Global Policy Forum

Haiti Would Be a Perfect Laboratory for


By Richard Foster

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 25, 2006

A country ravaged by years of war, foreign exploitation and poverty finally wins its independence. But expecting such a country, one with virtually no experience in self-governance, to develop into a reasonably democratic, stable and prosperous nation without a lot of sustained help from other countries and international organizations is like expecting a newborn baby to get behind the wheel of a high-powered race car and drive it around the track. No chance.

That is why, last December, as part of a broader and wider effort at modernization and reform, the United Nations established a new Peacebuilding Commission. Just as U.N. peacekeepers try to prevent war from re-erupting in the aftermath of a peace agreement or cease-fire, U.N. peacebuilders try, over the longer run, to help fledgling countries develop the institutions that allow them to grow into adulthood.

The record shows the need for such an organization. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has noted with pride that the U.N. has played a vital role in mediating disputes between countries and helping former adversaries put flesh on the bones of the peace agreements they have negotiated. But the record, he says, "is also blemished by some devastating failures. Indeed, several of the most violent and tragic episodes of the 1990s occurred after the negotiation of peace agreements - for instance, in Angola in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994. Roughly half of all countries that emerge from war lapse back into violence within five years." That's not only a grim statistic, but a terribly demoralizing one.

The new Peacebuilding Commission will comprise 31 member-countries, seven of which will be drawn from the U.N. Security Council. Another five will be selected from the top 10 contributors to the U.N.; five more from the 10 nations that supply peacekeeping troops to the world body; seven more from the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council, and the remaining seven will be chosen by the General Assembly from a list of nations "that have experience post-conflict recovery."

It is hoped that commission will be influential by reason of its size and by the diversity and relevance of the 31 countries that participate in it, including members of the Security Council and the top peacekeeping and financial contributors. But is this a realistic hope or just wishful thinking?

For many years, NATO has been either unable or unwilling to play a rapid and decisive role in ending disputes even in backyard countries such as Bosnia. This paralysis is largely the result of the fact that NATO is diverse organization of 26 members with competing national interests. Achieving consensus in a large, diverse and sometimes fractious organization is not easy. If consensus within NATO has proven to be difficult, is there any reason to suppose it will be any easier at the new U.N. Peacebuilding Commission?

Even now, the commission - like the very countries it is supposed to help - is having trouble getting on its feet. Disputes have arisen over what countries will become commission members. Also - and this is even more worrisome - the U.N.'s administrative and budgetary organs have refused to approve funds for the commission from the regular budget, the result of the world body's perennial financial woes. As a result, the commission must depend on "existing resources" within the U.N. and on voluntary contributions from U.N. member states. This is a very risky proposition. Many U.N. members are already in a financial bind. How many of them will want to invest their precious resources into a new and untested U.N. bureaucracy? The U.S. can contribute, but the Bush White House has never made a secret of its distaste for the U.N.

As Annan and others have noted, there is no shortage of countries that need help getting on their feet. They include post-war Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Burundi and Sierra Leone. Another needy candidate is a close-by neighbor of the U.S.: Haiti. Haiti won its independence more than 200 years ago, but it has never been able to escape the trap of poverty, dictatorship, corruption, violence, anarchy and despair. Haiti's latest attempt at democracy - a recent presidential election - produced a controversial result: a claim of victory by Rene Preval, an agronomist who was president from 1996 to 2001.

Preval is a well-educated, perhaps even progressive, man, but he achieved little in his earlier presidency and there is little reason to believe he will be more successful in his second. A measure of the political tumult in Haiti is seen by the fact that the head of the Haitian electoral council that decreed Preval the victor in the recent election later fled the country because his life had been threatened and his farmhouse had been burned down. There has even been talk of a return to Haiti by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic but mercurial president of Haiti during the early 1990s and close ally of Preval.

After more than 200 years, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Haiti will never become democratic, stable and democratic on its own. It will achieve these lofty goals, if at all, only with the significant and sustained involvement of countries like the United States and France and international organizations like the Organization of American States and the U.N. Let the U.N.'s new Peacebuilding Commission be given the support it needs to get going. Let its membership roster be completed, and let it begin its important work in Haiti. If Haiti can be helped to political and economic adulthood, so can any other country.

It's a good place for the commission to begin, and now is a good time.

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