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Haiti's earthquake: lessons for the UN

In the rebuilding of Haiti, the UN will have to broaden its remit if it is to do more than enforce a negative peace
Fernando Cavalcante
20 January 2010

"Dye mon, gen mon means" is a Haitan proverb that means“beyond a mountain, more mountains”. It gives any foreigner, any blanc, a taste of how conscious Haitians are of the difficulties of their lives. A week after the catastrophe that last hit the country, it is high time the United Nations started to learn that: a) the power struggles within the Organisation's structures jeopardises its own peace and security agenda; and b) the Organisation's current approach to building peace in post-armed conflict situations is far too reductionist to be effective.

 Since 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines – a general of former slave and national hero Toussaint l'Ouverture – led the revolt that ousted the French colonial power, Haiti has been going through severe hardship. From Dessaline's despotism to the US occupation (1915-1934) to the Duavlierist reign (both Papa and Baby's), Haitians have dealt with huge political, economic, social, security and environmental problems. In the early 1990s, they have suffered severe politico-institutional instability which has triggered economic sanctions and the subsequent deployment of peace operations from both the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN).

 In 2004, the only UN peace operation deployed in the Americas was authorised by the Security Council. The UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, was authorised under the Chapter VII of the UN Charter to perform actions in the security realm, which means that UN troops could use military force “when necessary”. Over the past five years, MINUSTAH has performed reasonably well, and established a somewhat more secure environment than that prevailing in 2004. However, the UN operation has not been so successful in the political and in the humanitarian realms. Indeed, MINUSTAH has fallen short of securing an effective political dialogue among Haitian parties and accomplishing the human rights objectives established in the operation's mandate.(1) There have even been accusations of sexual misconduct by UN troops.

 Over the last week, Haitians were once again reminded of how difficult their life can be. The earthquake that hit the country last Tuesday left the national infrastructure almost completely destroyed and the Haitian population in desperation. As time goes by, the extent of such damage and suffering becomes clearer, although there are still no reliable numbers on the death toll or accurate assessment of the material damage. Several dozens, maybe hundreds, of thousands are still under the wrecked buildings across the country, including government and UN facilities.

 However, it is already clear that there are at least two lessons the UN should learn from last week's earthquake. First, and somewhat obviously, the United Nations, as an organisation, must be more conscious of the power politics within its own structures, especially when it comes to peace and security issues. MINUSTAH has been deployed in a time wherein the major world power and its main allies were completely devoted to waging a “war on terror” in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in the US's backyard, the volatile security situation, the safe route for international drugs traders and the suffering of the people in Haiti were completely forgotten. The countries which contributed troops to the UN and MINUSTAH's operation have repeatedly complained about the lack of resources and support for the peace operation.

 Now suddenly the international media spotlight has been turned on Haiti. International leaders have been quick to deliver heartfelt speeches and send material support to Haiti. The European Union (EU) and member states pledged, together, over 400 million Euros to help the country. Barack Obama, fresh from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, has promised 100 million dollars and was quick to dispatch thousands of US troops to the country.

 All such efforts are obviously welcome. And necessary. What is critical for the successful use of the support given and pledged to Haiti, however, is the coordination of the international action. The UN and the main troop contributing countries to MINUSTAH have been relegated to a secondary position, whilst major powers lke the US and China are vying with one another for international media coverage. This competition for power risks jeopardising all the efforts made in the past few years by countries like Brazil and Uruguay, who contributed troops to the UN and MINUSTAH. The Haitians also need reassurance that the international aid will continue when the media spotlights move on. The UN is the only actor which will be capable of effectively coordinating this.

 The second lesson is as difficult, but may be less obvious. Haiti's earthquake last week proved that the UN approach to building peace in post-armed conflict societies is too reductionist to work. Such an approach emerged during the 1990s, when the Organisation started to carry out peace operations whose main goals were far more ambitious than just maintaining truces and cease-fires – the main goals of most of the peacekeeping operations conducted so far. Since the deployment of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia, however, the Organisation has carried out a number of other duties (e.g. security sector reform, assistance during transitions, humanitarian actions and even the administration of countries), thus aiming to build peace in such places.

 However, whilst rendering such an approach operational – especially though peacebuilding missions and multidisciplinary peacekeeping operations, the UN assumes that the peace to be built is simply the absence of direct violence. Such a vision of peace, hence, is better defined as a negative peace, if one wants to use Johan Galtung's definition. Therefore, whilst adopting a broader assumption of peace, the UN falls short in carrying out the means to achieve or to build such a peace.

 In the case of MINUSTAH, although its initial mandate established actions and objectives in three different areas (security and stability, political process and human rights), the main focus of the operation was in the security dimension. As a consequence, although the rates of direct violence in the cities of Haiti have been significantly reduced over the past five years, MINUSTAH has failed to support Haiti in tackling issues that also affect the stability of the country, such as the chronic unemployment (Cavalcante, 2010; forthcoming).

In the last few years, violent riots after a number of events – such as the “global food crisis” and four consecutive storms and hurricanes in 2008 – support this claim. Despite not being directly connected to UN security concerns, they had critical impacts on the overall stability in the country. Whilst looking at the consequences of last week's earthquake, therefore, the UN should thus learn how other realities usually neglected in its mandates also affect the security situation of post-armed conflict societies.

Haitian popular wisdom warns that last week's earthquake is not the last mountain ahead of Haiti. If the UN is to fulfil its duties regarding international peace and security issues, it should listen to Haitian voices of wisdom.

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