Holding elections in a country as unstable, insecure and terrified as Haiti may seem impossible, but that is exactly what the U.S.-backed interim government intends to do on Tuesday, February 7.
That country, victim of international neglect and domestic chaos, has descended into a nearly ungovernable welter of violence since the Washington-orchestrated overthrow of democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.
The elusive election, four times postponed due to logistical and substantive difficulties, is apparently now set, yet innumerable problems, ranging from fears of poll violence to political repression, have turned the ballot into a caricature of the real thing, which is unlikely to restore calm to the island.
In a February 2 press conference, Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) noted that discriminatory practices have effectively disenfranchised many of the island’s poor, thus stripping the election of any potential legitimacy.
Much of the blame for this can be placed on the failed UN stabilization mission, MINUSTAH, which has not only proved incapable of checking the country’s explosive violence but has, more shockingly, been complicit in a rash of human rights violations.
A Dark History
In a flagrant violation of Haiti’s constitution, the Bush administration, under the close supervision of the then Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega (who later described his Haiti strategy as the highpoint of his career), quarterbacked the superimposition of the grossly incompetent and irresponsible Gerard Latortue interim government in the wake of Aristide’s ouster.
The world then abandoned the island to its normal fate of being the object of neglect, indifference and the sharp end of the outrageous double standards of Washington, France, Canada, the OAS, and the UN’s diplomacy.
The target of their "failed state" tactics was to conspire to bring down the constitutional government of Aristide. The international community then resumed reneging on its financial obligations to Haiti, accompanied by its traditional lethargy toward doing what it had otherwise pledged to do for the island.
This international abandonment did nothing to facilitate the recuperation of nation whose basic institutions had been pulverized and whose vital signs were almost brain dead.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian-dominated UN stabilization mission (MINUSTAH) has crumbled under the weight of a controversial and far from professional performance that has profoundly dishonored its mission.
Established under UN Security Council Resolution 1542, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), was mandated to promote a secure and stable environment to be achieved through disarmament, supporting an open political process, ensuring free and fair elections, and monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions in Haiti.
The UN-led peacekeeping force, with a current strength of around 9,000 total uniformed personnel (troops and police) from 43 different countries, has indisputably made only negligible progress in advancing these objectives.
Since arriving on the island in June 2004, the mission’s egregious failure to even partially fulfill its charge has been the subject of widespread astonishment. Without mincing words, all branches of the UN in Haiti, save possibly its human rights desk, have been a qualified failure.
Human Rights Violations
MINUSTAH’s failed effort to uphold strong human rights standards can be illustrated by three clear examples. Firstly, the authorities condoned the activities of notorious human rights offender Léon Charles, who all along has been embraced in a sinister bond of cooperation with arrant rights violators like the local police, as well as the Haitian National Police (HNP), in conducting raids on residential areas.
Secondly, MINUSTAH frequently acts in consort with the renegade local police force, and almost never investigates the majority of human rights violations, nor does the on-site representative of the Secretary-General speak out forcibly and consistently against the daily transgressions of the disreputable Latortue regime, including unlawful arrests and extrajudicial killings.
The local judiciary is incapable of distinguishing between the HNP and other rank rights offenders, nor is it remotely prepared to condemn their cowardly behavior or hooligan conduct. In looking back at its performance since arriving in Haiti in June of 2004, MINUSTAH has rarely upheld its mission’s mandate "to put an end to impunity."
One of the island’s major human rights offenders is Léon Charles, current police/military attaché at the Haitian Embassy in Washington and the HNP’s former Director General. It was an act of sheer effrontery that Latortue appointed him to that post, and that the State Department agreed to it.
As Haiti’s police chief; he oversaw the gunning down of unarmed pro-Aristide Lavalas demonstrators by his own men, even going to the trouble of planting weapons on the innocent victims’ corpse’s. Yet, the U.S. has raised no objections to his deplorable record, and the UN mission to Haiti has done nothing to follow up on allegations of gross abuses.
Through the outright support of uniformed thugs like Charles, the UN force has backed up the ill-trained and violence-prone HNP, in order to guarantee the security and the wellbeing of civilians, even though that force is particularly renowned for its heinous human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, and extrajudicial killings.
The HNP was directly connected to the August 20, 2005, so-called "soccer massacre" in the community of Gran Ravin-Martissant in the capital Port-au-Prince, where it helped supply the machetes and hatchets that were used to slaughter innocent civilians. All of these victims were suspected of nothing more than being affiliated with ex-president Aristide’s political movement. The civilian perpetrators backed by police units, mercilessly hacked their victims to death and/or shot them.
Bel Air Massacre
Another example of unremitting police brutality supported by MINUSTAH personnel occurred in the slum community of Bel Air in early July of 2005, and continued sporadically through the following October. The UN military used its peacekeeping force to control the outer perimeter of Bel Air, which allowed for HNP units to drive through the local neighborhood killing and torching houses in order to intimidate its inhabitants.
According to Thomas Griffin, a human rights activist and Philadelphia immigration lawyer, "[the UN peacekeeping force] sort of piggyback and protect the police [by] legitimizing them. What you have here is one of the worst police forces in the world probably untrained and very scared, and whatever they do; the UN is just backing them up. So the UN is shooting a lot of people, because the Haitian police are shooting a lot of people."
The result of MINUSTAH’s collegial relationship with the HNP is tarnishing its own reputation and hindering any steps for improving the island’s security situation. These disturbing reports about MINUSTAH’s shocking role, and the questionable conduct of the UN’s administrative office representing Secretary General Kofi Annan, which has turned out to be all but invisible on the island, certainly doesn’t conform to the mission’s supposed goal to secure and stabilize the environment for ordinary Haitians. Rather, it is the source of many of their worse problems.
MINUSTAH itself has been complicit in many violations, highlighted by a July 6, 2005, raid on the Pro-Aristide slum community of Cité Soleil. That operation, aimed at gang leader Emmanuel "Dread" Wilme, included about 1,400 heavily armed troops backed by several helicopters, operating under the name "Operation Iron Fist."
The "peacekeepers" first began to shoot into houses, shacks, a church, and a school, and eyewitnesses reported that when people fled the scene, in order to try to escape the tear gas fumes, UN troops gunned them down from behind.
According to the Washington Post, Peruvian peacekeepers operating in an intensely over-crowded habitat "responded forcefully, blasting 5,500 rounds of ammunition, grenades and mortars at Wilme’s residence…[while] the Brazilians fired more than 16,700 rounds of ammunition in the densely populated neighborhood."
The excessively wanton use of force employed by the peacekeepers, and the thoroughly unprofessional behavior of Peruvian and Brazilian forces on the scene, left chaos in its wake, as well as women and children as its victims.
Yvonne, an ordinary young woman caught up in the mission’s raids, was quoted as saying "There is no protection for anyone when they start fighting, and people get killed. Women are raped all the time."
It is uncertain the exact number of civilian deaths that occurred since MINUSTAH first arrived in Haiti in June of 2004, since the UN does not keep records on such casualties during peacekeeping operations.
According to Brian Concannon, a lawyer and also the director of the IJDH, "This oversight is intentional and many times the troops leave the areas after combat without checking for dead or wounded civilians, thus they can officially declare that there is no knowledge of civilian casualties."
Although MINUSTAH has had a human rights mission in Haiti for 19 months, it has yet to issue a single public human rights report, except for rare instances when one UN official breaks and verbally denounces the local authorities as human rights abusers.
The UN, the OAS, France, Canada, and the U.S., have been unwilling to intervene in ongoing gross human rights violations affecting the country’s criminal justice system, where every day arbitrary arrests and detentions under the interim government’s villainous former Minister of Justice, Bernard Gousse, strain the human conscience.
Only an estimated 2%, of the more than 1,000 detainees taken to the Czarist-like national penitentiary, whose foul conditions cannot be exaggerated, have been legitimately tried and convicted of a crime.
Furthermore, the abysmal prison conditions are infamous for being horrendously unsanitary and dangerous for its detainees. Riots and summary executions routinely occur, and visitation rights often have been capriciously curtailed, or looked upon as an opportunity to press for a bribe.
The UN mission’s second objective is to support the democratic political process in preparation for the long promised elections. This part of its mandate also has routinely gone unfulfilled as the elections have been postponed four times. The ballot was eventually rescheduled for February 7, but even at this late date it is uncertain whether it actually will be staged.
There have been numerous delays due to technicalities such as voter registration, the distribution of electoral cards, problems with the printing of ballots, and lack of sufficient voting centers, not to mention the systematic disenfranchisement of members of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party.
The election process, which was supposedly a joint-responsibility of the OAS and the UN, in theory was accountable for distributing voter cards and setting up polling stations. Here too, MINUSTAH’s performance was lamentable. Attempts at voter registration were continually muffed, and there were serious and persisting issues with insufficient registration facilities in the poor urban and rural areas.
Furthermore, only 3.5 million people are reported as being registered, out of an estimated 4.2 million eligible voters. An ill-conceived strategy whereby Haitian voters are expected to receive instructions via radio or television, collides with the hard reality that the rural and urban poor systematically lack access to such relative luxuries.
Both organizations have been heavily criticized by Haiti’s Secretary-General of the Provisional Electoral Council, Rosemond Pradel, for failing to carry out their responsibilities. Voter cards were not distributed by December 25, and many Haitians will have to walk more than two hours just to reach a voting center. UN spokesman David Wimhurst’s declaration that MINUSTAH’s mission "was to verify that the voting centers [that] the electoral council had selected physically existed…it has never been our job to determine the location of voting centers," was a blatantly obvious attempt to exonerate MINUSTAH’s clear abdication of responsibility.
Equally troubling is MINUSTAH’s failure to help promote the participation of former President Aristide’s Lavalas party, on the basis of fair play and constitutional obligation. This has put the democratic validity of the elections in great jeopardy.
Starting months ago, Lavalas placed several conditions on its participation, including the release of important political prisoners, such as former Prime Minister Yvonne Neputune and Father Gerard Jean Juste, the most popular political figure in the country who was recently released to be treated for pneumonia and leukemia in a Miami hospital.
In addition Lavalas has been calling for the replacement of the de facto interim government and the establishment of a new one that is prepared to be accountable to Haiti’s constitutional process. Furthermore, heavily populated pro-Aristide neighborhoods have been calling for the end of daily acts of repression, the total removal of all rogue security forces, and a general amnesty for all political exiles, including ex-President Aristide.
Unfortunately, none of these desiderata has been considered by the authorities, much less met, by the U.S.-installed government and its UN backers. As such, the approaching elections cannot even remotely be seen as truly representative of the Haitian people’s aspirations. If the country’s major political party, Lavalas, continues to boycott the election process, because neither the U.S.-backed interim government nor the UN Security Council provides them with sufficient election security, the election results could very likely lack all credulity.
According to former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, William B. Jones, staging fair elections is not enough to effectively attack the root of Haiti’s mountain of problems. In a phone interview, Ambassador Jones commented that, "There is a gross over-rating of elections…Haiti has had elections off and on for over 200 years" and the "international community leaves" once they are completed.
Elections cannot solve what Jones describes as a "cultural" problem. Haitians tend to elect candidates on their glitter rather than legitimate qualifications, and sufficient experience for effectively ruling once in office. After the usual charismatic but ill-prepared candidate is elected, it is traditional that the administration proceeds to undo the work of his predecessor, thus undermining all previous attempts at a solidly-based democracy.
Jones predicts that "Haiti will take at least 50 years to reach any level of security and development," and proposes that "an international consortium managed by practical hard nose people, not idealists," should be used to bring order to the country. Other well wishers insist that what Haiti needs is less, rather than more, outside intervention and dubious advice.
Crucial to any efforts to stabilize Haiti is the call for a comprehensive disarmament program. According to the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), "All its disparate armed groups depend on supplies from abroad." Yet, the Haitian disarmament mandate has not been given the same priority or even informed with the same coherence that has characterized similar past UN actions, and appears positively shifty next to its successfully implemented 1999 Sierra Leone mission, revealing MINUSTAH’s lackluster pretense.
The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was successful in disarming some 47,000 combatants and thwarting an attempted coup in January 2003. Despite its similarly worded mandates, the UNAMSIL and MINUSTAH missions have interpreted their goals in a dramatically different manner. The commanding generals of the Sierra Leone mission approached their task with a much more proactive agenda, and far more professionally than have their counterparts in Haiti.
Since the disarmament plan of action is designed for flexibility, it can be largely structured to the likings of the commanders. The mandates’ loose terminology, such as "assist," "support," "monitor," and "observe" offer MINUSTAH’s commanding general a great deal of wiggle room, something which obviously has failed to produce constructive results in Haiti.
According to the Keeping the Peace in Haiti assessment by Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights, "MINUSTAH’s failure to disarm is the product of a lack of political will, not a weak mandate." Violence has been fueled by contraband weaponry coming from such countries as Brazil, France, and Italy, not to mention the 2004 U.S. sale of 2,600 weapons to the HNP, and the 2005 agreement dispatching U.S.-authorized pistols, rifles, and tear gas according to the IANSA.
To the very end, Washington denied similar weaponry to Aristide, this explains his inability to defend his government against U.S. backed and well-armed renegade forces, who had arrived at the gates of the presidential palace just moments after the Haitian president was forced out of the country. According to an IANSA study, a quarter of the weapons smuggled from Miami, Pompano Beach, and Fort Lauderdale from 2003-2005, landed in Haiti.
The shipments of small arms to the universally repudiated Latortue government inevitably infected the nation with a capacity to commit even more violence, since many of those weapons are "leaked" into the hands of gang members and other "thugs," as they were described by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Today, there are an estimated 210,000 small arms and light weapons either in hiding or in circulation in Haiti, most of which are held illegally, or are not properly registered, as the government lacks a functioning bookkeeping system, according to IANSA. Resources to finance much of the arms trade could be linked to the Haitian-Colombian cocaine trade, which accounts for 8-10% of the total amount of that substance presently entering the U.S.
If MINUSTAH’s job is to disarm the violent gangs and other militants, it has failed to effectively do so, and is therefore unable to check the escalating violence. Any attempts at prosecuting the drug traffickers can be expected to be effectively undermined by the pathetic equivalent of a judiciary created by Latortue’s execrable justice minister, Bernard Gousse.
The president of Haiti’s National Disarmament Commission recently observed, "…nobody is going to give up their gun just in exchange for a promise of legal assistance." Until MINUSTAH instinctively investigates human rights violations and gives Haitians a reason to have trust in a central criminal justice system, violence will not subside nor justice treasured.
Future of MINUSTAH
Instability and violence seem to be the recurring themes plaguing the MINUSTAH mission in Haiti. Two weeks after Brazilian MINUSTAH commander General Bacellar’s deeply disturbing suicide on January 7, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Brazilian Lieutenant General José Elito Siqueira Carvalho to head MINUSTAH.
Unless the new force commander takes dramatic steps to improve relations involving the Haitian public, government, and human rights organizations, the mayhem on the streets of Port-au-Prince will continue to take its daily tolls, in the form of common crime, abductions and political murders.
Unfortunately, the future of Haiti seems bleak, with little hope of the upcoming elections creating a stable political environment. Meanwhile, the world turns a blind eye to the human rights disaster now being compounded in occupied Haiti, under the auspices of an ill-named UN stabilization mission and an interim regime whose delinquencies are beyond citation.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Associate Sabrina Starke.