…Violent abuses are MINUSTAH’s (the UN Haiti Mission’s) basic modi operandi for protecting US & other Western economic interests by targeting poor Haitians…
A UN Security Council delegation is currently in Haiti to “review its mandate” and “evaluate” its efforts in the country. At the conclusion of this 4-day trip, the delegation will report on its findings. Given that the UN formally denies responsibility for the cholera outbreak ravaging the country, it won’t tally the 7,000 cholera deaths as part of its impact.
In light of this, it’s tempting to review yet again the “mountain of evidence” proving the UN’s fault for the outbreak. But there’s no need. The only remaining question about UN culpability is not whether they’re to blame for introducing cholera to Haiti, but whether the tools of international law will work on behalf of justice or on behalf of the powerful.
Instead, this post provides historical context for evaluating MINUSTAH’s public statements about the ongoing cholera crisis. Specifically, we compare similar public statements about a previous scandal to internal documents that only came to light years after the fact.
For those who aren’t familiar with the UN Mission’s history in Haiti, this post will show that MINUSTAH has used public denials not just to deflect responsibility, but to provide cover for continuing its “violent abuses.”
MINUSTAH’s “Modi Operandi”: The Cité Soleil Raid
June 2005. The US Ambassador to Haiti, James Foley, tells MINUSTAH: Haitian business elites are “panicked” by the lack of visible security patrols in their neighborhoods. They believe gang activity is increasing. Foley wants a symbolic action to ease their minds – something “swift and aggressive.” He suggests the UN target Cité Soleil.
Labeled “the poorest place on the planet” by Mother Teresa, Cité Soleil is a slum in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. In 2005, it was a vital pillar of support for former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was deposed in a US-engineered coup the preceding year.
State Department cables reveal that after Foley’s request, MINUSTAH “coordinat[ed] with the private sector” to plan a response. That response began on July 6, when more than 1,400 UN “peacekeepers” and 41 Armored Personnel Vehicles encircled Cité Soleil at 3 a.m. In the ensuing 7-hour bloodbath, MINUSTAH soldiers sprayed 22,000 bullets into a residential neighborhood while blocking all routes of escape, resulting in the death of “untold dozens” of civilian casualties.
How MINUSTAH Manages the Media
This is an old story, familiar to Haiti activists. The reason it’s worth revisiting now is the similarity between the UN’s response to the Cité Soleil massacre of 2005 and to the cholera outbreak of 2010.
Amidst the stonewalling and the unending chorus of “no comment,” a few statements cohered into a standard UN narrative about the Cité Soleil raid:
- Downplay Impact: Few people died (specifically, the UN claimed to have only killed “gang leader” Dred Wilme and 5 of his associates);
- Shift Blame: Gangs fired first – the UN was merely defending itself;
- Cite Higher Cause: The raid was necessary to contain the gang threat.
These claims, it should be noted, range from dubious to blatantly false (for instance, human rights groups put the civilian death toll between 50 and 70, mostly women and children). However, the most interesting revelations came long after debate over the Cité Soleil raid had moved out of the headlines.
Last year, Wikileaks cables illuminated the disconnect between public and private statements about MINUSTAH actions in Cité Soleil. This is from a cable in which the State Department advocated for one such raid:
…Timothy Carney, then the top US diplomat in Haiti, acknowledged that “such an operation would inevitably cause unintended civilian casualties given the crowded conditions and flimsy construction of tightly packed housing in Cité Soleil.”
Compared with the fact that MINUSTAH publicly denied any civilian casualties, Carney’s statement is particularly damning. But the most damning aspect is that Carney’s comments came 1 year after the raid described above, when MINUSTAH was advocating for a repeat performance.
In other words, the public denial was not just a cover-up intended to deflect blame for its missteps. Rather, MINUSTAH sought to erect a façade that would allow it to knowingly continue endangering civilians in additional violent raids.
MINUSTAH’s Cholera Denials: Troubling Parallels with Cité Soleil
This story contains striking parallels to MINUSTAH’s handling of the cholera epidemic. Consider the structure of the UN’s media strategy:
- Downplay Impact: The UN initially suggested the outbreak was geographically contained;
- Shift Blame: The UN pointed out that Haiti was “susceptible” due to lack of clean water infrastructure;
- Cite Higher Cause: The UN emphasized that despite the regrettable reality of human casualties, it needs to stay to “combat lawlessness.”
While this structure may be standard fare for politicians and public agencies, there’s an insidious element of this formula as utilized by the UN in Haiti. In the case of the Cité Soleil raids, the UN knew it couldn’t admit excessive casualties because it intended to repeat similar raids in the future. Therefore, to own up was to constrain its future options.
In the case of cholera, the UN is faced with an even starker choice. Underpinning its public statements is an awareness that the UN can continue to occupy Haiti, or it can accept responsibility for cholera. But it likely can’t do both. Even if the UN only paid damages to the 5,000 victims represented by the recent cholera lawsuit, the cost would simply be too high to continue funding the Mission.
The logical disconnect from a humanitarian perspective is captured succinctly by the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in a recent interview:
There’s been slow funding for cholera treatment. There has not been slow funding for peacekeeping. One-tenth of all UN peacekeepers are in Haiti. Their budget for this year is $800 million. And that’s for a country that has not had a war in my lifetime, but does have a cholera epidemic.
But after all, the motivation for MINUSTAH to be in Haiti is not humanitarian in nature. Final word goes to Harvard School of Public Health report entitled, “MINUSTAH: Keeping the Peace, or Conspiring Against It?“:
“MINUSTAH is… part of an interventionist geopolitical strategy rather than a humanitarian peace mission.”