Global Policy Forum

UN's Deadly Legacy in Haiti 'Peacekeepers'


By Benjamin Terrall

February 7, 2007

As Kofi Annan moves on to life after the U.N., it's important to look at the less-discussed "regime change" which the Bush Administration engineered with Annan's help. The outgoing Secretary-General's supporters argue he did what he could to register disapproval of the Iraq invasion, but in the case of Haiti, he actually helped facilitate a bloodthirsty imperial agenda. MINUSTAH, the U.N. mission to Haiti, was put in place to support the illegal coup regime which ousted the democratically-elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February, 2004. Countries participating in the U.N.'s Haiti mission, whose mandate is currently up for renewal, curried favor with Washington, thereby repairing Iraq war-related rifts with the Bush Administration. Brazil's participation was seen by many observers as part of its bid to gain a seat on the U.N. security council.

Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and a former U.N. Human Rights Observer in Haiti, points out that "until 2004, the United Nations, for good reasons, only deployed peace keepers where there was a peace agreement to enforce. Only in Haiti has the Security Council deployed Blue Helmets to enforce a coup d'etat against an elected government. With the MIF [Multinational Interim Force] and then MINUSTAH, the U.N. abandoned a half-century of principles and common sense, with predictable results." U.N. troops have, since they first replaced U.S. Marines in July 2004, supported Haitian police in crackdowns on urban poor supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas party. Brian Concannon notes, "In contrast to its decisive action in Cite Soleil, MINUSTAH has been tolerant of right-wing paramilitary groups. For months after its deployment, MINUSTAH declined to dislodge the paramilitary groups that helped to overthrow the government from police stations. In August, 2005, a paramilitary group called the Little Machete Army killed dozens of spectators at a soccer game in broad daylight, near a MINUSTAH observation post. MINUSTAH never tried to stop the massacre or pursue paramilitary members, even though the group has terrorized the Grande Ravine area for two years." Since February 2004, thousands of nonviolent activists and other civilians have been killed, arrested, tortured and exiled by the coup regime which the U.N. mission in effect was set up to support. This essential fact rarely appears in media analysis of Haiti, so few in the U.S. understand why some have taken up arms to defend their neighborhoods.

In defense of ongoing military operations in the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, U.N. commanders in Haiti claim they only launch assaults after first receiving fire from armed actors. But during a week-long August 2006 visit to Haiti's capital, I was told otherwise. I witnessed an Aug. 24 U.N. operation in Simon Pele (a community bordering the sprawling seaside shantytown Cite Soleil on one end) which was stunning in its disregard of the dangers of using heavy caliber weapons in a densely populated area. Such operations had been carried out in Simon Pele throughout August in a U.N. campaign to "secure" the area. Footage taken by a videographer also on the scene shows a Brazilian soldier firing from the top of an Armored Personnel Carrier. I witnessed Brazilian troops running from two APCs into Simon Pele. The soldiers within the neighborhood were also firing their weapons. One of those shots killed a young man whose mother I spoke to four days later. Adacia Samedy told me how her son Wildert was fixing a radio on the roof of their family home when U.N. snipers shot him in the operation I witnessed the outer perimeter of. Ms. Samedy told me, "My message to the U.N. is: Thank you for killing my son. I don't see the sense in their work, they come in, shoot, and people passing can get shot." I asked her if any U.N. personnel had returned to see if civilians were killed, or to offer any assistance. Nobody with the U.N. had offered so much as a basic acknowledgment of her loss. [When I spoke with them in August 2005, the family of wheelchair-bound civilian William Mercy told me they were similarly ignored by the U.N. after a raid on their section of the Bel Air neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Brazilian U.N. troops swept through the alley outside their home in June 2005 and shot the top of Mercy's head off, later killing several other unarmed civilians the same day.] Queries I have directed to U.N. spokespeople about the killing of Wildert Samedy have gone unanswered.

Up the street, I interviewed an older gentleman who was moving his family out of the area, which he told me holds nothing but misery for local youth. I asked him about armed groups the U.N. claimed it was fighting. He said, "I can't say anything about that," but that many people had been shot and killed by the U.N. in the neighborhood. None were linked to any armed groups, all were "workers." Nearby the bullet-riddled dwelling he was pulling furniture out of was a church pockmarked by gunfire from U.N. forces. A Haitian journalist told me the U.N. claimed there were armed gang members in the church, but that, given the seriousness with which residents feel about Catholicism, no armed combatants would use such a sanctuary for a hideout. A school on the same side of the street was also shot up by high caliber guns.

In 2005, Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights and Brazil's Global Justice Center concluded, "MINUSTAH [the U.N. Mission in Haiti] has provided cover for abuses committed by the HNP [Haitian National Police] during operations in poor, historically tense Port-au-Prince neighborhoods. Rather than advising and instructing the police in best practices, and monitoring their missteps, MINUSTAH has been the midwife of their abuses." Several months earlier, a University of Miami Law School report concluded, "Both forces admitted that it is a confusing 'free for all' when the HNP [Haitian police] conduct an operation in a poor neighborhood because there are no radios shared by HNP and the MINUSTAH [UN] forces and, even if there were radios, nobody speaks the same language. On a neighborhood operation, they admitted, there is no clear strategy or objective, but operations devolve into 'just shoot before you get shot'." In 2004 and 2005 U.N. troops repeatedly stood by as Haitian police opened fire on nonviolent protesters demanding the return of Aristide. In April 2005, Amnesty International noted that "Haitian National Police officers (HNP) reportedly used live ammunition against Lavalas supporters as they peacefully demonstrated against the United Nations Mission headquarters in Boudon, Port-au-Prince."

But just allowing Haitian police to kill civilians was not enough for prominent right-wing figures in Port-au-Prince. In meetings with U.N. officials and over elite-owned media, veteran anti-Aristide figures pushed a steady drumbeat of demonization of poor neighborhoods that one Haitian activist told me reminded him of propaganda disseminated before the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In January 2006 Reginald Boulos, president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and a key backer of the 2004 coup, told Radio Metropole, "You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. We think that MINUSTAH's generals need to make plans to limit collateral damage. But we in the private sector are ready to create a social assistance fund to help all those who would be innocent victims of a necessary and courageous action that should be carried out in Cite Soleil... When terrorists occupy some lawless zones, there are always innocent victims." Elsewhere in the interview Boulos called on U.N. troops to help police "neutralize all the armed criminals and terrorists who are terrorizing the metropolitan area."

Most poor adults in Haiti have strong memories of death-squad terror during the first anti-Aristide coup in 1991-1994, which killed around 5,000 people. That history was frequently referred to at a "Solidarity Encounter With the Haitian People" which Lavalas activists staged in Port-au-Prince in August, 2006. The conference brought international visitors to share political insights and experiences with Haitians struggling on the ground. Jacques Depelchin, author of "Silences in African History: Between the Syndrome of Discovery and Abolition," an examination of political, social, economic, and cultural theories on Africa, spoke several times at the conference. He told me, "It is important for people to understand that Aristide and Lavalas members are connected through generations to the successful slave revolution of 200 years ago." This was Depelchin's first trip to Haiti, and as Executive Director of the Ota Benga Alliance for Peace, Healing and Dignity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he is looking forward to helping establish links between activists in Haiti and "the continent." Sharing a car in Port-au-Prince's notoriously bad traffic, he told me, "the problem of Haiti is really a structural one: they are not supposed to have succeeded or, worse, to have survived and still be resisting." As to the "Great Powers," Depelchin said, "one should not harbor illusions: [the U.N.] is a club of states and structures which cannot even respect their own conventions (for example, The Convention Against Genocide, passed in 1948). In case the U.N. falters, there is now the G8 to make sure that ultimate power rests with the most powerful. Radicals around the world need to think in terms of the kind of emancipatory politics which drove the slaves to overthrow the system as it was then known. Democracy a la U.S./France/Canada is consensus politics around an agenda set up by financial and economic interests. That agenda is to ensure that what happened between 1791 and 1804 is forgotten forever or, if remembered at all, in terms of history as written and propagated by the current powers that be." Haitian revolutionary leader Touissant L'Overture once wrote that any effort by plantation owners to reimpose slavery "would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it."

Rene Civil, a Lavalas leader who spent much of the coup period in exile, struck a similar chord at the "Solidarity Encounter", when he said: "The people of Haiti, who believe in freedom, who have tasted freedom, will never accept this criminal, slaving system." Civil also denounced the global system "which causes economic, political, military and social war on the people of the world," and prevents poor nations like Haiti from exercising their independence. Shortly after I saw him speak at the encounter, Rene Civil was arrested on charges Brian Concannon describes as "dubious." Initially claiming that Civil was just being brought in for routine questioning, the authorities have moved the activist to Port-au-Prince's downtown penitentiary. Dissidents in Haiti both fear for Civil's safety there and worry that his arrest may signal a new round of judicial harassment of activists.

Dave Welsh, a U.S. trade unionist who attended the solidarity conference, told me, "Haiti is still under military occupation. The occupiers hope the U.N. label will give a fig-leaf of legitimacy to French, U.S. and Canadian plans to benefit from the nation's labor and resources, control the Haitian state, and prevent any restoration of Haitian sovereignty and democracy. Countries like Brazil who provide the U.N. troops that are brazenly and repeatedly killing civilians in their homes undoubtedly have their own reasons for two years of willing support for this brutal occupation." Welsh was also in Haiti in July 2005 as part of a labor/human rights delegation which documented the aftermath of a massacre in which Brazilian troops killed up to 60 Cite Soleil residents in the midst of targeting a Lavalas militant and community leader. (I also spoke to survivors of that massacre, including a pregnant woman who was fired upon by U.N. troops in a helicopter. She lost her baby but was saved by Doctors Without Borders.)

Brian Concannon told me that in recent conversations, he has heard "over and over from poor Haitians that they wanted disarmament in their neighborhoods, but in tandem with disarmament in the wealthy neighborhoods that are the main source of guns that get to the slums, and the disarmament of death squads and former soldiers who kill Lavalas supporters with impunity." Concannon adds, "If the MINUSTAH operations really aimed to establish law and order, they would start by obeying the law: making legal arrests of those suspected of possessing guns, pursuant to a valid judicial warrant, rather than deadly indiscriminate attacks on poor neighborhoods."

But the U.N. shows no interest in taking that tack. On Aug. 19, Amaral Duclona, a spokesman for armed groupings in Cite Soleil opposed to coup forces, told Reuters, "U.N. troops don't want peace and disarmament because they want a justification for their presence here." Duclona asked, "How can we hand over our weapons while U.N. troops continue to conduct heavy attacks against us?" On Oct. 19, 2006, Brazilian troops leveled dwellings in Cite Soleil to widen a road, and as angry residents demonstrated to stop the project, soldiers opened fire and killed at least three people. Two months later, the San Francisco Bay Area-based Haiti Action Committee, which keeps close daily contact with activists and human rights observers in Port-au-Prince, stated, "In the early morning of Friday, Dec. 22, starting at approximately 3 a.m., 400 Brazilian-led U.N. occupation troops in armored vehicles carried out a massive assault on the people of Cite Soleil, laying siege yet again to the impoverished community. Eyewitness reports said a wave of indiscriminate gunfire from heavy weapons began about 5 a.m. and continued for much of the day Friday." Referring to U.N. soldiers and Haitian police, Cite Soleil resident Rose Martel told Reuters, "They came here to terrorize the population. I don't think they really killed any bandits, unless they consider all of us as bandits." The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti estimates more than 20 civilians were killed, including elderly and children. A U.S. doctor who interviewed survivors after the assault was told, "a U.N. helicopter circled [Cite] Soleil and fired bullets down on the homes of thousands of people."

The Dec. 22 operation was partly in response to a sustained campaign of right-wing pressure which blamed alleged gang leaders in Cite Soleil for kidnappings in Haiti. But Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, coordinator of the September 30 Foundation, an organization which supports victims of the first and second coups against Aristide, told me that the most widely covered kidnapping in the two weeks before the Dec. 22 attack, of anti-Lavalas Senator Andre Riche, was "political theater." Lovinsky told me that right-wing media outlets broadcast inflammatory editorials about the kidnapping without asking many essential questions, including why the heavily-armed bodyguards of the prominent anti-Lavalas politicians kidnapped did not have their weapons taken away, and how the politicians managed to escape unscathed from captivity. Lovinsky points out that the outlets calling for crackdowns on Cite Soleil "are in full support of Michael Lucius," the former central director of the judicial police implicated in kidnapping operations.

The Haiti Action Committee noted, "The kidnappers are mostly well-connected to the business elite and coup regime. Even Police Chief Andresol admits the National Police are involved in much of the crime wave, including kidnappings." Canadian journalist Anthony Fenton spoke with "numerous sources" (who could not go on the record due to security concerns) that connected Senator Youri Latortue, nephew of coup regime Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, to kidnapping rings. In August 2005 prominent businessman Stanley Handal was arrested for involvement in kidnapping; the Haiti Information Project reported "Handal is a member of one of Haiti's wealthiest families that supported the ouster of Aristide in 1991 and 2004. He was initially arrested along with eight members of Haiti's police force for running a kidnapping ring after he attempted to use a stolen credit card taken from one of his victims. The judge that released them, Jean Peres Paul, is responsible for keeping Father Gerard Jean-Juste behind bars and for the arrest of journalists Kevin Pina and Jean Ristil on September 9, 2005. The police officer responsible for the initial investigation into Handal's case has reportedly been forced into hiding." Hopes for progressive change in Haiti were buoyed with the election of Rene Preval on Feb. 7, 2006. Preval's success was a victory against long odds by the popular movement which first swept Jean-Bertrand Aristide into office in 1990. Preval, who served as Haiti's second democratically-elected president from 1996-2001, ran with Espwa (Creole for "Hope"), a party hastily assembled for the elections with little organizing capacity. Because of the coup government's refusal to release political prisoners and its continued repression of Lavalas, Aristide's party (by far the largest political formation in Haiti) did not officially field candidates in the presidential election.

But a year later, the police, the judiciary, and other ministries in Preval's government remain controlled by coup figures, and major media are run by right-wing elites. Though Preval helped achieve the release of prominent political prisoners Annetee Auguste ("So Anne"), Yvon Neptune, and others, hundreds of political prisoners illegally jailed by the coup regime remain behind bars. Preval also has little control over the U.N. mission. In a Dec. 19, 2006 report on the U.N. mission in Haiti, Annan recommended an extension of MINUSTAH's mandate beyond Feb. 15, 2007. Annan's report made no acknowledgment of charges of sexual abuse of Haitian women and girls by U.N. troops, or of documented killings of civilians in military assaults. Annan states, "The Mission's continued deployment will be essential, since destabilizing forces continue to use violence to attain their objectives."

But U.N. representatives seem disinterested in anti-Lavalas violence. A study published on Aug. 30, 2006 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet concluded that in the 22 months after Aristide's removal there were 8,000 murders and 35,000 sexual assaults in the greater Port-au-Prince area alone. More than 50 percent of these murders were attributed to anti-Aristide and anti-Lavalas factions, including armed anti-Lavalas groups, demobilized army members, and government security forces. The report also stated that U.N. soldiers "were identified by respondents as having issued death threats, threats of physical injury, and threats of sexual violence." The report's co-author, Athena Kolbe told me, "We notified more than a dozen U.N. staffers in Haiti of the report during last summer and told them that we would be in the country and available to share an advance copy of the report with them and discuss it if they had any questions. We had no response before or during the trip from anyone associated with MINUSTAH... We got an email message from a U.N. staff person declining to meet with us, stating that she was busy and saying, 'I don't know that you have anything of relevant [sic] to share with us.'"

In early January, Brazilian Maj. Gen. Carlos Alberto Dos Santos became the fourth commander of the U.N. force in Haiti (as of Nov. 30, 2006, consisting of 8,360 total uniformed personnel). Dos Santos said, "We are going to work in the same way as we have worked before. Nothing has changed about our mission or our obligations." Since Dos Santos made that commitment, U.N. military operations have continued. Among the civilians killed by U.N. gunfire in these attacks, as reported by the Haiti Information Project, are seven year-old Stephanie Lubin, four year-old Alexandra Lubin, and nine year-old Boadley Bewence Germain. Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine and other activists point to the unabated U.N. killings of civilians in their campaign against a renewal of the MINUSTAH mandate. Activists throughout the world, in 50 cities on four continents, plan solidarity demonstrations for Feb. 7 to support that call.

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