What about justice for Haiti?

UN Peacekeepers in Haiti

On January 12th, 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti with an epicenter a mere 25 kilometers from the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, and individuals pledged billions of dollars in support as people watched the never-ending news cycle documenting the devastation. Despite the overflow of well-intentioned attempts, thousands perished due to the lack of disaster preparedness and weak infrastructure. The international interventions in the period post-earthquake reveal how complex, political, and even devastating foreign aid can be. And when our media is dominated by the immediate disasters and crises around the world, it can be easy to forget about countries whose cries for justice has disappeared from the headlines.

Five years after the quake, what do we have to show for the relief efforts? Millions of the U.S.’s pledged aid dollars were either never disbursed, written off as debt forgiveness, or used to reimburse the U.S. military for its humanitarian efforts. Because of the lack of trust of local governments and businesses, much of the funding went to U.S.-based contractors, thereby failing to reinforce local economies. Vice News reported that although the U.S. planned to spend $53 million to build 15,000 homes, at the same time they authorized $70 million “to build townhouses with pools for U.S. embassy staff”.

Beyond the issues of aid is the controversial role of the United Nations (U.N.) and its international peacekeeping mission in Haiti, commonly referred to as its French acronym MINUSTAH. In spite of countless civil protests and a recent proclamation signed at an international People’s Summit by over 3,500 organizations demanding that MINUSTAH leave the country, the U.N. Security Council persists in citing “instability” and “civil unrest” as justification for the continued presence of its roughly 5,000 strong military contingent in Haiti. The reasons behind states’ desires to continue the mission are deeply complex and political.

In the most recent Security Council meeting discussing the situation in Haiti, after the Secretary General called for a drawdown in troops, the representative of Argentina expressed concern “about the abrupt and accelerated reduction in the military component of MINUSTAH, this will not allow for the provision of the necessary logistical and security support”. When one looks, however, at the true motivations for making such a claim, it is not based on providing capacity, but rather upon financial remuneration. Argentina supplies 566 military troops to MINUSTAH — twice as many as it contributes to any other peacekeeping mission — and receives generous compensation from the U.N. for each troop they provide.

In addition, the cholera outbreak caused by MINUSTAH in late 2010 has killed over 8,800 Haitians and infected over 731,000 more.

Despite conclusive evidence, including eye-witness accounts of untreated sewage leaking into Haiti’s water supply from a U.N. Nepalese base camp, and scientific testing which traced the strain of cholera to Nepal, the U.N. has yet to publicly admit responsibility for the contamination. Even after public letters from Secretary of State John Kerry, dozens of members of Congress, an allegation letter signed by four U.N. Special Rapporteurs, and a lawsuit against the U.N. demanding compensation for victims, the U.N. continues to fall back on its claimed immunity to civil lawsuits.

Part of our work at the Mennonite Central Committee U.N. Office is to keep Haiti at the top of the U.N.’s agenda and the forefront of people’s minds. We strive to remind both the Haitian and the international community in New York that there are activists working for justice for Haitians. There is reluctance, however, from U.N. agencies, member states and other NGOs, to hold the U.N. accountable for the irreversible damage it has caused.

In our work, we are confronted with the realities of the politics of international humanitarian aid. Yes, helping to rebuild a destroyed nation following a natural disaster is hard. Our hearts are uplifted when we watch Anderson Cooper document the dramatic rescue of a child from the rubble of her school or see him deliver food to Haitians who lost their homes, but we don’t like to learn about economic consequences of food aid or the deaths of thousands due to a disease introduced by the very institution that claims to represent peace and security. Yet the only way that Haiti will achieve any form of lasting peace and restoration is if the international community confronts the politics, takes responsibility, and choose justice, dignity, and the protection of human rights over charity.

Originally published at relieftorecovery.ca on June 8, 2015.

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