In June 2004, the UN established just such a mission (MINUSTAH) in Haiti – a country rocked by natural disasters and geopolitical shakiness – following an earlier Multinational Interim Force (MIF) that was tasked with restoring law and order. The catalyst for the MIF was the abrupt departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide following a military coup. Accusations were rife that the coup owed its genesis to US ‘dirty tricks’ and that Aristide’s victory in 2000 was dubious.
The result was to plunge the country into further uncertainty and to bring into office a new president, Boniface Alexandre. MINUSTAH was designed to support the new president’s authority to govern, and a 7,000-strong task force, led by Brazil, was sent to secure the country. However, violence remained prevalent and within a year Brazilian officers were requesting further peacekeeping resources.
One of the most troubling continuities in Haiti’s recent political history has been widespread sexual violence against women and children. Prior to the 2000 election, the country had been under the control of military rulers and before that the François ‘Papa Doc’ and Jean-Claude Duvalier dynasty. Sexual violence was endemic and, disturbingly, UN peacekeepers were accused of being complicit in these crimes.
This atrocious situation worsened after the horrific earthquake in January 2010. More than 200,000 people perished including nearly 100 UN peacekeepers. Some 1.5 million people were left homeless in a country with a total population of around ten million. It was an horrendous blow to a country already in the grip of poverty and precariousness. After the earthquake, the resourcing of MINUSTAH was improved following further challenges including a cholera outbreak in October 2010.
The plight of women and young girls in Haiti in particular deserves greater public recognition. Creating a ‘secure and stable environment’ is laudable but what needs to be recognised is that vulnerability is not equally shared. Wealth, gender, age and location are just some of the factors that ensure that what constitutes ‘security’ and ‘stability’ is complex. For many women, the greatest source of insecurity was (and still is) predatory men taking violent advantage of women lacking secure housing and coping with endemic poverty. The earthquake added further to this prevailing sense of insecurity by destroying existing facilities for victims of sexual abuse. Thousands of Haitians still live in emergency camps seven years later.
In July this year, the Haitian government, now led by President Jovenel Moïse, announced that a campaign would be launched to re-establish a national army following a hiatus of 22 years. The rationale for the army is two-fold, namely to replace the policing and security roles of MINUSTAH (a UN decision was taken in April 2017 to withdraw) and the ongoing needs of the country in areas such as natural disaster management. Last year, for example, Haiti was buffeted by Hurricane Matthew which caused multiple deaths and property damage.
The restoration of the country’s armed forces is inevitably controversial. For many Haitians, the army remains forever associated with past episodes of military coups, political repression and martial law. For the critics, the re-establishment of the armed forces raises the unwelcome spectre of political violence and legal interference. For proponents, the resurrection signals a return of normality for a country scarred by disaster and disorder. And, critically, a 15,000-strong force would also provide employment opportunities for the country’s many young people who struggle to find adequate opportunities.
The week-long recruitment drive is expected to generate a great deal of interest, but there is another dimension to this decision that needs to be noted. Haiti is a highly unequal country. Wealth and privilege is concentrated in a small business and political elite. The first steps regarding the reconstitution of the armed forces predate the tenure of President Moïse. In 2011, Michel Martelly, a former president, approached Ecuador and asked for help in the training of a small number of individuals. It is estimated that around 150 Haitians benefited from military training from the South American republic.
What is not clear is how Haiti will pay for its 15,000-strong armed force given that the budget being proposed at the moment seemed inadequate. Parliament was asked to allocate only £6.5million for defence and no one really believes this is going to be sufficient. At present, the country struggles to pay the wages of its existing public sector employees.
Regardless of how we might make sense of this recruitment drive, the revitalised Haitian armed forces will have security issues to address. Cross-border smuggling (including the illegal movement of children) and tax evasion involving the Dominican Republic deprive the Haitian government of revenue that is desperately needed to fund public infrastructure and financing of the state.
If the return of the armed forces contributes to meaningful improvement in the lives of ordinary Haitians, then that would be laudable. Violence against women and children has been described as a public health emergency. So making citizens feel safe in an everyday setting is going to be the real challenge.
This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.