Calls for calm after Haiti riots target UN

Calls for calm after riots target UN over cholera. State of emergency declared over post-election violence in Guinea. Attempted 'coup' as Madagascar votes on constitutional referendum. All this and more in today's briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
18 November 2010

Officials in the stricken state of Haiti have called for calm after three days of riots and protests targeted against United Nations peacekeepers who are believed to have brought cholera to the country, triggering an epidemic that has so far claimed over 1,000 lives.  

President Rene Preval has appealed for calm, warning Haitians that “gunshots, throwing bottles [and] barricades of burning tyres will not help us eradicate cholera. On the contrary, it will prevent the sick from receiving care.” He has also accused unnamed groups of exploiting the cholera epidemic for political gain, ahead of elections due on 28 November. The United Nations also called for restraint after two people were killed, emphasising that the unrest is hampering relief efforts aimed at treating cholera patients and bringing the epidemic under control. Many aid flights have been cancelled, water purification and training projects suspended and a World Food Programme food aid warehouse was looted and burned down.

The epidemic has so far killed over 1,100 and infected 19,000. Beginning in the Artibonite valley, the water-borne disease spread quickly to other parts of Haiti, including Port-au-Prince, home to over a million earthquake survivors still living in temporary camps. In the last few days, the first cholera case has also been confirmed in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

As there has been no cholera in Haiti in living memory, and the current strain is one that is most commonly found in South Asia, Nepali UN peacekeepers are suspected of having brought the disease to Haiti. Their camp, originally located in the Artibonite valley where the disease first emerged, is known to have had poor sanitation facilities. However, the UN denies that the peacekeepers brought cholera, and has so far ignored calls from the Haitian government and epidemiologists to investigate the claims. Instead, the UN blames the violence, which began on Monday, on political elements. On Tuesday, the head of the UN mission in Haiti, Vincenzo Pugliese described the violence as “a clear way of hampering the electoral process.”

The openSecurity verdict: After a massive earthquake devastated much of the island, including the capital city, in January, killing approximately 200,000 people and leaving 1.3 million homeless, followed by a slow reconstruction effort, Haiti was last week battered by Hurricane Tomas. The high winds and heavy rains brought by Tomas flooded parts of the island, which almost certainly contributed to rapid spread of cholera bacteria to other parts of the island. The cholera epidemic might seem like the last straw, the last trial Haiti can undergo before it reaches breaking point. However, the violence that has rocked the island since Monday is an indicator of another test Haiti will soon face: parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 28 November, in a country with little functioning physical or institutional infrastructure and a burgeoning public health nightmare.

Haitians are understandably fractious. Nine months after one of the worst natural disasters the western hemisphere has encountered in living memory, 1.5 million internally displaced people still live in temporary settlements that are repeatedly battered as Haiti’s hurricane season progresses. The government and its backers in the international development community have so far been unable to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure in any meaningful way, or to re-house those displaced by the quake. In a country that even before the earthquake faced severe political, social and economic challenges, an initial outpouring of international sympathy and an apparent flood of humanitarian aid seem to have been insufficient to meet Haiti’s challenges. Haitians are, according to Mark Schneider, senior vice president of International Crisis Group, “fast losing hope that their leaders and international partners have the political will and capacity to help them improve their dire socio-economic situation.”

The forthcoming elections are therefore a pivotal juncture for Haiti. If the elections are to pass smoothly, it will require seamless cooperation between the Haitian government, security forces and countless international aid agencies, to ensure that essential pre-election processes such as voter registration and civic education are completed. The United Nations' 12,000-strong stabilisation mission (known as Minustah) must also play a role in supporting  the electoral process. First set up in 2004 to support Haiti’s post-conflict transition, MInustah is now mandated to support the Haitian political process, including “providing logistical and security assistance for elections.”

For the elections, the wave of cholera-related violence targeted directly at UN peacekeepers could not come at a worse time. Although the link between the UN and the emergence of cholera is far from a confirmed fact, it hardly matters at this stage. As violence and unrest spread to Port-au-Prince, Haitians are not overly concerned about whether all the facts have been independently verified. The demonstrations have become a channel for Haitians to vent their frustrations with the UN, which despite being credited with keeping Haiti relatively stable in recent years, is an unpopular force that is widely seen as an expensive and ineffective ‘occupation’ force.

Such animosity is understandable in the context of the UN’s role in Haiti before the earthquake earlier this year. As the world’s only military peacekeeping mission in an internal conflict where belligerents have not signed a formal peace agreement, its status has always been hazy. However, the most serious charge levelled against Minustah is that of political bias: the UN has long been perceived by many Haitians as an attempt by the US, Canada and France to keep Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, out of power. A number of incidents since MInustah entered Haiti in 2004, in which Minustah is believed to have been involved in targeting supporters of Fanmi Lavalas, Aristide's political party, which remains one of the country's most popular, have further undermined the United Nations' standing in Haiti. Considered against the history of UN involvement in Haiti, this outpouring of anger against the UN is less surprising.

For the UN, the possibility of a link between its peacekeepers in Artibonite and the cholera epidemic is, aside from an obvious catastrophe for Haiti, a public relations nightmare of epic proportions. Unfortunately, the organisation is not doing much by way of mitigation. While it has publicly stated that all its peacekeepers tested negative for cholera, the fact that Minustah has so far resisted calls for an official investigation into the situation has only inflamed anger directed towards it. While the violence that continues today may be linked to the forthcoming polls, it is not enough for the UN to simply blame others without first investigating whether it may itself be at fault.

Ultimately, it does not matter who is to blame for the epidemic. The disaster has already happened for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians expected to catch cholera in the coming months. But if the United Nations is to ever recover its standing in Haiti, which it must if the forthcoming elections are to be successful, it must first respond to allegations of its role in the cholera outbreak with transparency and speed. If it does not, the violence that has wracked Haiti since Monday is likely to spread, adding a political disaster to the litany of natural disasters Haiti has already suffered.

State of emergency declared over post-election violence in Guinea

Guinea’s interim government has declared a state of emergency and deployed the army across the country after seven were killed following the results of a presidential poll held last week.

Alpha Conde was on Monday declared the winner of Guinea’s presidential elections, which have provoked violence across the country since they began in June. Conde secured over 52% of the vote in the second round vote that took place on 7 November, while challenger Cellou Dalein Diallo won 47% according to the country’s national electoral commission.

The state of emergency imposed by the interim government of President General Sekouba Konate, banning all protests and gatherings, will remain in place until after the election results are confirmed by the Supreme Court. The court has been given one week to verify the electoral commission’s verdict. Guinean army chief of staff General Nouhou Thiam said “the army must be deployed across the whole country with the police to safeguard order and discipline.”

Diallo, who beat Conde in the first round vote in June with 44% of the vote, alleges that electoral fraud took place in both rounds. He also claims that his supporters, who have largely been blamed by Guinean officials for the unrest, have faced “savage brutality” at the hands of security forces.

The fraught electoral process is meant to bring an end to half a century of brutal military rule. However, it has been beset by violence between supporters of both front-runners, delaying the second-round several times over recent months.

The election has pitted the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Malinke and Peul, against each other. While the Peuls, Diallou’s ethnic group and the larger of the two, dominate the economy, no Peul has ever been president. In contrast, the Malinke have long dominated the army and the country’s political leadership. This is a trend that looks set to continue if Conde is confirmed the winner of last week’s poll. Worryingly, the deployment of the Malinke-dominated army to quash what are largely Peul protests may ignite what has so far been only a simmering ethnic antagonism.

Attempted ‘coup’ as Madagascar votes in constitutional referendum

The government of Madagascar has called for a dialogue with a group of army officers who yesterday claimed they had seized control of the island during a vote on a constitutional referendum. Claiming that they had dissolved the government and set up a new military leadership, they also threatened to close Malagasy airspace and march on the presidential palace.

The government, however, remains calm. President Andry Rajoelina yesterday reassured reporters that the majority of the military was behind him. Some of those involved in the attempt, including Colonel Charles Andrianasoavina, helped oust Rajoelina's predecessor in a successful coup last year. Local correspondents say there has been little sign of broader support emerging for the attempt, and the capital remains calm. Andrianasoavina and his fellow officers are now reported to be holed up near Antananarivo airport.

The coup bid came on the day of a constitutional vote that may legitimise Rajoelina’s rule. Since he came to power in March 2009, he has been diplomatically ostracised, resisting international attempts to encourage his government to work with the opposition. The referendum would lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 35, thereby allowing the 36-year-old president to stand, despite his claims that he will not run for president. Crucially, however, the changes would allow him to remain in power for as long as it takes to organise an election .

Although Rajaoelina was brought to power on a wave of popularity and remains confident of military support, analysts report that his military backers have grown frustrated with his increasing isolation over the past few months. Without military support, many believe he will not last long in power.   

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