Will the United Nations' legacy in Haiti be all about scandal?
The accomplishments of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti have been overshadowed by scandals, from a cholera outbreak to sexual abuse cases. How will this affect future missions?
Gonaives, Haiti — When the United Nations deployed peacekeepers to Haiti in 2004, its troops were charged with restoring order following the tumultuous departure of then-president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Their presence brought a much-needed calm after months of violence and political unrest. In the years that followed, they provided security for two democratic elections and, after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, pitched in with recovery and reconstruction efforts.
But that’s not the only legacy MINUSTAH, as the peacekeeping mission is referred to here, has created. Once popular, the UN mission now is viewed by many as a poor use of money and an unnecessary presence – a result in part of numerous scandals that have rocked the mission in recent years. From accusations of sexual abuse of two boys, ages 14 and 18, to the deadly cholera epidemic, peacekeepers are being blamed for impeding the path to a sustainable state.
“[MINUSTAH] came to help us,” says Arsene Dieujuste, a lawyer representing the 14-year-old boy. “But they ended up violating our human rights. Someone has to make this as right as possible, even though it will never be right again.”
'What happened is ying and yang'
When MINUSTAH set up in Haiti in 2004, the peacekeepers tackled rogue officers from the defunct military and secured access to parts of the capital that had been off limits due to gang monopolies. When successive storms left thousands homeless in 2007 and 2008, the mission responded by delivering tangible goods and services to people and the government of Haiti. This was also true after the 2010 earthquake, which took the lives of over 200,000 people, including 96 UN peacekeepers.
“MINUSTAH came in and did the job that was asked, which was restore stability into the country,” said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. “The initial mission has been achieved. We’ve now adjusted the scope of the work to different infrastructure development projects – road maintenance, bridges, clearing of canals, and assisting in strengthening the police.”
Despite their accomplishments, the UN spokesperson in Haiti, Silvie Van den Wildenberg, says she can’t mention the mission without someone asking her about cholera or the cases of abuse.
In Uruguay, four marines are currently on trial for sexually abusing an 18-year-old Haitian boy last year while they were posted in Port Salud. The teenager and his family were forced to leave their seaside home after the incident went viral on the Internet. It had been captured on a mobile phone by the Uruguayan peacekeepers themselves.
Earlier this year, three Pakistani peacekeepers were found guilty of raping a mentally challenged 14-year-old boy in the western town of Gonaives. The boy is now a ward of the state. A man accused of helping the Pakistanis cover up their involvement is also in prison. Two other cases of sexual abuse by MINUSTAH peacekeepers are pending.
Finally, unrelated to cases of sexual abuse but perhaps most damaging to MINUSTAH’s reputation has been the death of more than 7,000 people from cholera, and the infection of half a million others nationwide. The virus was linked to Nepalese peacekeepers who were not tested for the virus, though it is widespread in the area from which they originated. Mismanagement of their human waste is thought to have contaminated the water and soil in an area known as Haiti’s breadbasket, just a few hours from the capital.
Throughout the country, graffiti slurring the forces is as prominent as the troops’ trademark blue helmets. A parliamentary recently referred to the mission as a "fish bone stuck in our throats." Ms. Van den Wildenberg, the UN spokesman, says the damage these cases have done to MINUSTAH is irreparable.
“What happened is ying and yang,” says Van den Wildenberg. “It is the opposite of why we are here, to defend the highest values and ideals and this is killing our credibility worldwide.... We will always wear the scar.” She says MINUSTAH and the UN are very sorry for what happened but their apologies are “not being heard anymore.”
'More than an apology'
Many victims are looking for more than an apology, though. A Haitian public interest law firm – supported by a nonprofit organization and law firms in the US – is claiming on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims that MINUSTAH is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars for failing to adequately screen and treat peacekeeping soldiers arriving from countries experiencing cholera epidemics; dumping untreated wastes from a UN base directly into a tributary of Haiti's longest and most important river, the Artibonite, and failing to adequately respond to the epidemic.
Ruth Wedgewood, a former UN Human Rights Commission member, doesn’t think the UN will ever pay the $700 million requested in damages, but, she says, the UN should protect the rest of the population from what is now an endemic disease.
“At the very least they should require medical records for all peacekeepers,” says Wedgewood, who serves as the director of the International Law and Organizations Program at John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. “We don’t want someone with a contagious disease to enter a different biosphere and start an epidemic.”
No one contacted at the UN would comment on the cholera lawsuit, saying only that its legal counsel was reviewing the claim and that an independent panel concluded it was not possible to determine the cause of the outbreak. This contradicts claims by five scientific studies, more than a dozen scientists, and a statement by former President Bill Clinton indicting the Nepalese as the source of the virus.
Legal firms representing the two victims of sexual abuse are also asking for compensation. Mr. Dieujuste, whose firm represents the Gonaives youth, is outraged by what he says is the stonewalling – local UN officials here have told him that the situation is with the legal department in New York. He’s heard nothing for the past two months, Dieujuste says. “It’s unacceptable.” He is asking for $5 million for his client.
Challenges to accountability
Part of the challenge of peacekeeping missions is holding accountable peacekeepers from any of the United Nations’ 193 member states.
Troops receive pre-deployment UN training on a code of conduct the moment they join a peacekeeping mission, but, as UN public affairs officer Anayansi Lopez says, “It’s complicated because they rotate every six months and a couple of trainings are not going to make a big impact."
The military unit of MINUSTAH – about 7,300 troops – originates from 16 countries; 48 countries contribute to the 1,156 UN police unit in Haiti as well. Once the troops arrive in country, officers and noncommissioned officers receive a three-day “train the trainer” induction. They are given materials to distribute to the rest of the contingents, but there appears to be no enforcement to ensure that these trainings take place, and ultimately, member states’ army units are accountable only to the country that sends them, not to the UN.
The motivation for many countries to contribute peacekeeping troops is financial, says Martin Aguirre, editor at the Uruguayan daily newspaper, El Pais, which has been covering the peacekeepers' trials there since the accusations began. “Uruguay has little money for its military and … it’s a way for the military to make some extra income.”
Phyllis Bennis, author of “Calling the Shots, How Washington Dominates the UN,” says the challenge with peacekeeping troops is the same problem that exists between the Security Council and the General Assembly – a contradiction between power and democracy. “The UN has no authority over those perpetrators,” says Ms. Bennis, who works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “You can ask the leadership to bring that person home and hope they are taken to trial, but there’s no way to enforce that.”
The numbers of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are posted on the UN website. Only 25 have been registered for all peacekeeping missions this year, down significantly from the 127 recorded in 2007 when the database collection began. MINUSTAH has consistently ranked third in violations, following Congo and Liberia, respectively. But the data does not include the more than 100 Sri Lankan troops expelled in 2007 on suspicion of sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls.
No information about what happened to those Sri Lankan peacekeepers was ever made public by either the UN or Sri Lanka. Member states are not required to divulge the outcome of their internal inquiries.
The very lack of accountability for member states who contribute troops to peacekeeping missions, however, is what makes the decisions by Uruguay and Pakistan to charge the offenders from their countries so significant. If anything good comes from these scandals, it is perhaps that these countries are enforcing a zero tolerance policy, says one UN employee who asked not to be named for reasons of job security.
“[T]he government [in Uruguay] has been very open and strict with this issue,” says Mr. Aguirre. “Uruguay may not see this trail as groundbreaking, but … it could be seen that way from a global perspective.”