A piece yesterday on the Christian Science Monitor‘s website, written by investigative journalist Kathie Klarreich, discusses the increasing unpopularity of UN troops in Haiti in the wake of multiple sexual abuse incidents and the introduction of cholera in late 2010. As the article explains, the negative feelings that these scandals have stirred up among Haitians are compounded by the general lack of accountability of foreign soldiers and police personnel that are part of the UN Stabilization Mission for Haiti, or MINUSTAH.
The Monitor highlights two recent sexual abuse cases involving MINUSTAH personnel, both of which we’ve documented on the Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog: the rape of an 18 year-old boy by Uruguayan soldiers in Port Salud last year and the rape of a fourteen year-old boy by Pakistani police officers. In both these cases, after the scandals became public, the alleged rapists have faced judicial pursuits in their countries of origin, though the Pakistani officers only received a one-year sentence, and the trial of the Uruguayan soldiers has moved forward at a snail’s pace.
But there’s no indication that other abuse incidents involving MINUSTAH have resulted in judicial pursuits of any kind. The Monitor mentions the case of “more than 100 Sri Lankan troops expelled in 2007 on suspicion of sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls.” But, writes Klarreich:
“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.”
In a report that focuses on the case of the Port Salut rape case, Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, lists a number of other cases of human rights abuses allegedly committed by MINUSTAH agents since 2005 that – as far as we know – haven’t been properly investigated or prosecuted.
But, as the Monitor underscores, “perhaps most damaging to MINUSTAH’s reputation has been the death of more than 7000 people from cholera, and the infection of half a million others nationwide.” The UN has failed to acknowledge responsibility for the epidemic, despite overwhelming evidence indicating UN responsibility. Meanwhile, Haiti’s leading human rights lawyers – the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux – and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti have filed a multimillion dollar claim against the U.N. on behalf of 5000 victims of cholera. Klarreich writes:
“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.”
Interestingly, Klarreich reports that UN spokesperson Silvie Van den Wildenberg has recognized that the damage the abuse cases and cholera “have to 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.”
Yet, despite these expressions of regret, MINUSTAH and the UN have in reality failed to offer the Haitian people, and particularly the victims of abuses and cholera, a formal apology. Were the UN to officially recognize their responsibility for these abuses and offer apologies, it would be a useful first step toward the accountability of MINUSTAH in Haiti.
Beyond the recent scandals that have occurred around cholera and sexual abuses, it’s important to remember that MINUSTAH has, from its inception, been widely viewed throughout Haiti as a foreign army of occupation with little or no legitimacy. UN troops first arrived in the country in mid-2004, during the turmoil surrounding the coup that forced elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide into exile earlier that year. As the Gerard Latortue regime oversaw a brutal repression of pro-Aristide groups in popular neighborhoods, MINUSTAH soldiers stood by and even allegedly participated in acts of repression as well. Most notable is the July 6, 2005 assault on Cité Soleil which resulted in dozens of civilians killed or injured, including women and infants. Declassified cables from the U.S. Embassy noted that MINUSTAH soldiers had fired an astonishing 22,000 shots in 7 hours.
As Klarreich’s piece makes clear, the anger and bitterness towards this prolonged and unjustified foreign military presence is reaching a boiling point throughout Haiti.