UN to leave Haiti, she lists: “MINUSTAH continually harasses and humiliates Haitians…. Common criminals in MINUSTAH enjoy immunity from prosecution…. MINUSTAH subverts democracy…. MINUSTAH interferes in Haiti’s political affairs….” and “MINUSTAH has operated as a large anti-Aristide gang.”
She concludes by writing: “One is tempted to ask why South American states, with presumably leftist and nationalistic governments, like Bolivia and Ecuador, support the occupation of Haiti. After all, Cuba and Venezuela have amply demonstrated how much more can be achieved by contributing medical doctors and public-health workers, instead of soldiers, to Haiti…. It is better to show the remaining MINUSTAH members the door and advise they not slam it on their way out.”