Abby Goldberg, Americas Quarterly
February 21, 2012
Last week, a United Nations Security Council delegation visited Haiti to assess the 10,500-member peacekeeping force, known as the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti or MINUSTAH. The visit was to assess security needs in Haiti before the UN Security Council makes a decision about whether to reduce the number of forces stationed in the country.
In a complete departure from past assessment missions, this trip included minimal assessment of actual peacekeeping, the reason MINUSTAH was sent to Haiti in the first place. Instead, the Security Council focused primarily on two major afflictions caused by MINUSTAH: Their admitted introduction of cholera to Haiti and corresponding failure to respond adequately despite ongoing death and illness, as well as reports of sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops, some of which were even recorded on film. Both of these crimes, very distinct in nature, have made it nearly impossible for the UN peacekeeping mission to be successful in its mandate to “keep the peace,” if there is even a peace to keep. Indeed, if anything, MINUSTAH is responsible for much of the unrest and instability.
Recent protests in Haiti have largely focused on the problems brought by the peacekeepers. Not surprisingly, the Security Council visit last week brought on a new wave of such protests—one of the ways Haitian people have expressed their ongoing frustration with the UN “occupiers” as they are called. One in ten MINUSTAH peacekeepers worldwide are currently stationed in a country the size of Massachusetts, a country where there is no war. Even so, the UN continues to spend more than $2 million a day on the peacekeeping operation. In my own conversations with MINUSTAH personnel, they expressed boredom and difficulty communicating with Haitians, but never mentioned war or peace. They admitted that it is unclear how much security forces can do for Haiti. Haitians, for their part, are calling for justice. They are demanding accountability. They know the UN is responsible for so much pain they have suffered, and they are asking for compensation.
The same amount of money the UN currently spends on peacekeeping efforts, which have arguably only exacerbated the unrest on the ground, could go to something the Haitian people actually need: clean water and improved sanitation.
A legal petition filed by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) on behalf of more than 5,000 Haitian cholera victims has asked for compensation, investment in clean water systems and a formal apology. More than 500,000 Haitians have been infected with cholera and more than 7,000 have died. Sixteen months after the initial outbreak, more than 200 people a day are still becoming infected and the UN has made minimal efforts to respond. It has provided some funding for cholera treatment centers but has not responded to the actual source of the problem, a poisoned river. If the petition is successful, it will be the first case in history in which the UN takes legal responsibility for harm caused by their personnel. The petition is accompanied by a video and social media campaign produced by the New Media Advocacy Project on behalf of the BAI and IJDH. The video is an open plea from the Haitian people to the UN to fix what they broke.
Now that the Security Council has returned from Haiti, their decision about paring down peacekeeping forces should be informed by knowledge of the harm their forces have caused innocent Haitian people and the dire need for smart investment in repairing this damage. The UN must consider the legal request and how to respond, not only for Haitians, but also for the success of peacekeeping operations globally. This case is about Haiti, but it is also about the UN and a changing world. As one of the lawyers who filed the case said, “there is a difference between immunity and impunity. Impunity cannot be tolerated.” The UN can, and must, do better.
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