Port-au-Prince, March 2nd, 2007: seeing the arrival of journalists, MINUSTAH troops take leave of a group of angry Cité Soleil residents. Residents stated that UN troops had just arrested their 23 year-old neighbor without a warrant as he was leaving for his class at the Saint Gerard Technical Centre. The arrest added to the 70 arrests of “presumed gang members” MINUSTAH carried had out in the previous 2 weeks. (Photo: 2007 Darren Ell)
On February 15th 2007, the UN News Service, the global mouthpiece for UN operations around the world, published an article stating that UN forces in Haiti – MINUSTAH – had transformed a former gang leader’s headquarters in Cité Soleil into a “free medical clinic” following its raid on his residence. I had just arrived in Haiti to work on a project about the impact of the 2004 Canada-backed coup d’état. I knew MINUSTAH had brought in a few doctors and clowns for a photo op after their massive military operations in the seaside shantytown, but I didn’t realize they were setting up fully functioning clinics. Two days later, I attended a demonstration on the site where the medical clinic was supposed to exist, but it was nowhere to be found. In the following two weeks, the UN News Service published this fabrication with each new mass arrest in Cité Soleil. By March 2nd, it claimed that more gang headquarters had been converted into “medical and social centers.” I visited and photographed the “headquarters” of gang leaders Evans, Amaral and Ti Bazil, three of the sites of supposed UN social services, and there was nothing to be found.
Left to right, the headquarters of what the UN calls “gang leaders”: Evans, Amaral and Ti Bazil. These photos were taken in the days following the UN’s announcement that they had created “medical, social and community centers” on these sites. No such services were ever created. (Photos: 2007Darren Ell)
It is hard not to notice that the UN’s remarkable feats of humanitarian kindness were being performed exactly at the same time that harsh mass arrests were being conducted among a vulnerable population. When I notified the head of media relations at MINUSTAH about the lies being published by the UN News Service, she agreed they were misleading. She acknowledged that MINUSTAH had only ever handed out water bottles and offered free checkups the day after 72-hour mass arrest operations. Nonetheless, the exaggerations have not abated to this day. Here is a selection from the UN News Service’s most recent article about Haiti (March 23, 2007):
“From helping to set up local municipal administrations to providing electricity, education and health services to restoring a library to laying out a football field, no task is too small or parochial for the UN peacekeepers as they try to make a difference for the people on the ground in one of the poorest countries on earth.”
Disturbed by these cynical fabrications, I decided to look into MINUSTAH’s huge arrest operations that were occurring during my stay in the country. On March 2nd, MINUSTAH spokesperson David Wimhurst proclaimed to the UN News Service, “We’ve got a good catch.” He was referring to the results of three operations in which UN troops claim to have arrested one gang leader and sent three more into hiding, one of which was subsequently arrested. In addition to the gang leaders, 70 “suspected gang members” were also arrested. In other UN News Service articles, these people are called “presumed bandits,” “suspected gangsters,” or “suspected criminals.” Sometimes the term “suspected” is dropped altogether. In the days following these arrests, my Haitian colleague Wadner Pierre and I interviewed four people in Cité Soleil who claimed five of their relatives or neighbors had been arbitrarily arrested, without warrants, on their way to work or school. We didn’t corroborate their claims, but two of Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon, confirmed that MINUSTAH routinely arrests people without warrants. They also get information from informants who in desperate economic environments are notoriously unreliable. I wondered how many more of the 70 “gang members” might be innocent civilians languishing in deplorable conditions of Haiti’s prisons.
I decided to look closer at what the UN News Service was telling the world about Haitian reality. Most startling was a phrase that was repeated in every article related to the origins of MINUSTAH: “The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) [was] set up in 2004 to help re-establish peace in the impoverished Caribbean country after an insurgency forced then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to go into exile.” This is a revisionist statement. An insurgency suggests a popular rebellion against a corrupt leader. Mr. Aristide, democratically elected in a landslide victory in 2000, was overthrown in a coup d’état fomented and supported by the United States, Canada and France. The coup followed the deliberate destabilization of the Aristide government by these same countries. The ‘insurgency’ consisted of criminal US-trained and armed former Haitian Army personnel. They swept through the country, killing police officers and civilians, and raiding jails to free their comrades. Their notorious ringleader, Guy Philippe, subsequently ran for President under MINUSTAH’s watch. The US ambassador then threatened Mr. Aristide with the specter of increased violence in the country if he didn’t step down. US forces then took Mr. Aristide out of the country as Canadian troops secured the airport. Note that the foreign troops were not used to stop the attempted overthrow of the overwhelmingly popular democratically elected president, which could have been done at the flip of a switch. He has not been allowed to return to Haiti since, despite the presence of MINUSTAH. In other words, he was overthrown by a criminal coup d’état, not “forced into exile.”
These issues constitute only the tip of the iceberg as concerns the UN presence in Haiti. To learn more, consult the site of HaitiAction.net and read my recent interview with human rights lawyer Brian Concannon, published online with The Dominion. For a detailed examination of the 2004 coup d’état and Canada’s role in it, consult the Canada HaitiAction website.