Al Jazeera on MINUSTAH

I was looking around on YouTube for some new videos to highlight on THAC’s new WordPress blog, and I stumbled upon this video by Al Jazeera about MINUSTAH:

I confess that I’m usually fond of Al Jazeera’s coverage. In the days after the earthquake, they were one of the few news agencies to really hone in on the relationship between the last decade of destabilization and Haiti’s lack of readiness or capacity to respond to the disaster. But this video left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

The opening to the story refers to a sexual assault committed by a group of MINUSTAH soldiers from Uruguay. These soldiers took an 18-year-old man into custody and sexually assaulted him. They also video-taped the incident. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated Haitian ingenuity. The UN had already closed the resulting sexual assault complaint for lack of evidence, but people in town managed to snag a copy of the video off of a soldier’s phone when they were exchanging music via Bluetooth.

So, to start off, it’s fairly underwhelming to hear the Al Jazeera reporter describe this as a “public relations” problem. To be fair, it actually is a public relations problem, but that’s the least important aspect of the case. More salient is that it’s inexcusable, deplorable and criminal behaviour. I generally think that downplaying such things is an exercise in spin doctoring, and one of the things I generally like about Al Jazeera is that they more often eschew spin doctoring.

Not long after the opening scenario was described, the reporter, Ross Velton, mentioned that “Bad publicity has stalked MINUSTAH ever since it arrived in Haiti seven years ago. Brought in to keep the peace, its soldiers have often been accused of using too much force over the years.”

Again: MINUSTAH soldiers using too much force isn’t a “bad publicity” problem; it’s a bad behaviour problem. At the very least, MINUSTAH needs to clean up its act. Even better: get MINUSTAH out of Haiti. In 2007, 100 Sri Lankan members of the MINUSTAH mission were repatriated back to their home country after major allegations of “transactional sex with underage girls.” Of course, other than being kicked out of the country, those soldiers faced no criminal charges or other penalties in their home country. (More accurately: no information about charges has been made public, but let’s face it — we know what that means.)

One of the points that Brian Concannon talks about with regards to getting some kind of justice in cases like this involve the kinds of blanket immunity that UN forces enjoy in Haiti. The UN and the Government of Haiti have a “Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)” that grants broad immunity to members of MINUSTAH for crimes committed in Haiti. Only the soldiers’ home countries have any jurisdiction over their soldiers.

Returning to the Al Jazeera report, Ross Velton ends with an apparent contradiction of Haiti — there’s a lot that could be said here about the persistent narrative of Haiti as a perpetually incomprehensible land, to which rationality can make no inroads, but I’ll skip that rant for the moment. Velton’s contradiction is this: that although MINUSTAH is despised by many in the country, some Haitians appreciate that MINUSTAH has provided some protection of the people from lawless thugs in the country.

The math on this equation isn’t actually terribly hard. If you’re in a situation where you have to choose between being victimized by lawless thugs, or tolerating the presence of soldiers who provide some protection from the lawless thugs (but who also sometimes act like lawless thugs), it’s not hard to make that choice. The problem is this: if that’s the extent of the conversation — that all one ever talks about is the choice between lawlessness in the country and MINUSTAH as an occupying army — then it’s easy to accept MINUSTAH’s continued presence. The reason that this choice is a false choice is that it’s fundamentally blinkered. There are other options. What needs to be offered to the Haitian people is a choice that includes order, justice, and the rule of law.

But one of the reasons that we don’t tend to talk about that option is because Western governments helped to destabilize peace in Haiti by overthrowing the government in 2004. In my opinion, you can’t have this conversation without talking about what happened in 2004. And Canada, the US and France wants to sweep that conversation under the rug. So instead, we’re having conversations about how it’s better to have MINUSTAH in Haiti because they protect some people, and only rape or brutalize Haitians relatively infrequently.

There’s a passage in Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s book, The Eyes of the Heart. He’s writing about what globalization means for an impoverished country like Haiti:

The dilemma is, I believe, the classic dilemma of the poor: a choice between death and death. Either we enter a global economic system, in which we know we cannot survive, or, we refuse and face death by slow starvation. With choices like these the urgency of finding a third way is clear.

Similarly, I think there’s urgency in finding a way toward stability in Haiti that doesn’t include MINUSTAH.