On June 5, Ministers of Defense and Foreign Relations from South American countries met in Asunción, Paraguay to discuss the future of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti – or MINUSTAH. Ten of the twelve countries in the regional group known as UNASUR – the Union of South American Nations – contribute troops to MINUSTAH and make up nearly 50 percent of the entire force. As we have described in other posts, there has been quite a bit of debate regarding MINUSTAH in troop-contributing countries, especially Brazil, the largest contributor.
Since last summer, there has also been a wave of civil society opposition to the ongoing presence of foreign military troops in Haiti, as attested by separate letters addressed to Latin American presidents and the UN Secretary General and signed by prominent intellectuals and human rights defenders from throughout Latin America. This opposition has been bolstered by a string of recent sexual abuse cases, including more than one involving troops from UNASUR member country Uruguay, as well as the overwhelming evidence suggesting that MINUSTAH bears responsibility for introducing cholera into Haiti.
As the Telesur correspondent in Paraguay, Amanda Huerta explained, there were two competing positions among UNASUR countries: those that favored a rapid reduction of troops and a shift in focus to reconstruction and humanitarian activities and those who favored maintaining current troop levels until 2014. The final declaration on MINUSTAH noted the need to develop a policy of sustained cooperation which “respects the sovereignty and the self-determination of the Haitian people”. Further, ministers agreed to form a working group “for the purposes of elaborating a scheme on the strategy, form, conditions, stages, and timeline of a Plan of Reduction of Contingents of the Military Component of the Mission.” Given the large role South American countries play in MINUSTAH (an importance clearly recognized by the United States), any decision made on reducing troops would have a tremendous impact on MINUSTAH’s future in Haiti.
While the UNASUR declaration was welcomed by civil society groups, many urged the South American nations to go further. Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, together with many other human rights advocates and groups, sent an open letter to the ministers of UNASUR countries calling for:
The non-renewal of the MINUSTAH mission when its current mandate expires on October 15;
The formal recognition of MINUSTAH’s culpability for the introduction of cholera and the corresponding reparations to the affected persons and communities;
The immediate re-conversion of the segment of the budget now dedicated to the maintenance of MINUSTAH (approximately US$800 million annually) to social investment without further debt, to support reforestation, to insure universal access to potable water and sanitation facilities, and to create health and public education infrastructure.
The letter added:
The Haitian Senate unanimously approved the withdrawal of MINUSTAH one year ago, and Haitian social and human rights organizations and the public in general are expressing with ever greater vehemence their rejection of this custodial presence. It is time for the Member States of UNASUR to hear those voices and assume their historic and current debt towards that country and its people, the precursor and fellow supporter of the struggles for freedom throughout our entire region.
Indeed, public opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of Haitians have a negative opinion of MINUSTAH and express a desire for the mission to leave. A survey published in February 2012 of Port-au-Prince residents found that only 24.2 percent of respondents considered that MINUSTAH’s presence was “a good thing” and a majority indicated that, for the most part, they didn’t feel more secure when in close proximity to a U.N. soldier. To the question “when should MINUSTAH leave the country?”, 72.2 percent of those who expressed an opinion thought that MINUSTAH should leave either now, within six months or within a year. Only 5.9 percent stated that they thought MINUSTAH should not leave.