As a new child sex abuse scandal involving Uruguayan MINUSTAH troops unfolds (without coverage in the English language media), and new scientific studies emerge linking MINUSTAH to the origin of the current cholera epidemic, recently Wikileaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince spell out MINUSTAH’s importance to the U.S. government in a more direct fashion than probably any previously released documents. A confidential October 2008 cable from then-Ambassador Janet Sanderson begins:
The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG policy interests in Haiti. Security vulnerabilities and fundamental institutional weaknesses mean that Haiti will require a continuing – albeit eventually shrinking – MINUSTAH presence for at least three and more likely five years. Haiti needs the UN presence to fill the security gap caused by Haiti’s fledgling police force’s lack of numbers and capabilities. It needs MINUSTAH to partner with the USG and other donors in institution-building.
It goes on to state:
MINUSTAH is a remarkable product and symbol of hemispheric cooperation in a country with little going for it. There is no feasible substitute for this UN presence. It is a financial and regional security bargain for the USG. USG civilian and military assistance under current domestic and international conditions, alone or in combination with our closest partners, could never fill the gap left by a premature MINUSTAH pullout.
The cable expands on these points later on, noting in detail how the U.S. government benefits from Latin American and other nations’ contributions to the Mission in funds and troops:
MINUSTAH’s presence produces real regional security dividends for the U.S. Paying one-quarter of MINUSTAH’s budget through our DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] assessment, the U.S. reaps the security and stabilization benefits of a 9,000-person international military and civilian stabilization mission in the hemisphere’s most troubled country. The security dividend the U.S. reaps from this hemispheric cooperation not only benefits the immediate Caribbean, but also is developing habits of security cooperation in the hemisphere that will serve our interests for years to come.
The cable notes that this partnership is important, since, with “commitments elsewhere” (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), the U.S. apparently would not be able to maintain a unilateral military occupation of Haiti:
In the current context of our military commitments elsewhere, the U.S. alone could not replace this mission. This regionally-coordinated Latin American commitment to Haiti would not be possible without the UN umbrella. That same umbrella helps other major donors — led by Canada and followed up by the EU, France, Spain, Japan and others — justify their bilateral assistance domestically. Without a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping and stabilization force, we would be getting far less help from our hemispheric and European partners in managing Haiti.
The cable underscores what Sanderson says is the importance of partnering with Latin American countries in MINUSTAH especially – suggesting that such partnerships can make up for the “perceptions” that Haitians don’t want the troops there (perceptions no doubt caused by numerous demonstrations over the years):
The U.S. will reap benefits from this hemispheric security cooperation for years to come – but only if its success is not endangered by early withdrawal. We must work to preserve MINUSTAH by continuing to partner with it at all levels in coordination with other major donor and MINUSTAH contributor countries from the hemisphere. That partnering will also help counter perceptions in Latin contributing countries that Haitians see their presence in Haiti as unwanted. The Department and Embassies in Latin countries contributing troops should work to ensure these countries’ continuing support for MINUSTAH.
Sanderson expands on this point later on:
We should take [sic] emphasize in UN venues and bilaterally to our Latin partners that the Haitian people and their legitimate government support MINUSTAH’s presence, and that the UN is here at the express request of the Government of Haiti. We must be sensitive to Latin fears that any Haitian opposition to the UN presence undermines their domestic support for deployments in Haiti.
The cable describes MINUSTAH’s role in containing social unrest. The cable was written half-a-year after food riots in Haiti (and various other countries) captured world news headlines, but observers and critics of MINUSTAH have noted the troops’ role in policing and attempting to discourage political protests since the Mission first began in 2004.
They [MINUSTAH] are also the country’s ultimate riot control force which in times of unrest protects strategic government installations, including the National Palace and the airport. In MINUSTAH’s UN police operations pillar, Formed Police Units (FPU – gendarmerie-type police units from individual contributor countries) aid the HNP with security operations, such as helping put down the mutiny at the national penitentiary last November, and performing riot control during the April disturbances.
The cable is also notable for its lack of mention of any controversy or wrongdoing by MINUSTAH troops, despite that Sanderson wrote it after several of the most notorious scandals and incidents, including the July 2005 killings of several unarmed Cite Soleil residents, including small children, and the 2007 expulsion of over 100 Sri Lankan “peacekeepers” for their involvement in prostitution (including with Haitian minors). The cable says “MINUSTAH troops continue to provide security in areas such as the Cite Soleil slum, liberated from overt gang rule in early 2007,” without mentioning the bloody operations that supposedly led to such “liberation”, including the killing of dozens of people in the process as MINUSTAH troops fired 22,000 rounds in just seven hours in the July 2005 incident alone. Avoiding such controversy allowed Sanderson to write “The MINUSTAH apparatus is also conducting the vetting of the entire HNP [Haitian National Police], an essential aspect of HNP reform” without suggesting that there might first be a need for MINUSTAH reform.
The cable, which was ironically released the same day that Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim made comments regarding a Brazilian withdrawal of troops from MINUSTAH, recommends that
a significant withdrawal of the MINUSTAH security forces and civilian advisers is not advisable for a minimum of three years, and we believe that a full withdrawal of MINUSTAH should not be considered before five years.
As we’ve noted before, MINUSTAH’s Brazilian leaders repeatedly expressed concerns about their participation to the U.S. government, according to other Wikileaked cables, and lack of popular domestic support for Brazil’s role in the Mission. The cable addresses Brazilian concerns explicitly:
During the April riots, the Brazilian MINUSTAH Force Commander told Ambassador and others that his greatest fear was that his troops would be forced to fire on demonstrators. He understood that this could ignite opposition in Haiti, Brazil, and other contributing countries to his troops’ presence in Haiti. The Brazilian Embassy’s national day celebration in Port au Prince September 8 was an exercise aimed at the Brazilian domestic audience. Attended by several Brazilian senators, it featured slide paels [sic] extolling the humanitarian work of Brazil’s army at home and in Haiti, and a pathos-filled speech by the Ambassador about the history and culture Brazil shares with Haiti.
A strong U.S. commitment to MINUSTAH, therefore, is important because
The Port au Prince embassies of Latin countries contributing to MINUSTAH look to the strength of the U.S. commitment to the UN presence as a bellwether. Any slippage of U.S. commitment would embolden domestic elements who oppose these countries’ participation in in the UN mission here. We sense that the strong U.S. embrace of the UN presence in Haiti helps their case at home for continuing deployments in Haiti.
To this end, the devastating hurricanes of 2008 provided an opportunity:
The current post-hurricane relief effort, however disordered, is proving an opportunity for U.S., Canadian, and other bilateral donors to partner with MINUSTAH in disaster assistance and reconstruction. We sense that the humanitarian focus of these crisis-response efforts — in contrast to riot-control efforts in April — is helping the case in Latin countries for continuing their peacekeeping contributions in Haiti.