UN Security Council delegations and staff are meeting next week to continue fashioning a long-term exit strategy for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), even as political discord is shaking the earthquake-prone island once again. Early departure of the UN mission would leave a security vacuum ripe for exploitation by armed gangs, but it is unclear how long the Haitian public, donors, and troop-contributing countries will put up with its continued presence.
Any exit strategy has to be built on Haiti doubling the size of its police, ending impunity in its courts, and forging the rule of law as a foundation for economic growth and political stability.
MINUSTAH was formed in 2004 to keep a polarized Haiti from violent implosion, and then shared in the tragic loss of life during the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake. It has been blamed for a cholera epidemic that has caused more than 7,000 deaths and sickened 500,000, and some of its troops are accused of sexual abuses. Its massive presence after eight years has irritated a proud nation.
Nevertheless, when I recently met with government and business leaders and their adversaries, everyone acknowledged one simple fact: Haiti’s limited police force – in numbers and capacity – cannot protect its citizens without UN backing. Until Haiti builds a stronger, more capable law-enforcement structure – and one hopefully is in the making – the resulting vacuum would almost inevitably lead to spoilers seeking to secure their goals through gun barrels rather than ballot boxes.
The logical time for the peacekeeping mission in its current form to end is the transfer of the presidential sash in 2016 by President Michel Martelly to his successor, following a free and fair election. That day is still a long way off, and much has to take place to get there.
The UN Security Council should gradually reduce the size of its military-dominated mission to one with a larger contingent of more robust and competent police. That force still would ideally be led by Brazil and the same Latin American countries that comprise a majority of MINUSTAH military troop forces now.
The new mandate also should underscore MINUSTAH’s recognition of the need to help Haiti respond to the ongoing cholera threat with vaccinations in remote areas and a major commitment to water and sanitation infrastructure. The UN also should do more to ensure better vetting, orienting, and training of future peacekeeping contingents. And it must work to ensure that those who violate the norms are held fully accountable.
Perhaps as important for the peacekeeping mission as more police is continued political leadership at the top. The political engagement of the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) in Haiti, former Chilean Foreign Minister Mariano Fernández, has been crucial during the past year in helping to partner with the new Haitian government on critical decisions. However, his term has already been extended once to December, and he either needs to be convinced to stay on or an equally engaged successor needs to be quickly found.
Instead of two steps forward and one step back, Haitian politicians have been prone to move one step forward and two steps back. After finally putting a government in place, they now are embroiled in a battle to obtain the full nine members of a permanent electoral council and create an electoral calendar. Haiti is already months overdue in filling empty Senate seats, one-third of which remain vacant, and all of its city and town councils.
Similarly, just weeks after the superior judiciary council was formed, after five years of struggling to be born, two of its nine members have already resigned, and the vital baby of justice reform could once again be thrown out with the political bathwater. The SRSG and friends of Haiti – including the US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Canadian, Latin American, and French foreign ministers – need to press for a national accord to preclude these self-destructive impulses. That accord must go beyond the positive but fragile coalition of parliamentarians that President Martelly just announced.
A new mandate must also give the SRSG the internal political clout to direct the work of the entire UN country team to focus on Haiti’s areas of greatest vulnerability, in support of the country’s development priorities.
By getting a MINUSTAH focused on justice and security and a country team focused on development to operate in harmony, the UN presence in Haiti can recapture its rightful place as the respected partner to Haitian progress. At the same time, Haiti must put basic governance building blocks in place to convince domestic and foreign investors to put their money into expanding jobs and opportunities across the country. If that happens, the moment for a peacekeeping exit will have finally come.