Interventions and human (in)security in Haiti

The human security discourse has been utilized by powerful states and institutions of global governance to legitimise the expansion of the liberal state-building consensus on the grounds of humanitarianism. The case of Haiti shows how interventions aiming to establish security in ‘weak’ or ‘failing’ states frequently serve to perpetuate violence and instability through the reproduction of systemic inequalities.
Kirsty M Bisset
6 July 2011

Human security has become an important analytical framework with a significant impact on both security theory and policy. In an academic sense, its origins can be traced to the expanding field of security studies in the early 1980s. It made its first policy appearance in the early 1990s, notably in Boutros Boutros Ghali’s Agenda for Peace in 1992, and a 1994 UNDP Human Development Report. It challenged the parameters of the security debate which previously took the state as its main referent and shifted focus instead towards problems which threaten human beings, bringing previously excluded areas within the remit of security research and policy.

The broadening of the security discourse: securitizing ‘underdevelopment’ 

This broadening of the security discourse has elevated the security of individuals within states from merely a domestic issue to a matter of international concern, attracting increased attention from global governance institutions. Significantly however, whilst human security was originally conceived in the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report as universal in scope - thus applying equally to those in Europe and North American as well as the Global South - in practice it has extended only to security threats perceived as arising from underdevelopment in the latter.

Through such workings, the framework of ‘human security’ currently dominant in policy circles legitimises intervention, and justifies the deeper restructuring of the domestic affairs of the recipient state into alignment with neoliberal ideology. As a result, this particular discourse of ‘human security’ effectively masks a continuation of existing development orthodoxy and has served to justify more in-depth forays into liberal state-building. Central to this neoliberal development model is the strengthening of institutions and the development of a free-market economy, from which it is believed growth and stability will follow.

In this respect, Haiti provides a salient case study. The security framework which has informed US and UN-led interventions since around 2001, and continues to guide post-earthquake reconstruction in Haiti today, is derived from the merging of development and security discourses which conceptualise fragile or failing states as an emerging threat to both human and (inter)national security, and poverty and underdevelopment as potential security threats. Whilst Haiti, since 1994, has been the subject of several UN missions, the international community decided that a more comprehensive intervention was necessary in order to deal with security problems - attributed to state weakness - following the removal of Jean Bertrand Aristide for the second time in 2004. In practice, this approach represents a contemporary phase in longstanding policy on the part of the USA and global governance institutions which have sought to uphold the dominant market-based development model, thus maintaining Haiti’s powerlessness and economic dependence.

The impact of interventions in Haiti

Such attempts at establishing a liberal state have been experienced by the majority of Haitians as further impoverishment and deepening insecurity. As set out in detail by Farmer and Trouillot, since Haiti’s formation a tiny elite has enriched itself at direct cost to the nation through its control over the State, these economic practices themselves a legacy of colonialism. Structural adjustment programs mandating privatization, the removal of import tariffs, the lowering of wages and the transition to an economy based on manufacturing for export have exacerbated and entrenched poverty, upholding these deep class divisions which have shaped Haitian society throughout history.

Specifically, trade liberalization has led to serious economic decline. The abolition of import tariffs in 1994 in agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) proved devastating, resulting in the collapse of domestic agriculture which precipitated a trend of rural-urban migration. The high levels of unemployment which resulted were not offset by growth in the manufacturing and assembly sectors, with only around 20’000 people remaining employed in those areas by 2000. These events continue to underpin present day insecurity. Wages have fallen as Haiti has struggled to compete with other states who share a ‘comparative advantage’ of poverty. Rising food costs compounded the desperate situation with riots taking place in 2008 as price increases put basic staples out of the reach of many. A 2009 IMF Report showed a worrying increase in the incidence of poverty, with 76 per cent of the population living on less than two dollars a day. The government’s capacity to deal with the spiralling poverty has been further diminished with a substantial portion of its budget redirected towards debt repayments.

The polarizing effect of neoliberalism on social structures has ensured that control of power and resources are further concentrated within the hands of a tiny elite. The use of force to manage poverty is not new to Haiti, and for the majority the impact of structural adjustment has been so damaging as to necessitate violence in order to maintain control. MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti) was established in 2004, purportedly to support the transitional government following the second coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide, making Haiti the only state to have a UN peacekeeping force present on its territory that is not actually in the midst of war.

Existing economic inequalities have thus been exacerbated by the further subjugation of the needs of the Haitians to market forces. In ignoring the complex historical forces and gross economic inequalities that underpin patterns of violence and form the backdrop against which current symptoms of insecurity are played out, this framework overlooks the source of insecurity in asymmetries of power and facilitates its reproduction. As a consequence the international community’s response - in keeping with past interventions in Haiti - has once again failed to engage with the systemic insecurity that reproduces the risk of violence in the day-to-day lives of the Haitian people.

Thus, whilst pressing security concerns such as poverty and disease which affect the world’s most vulnerable people have been elevated to the mainstream, the approach to dealing with these issues has overlooked their systemic nature and focused instead on managing the symptoms through further ‘development’ and economic restructuring.

A critical human security framework

Mainstream security approaches absolutely fail to consider the role of neoliberal economic policies propagated by financial institutions and powerful States, as what Roberts has termed “structural inhibitors of human insecurity”. However, human security frameworks which recognize the role of economic structures in the reproduction of insecurity and violence arguably retain a conceptual utility.

Roberts’ concept of human insecurity, defined as avoidable civilian deaths resulting from human made structures, implicates the mutually reinforcing structures of anarchy and neoliberalism in the replication of insecurity. In retracing the chains of causality - too frequently erased from analysis - beyond the immediately visible, this conceptual framework reveals the violence inherent in political and economic structures and arrangements of power within the world system. Through such means, it directs our attention towards the forces which seek to constrain agency and consequentially, determine who is accorded and denied ‘security’.

There can be no fair discussion of the state of Haiti without recognizing the role of economic frameworks in the reproduction of extreme inequality. By demanding a body count: a record of the “stupid deaths” resulting from the denial of essential resources, preventable disease and poor or nonexistent medical care, and which occur almost entirely amongst the poor, the discourse of human insecurity brings the failings of existing and past interventions into focus. In doing so it raises a pressing challenge - that the barriers which consign many to lives threatened by poverty, disease, hunger, and violence - be recognized and removed.

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