This article is published as part of Fridays With MUNPlanet, and its special series dedicated to world politics and the United Nations. Nicolas Lemay-Hebert (International Development, University of Birmingham) and Rosa Freedman (Law, University of Birmingham) have been working on a series of multidisciplinary projects, looking at the so-called “unintended consequences of peacekeeping,” including sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers. They write for MUNPlanet about the challenges faced by contemporary UN peacekeeping, especially in the context of the current debates about compensation to the victims of cholera in Haiti.
Haiti has long been described a perennial ‘failed state,’ a ‘basket case’ of the Western Hemisphere, where all good development initiatives ‘go to die.’ Obviously, this semantic severely underplays the international factors in the Haitian failed statebuilding process; but this is to a certain extent beyond the point here. Most commentators tend to forget – or are not interested to know – that Haiti was the first black republic to gain independence through a bloody uprising against the French plantation owners. The Haitian Revolution started in August 1791 – that is right in the middle of the upheavals of the French Revolution that started two years before in 1789 and seven years after the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War. The Haitian Revolution would play a crucial role in future emancipation movements in the Americas and beyond, proving that it was possible to stand against slavery and European colonial powers. The repercussions for this crime of lèse-majesté would be terrible: Haiti had to ‘buy’its independence from France in 1804, a debt that is equivalent to 17 billion Euros in today’s money, and which Haiti finally managed to finish paying in the 1950s.
Now, Haiti is once again in a position to transform and shape world politics. However, this time, it is not through voluntary leadership of a leader like Toussaint L’Ouverture, or through the collective exasperation vis-à-vis the exceptionally brutal slave regime in Haiti.This time, it is through the unfortunate consequences of the intrusion of cholera in Haiti by UN Peacekeepers in 2010. The epidemic that started in Mirebalais in the Artibonite region has had terrible repercussions for Haitians: killing more than 9,000 people and sickening over 745,000 since, making it the ‘Haitian 9-11’ (to use an analogy that speaks to most Westerners). It is also widely recognised that the origin of the outbreak lies in the Nepalese camp in Mirebalais.The camp had inadequate toilet or sanitation facilities, and raw faecal waste flowed from that camp into a nearby tributary (Meille River) that feeds into the Artibonite River. The strain of cholera identified in Haiti is a rare one typically found in the same area of Nepal from which a contingent of UN peacekeeping troops had recently been deployed. This ‘unintended consequence’ of the external presence in Haiti puts to the forefront the various issues of individual and collective accountability for all undesirable impacts of peacekeeping, including sexual abuse and exploitation, and of course, mortality resulting from an illness that was not endemic to the country for over a century. This crisis has the potential to drastically reshape peacekeeping practices, shifting the emphasis from the mandate of peacekeeping missions and what is achievable (see: Brahimi Report), to the evaluation of all consequences of peacekeeping practices, positive as well as negative ones. That is, if the UN is ready to engage seriously with this agenda, moving beyond mere rhetoric about “minimizing the impact on the local and regional environment by the deployment of a peace operation” (UN 2015, 78) to seriously tackle the consequences of existing peacekeeping practices.
The current cholera crisis is subject of a legal dispute, with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti(IJDH) against UN on behalf of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims demanding accountability for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. IJDH is seeking compensation, remediation through water and sanitation infrastructure, and a formal admission of responsibility for the cholera outbreak. They requested that MINUSTAH establish a standing claims commission to hear the claims in a fair and impartial manner, as provided for by Article 55 of the Status of Forces Agreement, however the UN Legal Counsel deemed the claims “not receivable”, because they “would necessarily include a review of political and policy matters”. IJDH then decided to bring the case to the U.S. federal district court (Southern District on New York). The case was initially dismissed, and the plaintiffs’ appeal is ongoing. The UN is using its immunity to avoid all discussions about legal (or otherwise ethical or social) responsibilityregarding the cholera crisis. However, this unprecedented challenge to UN immunity transcends the actual matter in hand, and forces all of us to question the existing peacekeeping regime and the practices associated with it.
Haiti has also been at the forefront of another important debate pertaining to ‘unintended consequences’ of peacekeeping, which is sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers. In a recent report on the case of Haiti, the UN found that 231 individuals admitted to transactional sexual relationship with MINUSTAH personnel, which suggests (or confirms) that sexual exploitation remains significantly under-reported in peacekeeping missions. This needs to be contrasted with the total number of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against members of all UN peacekeeping missions in 2014, which were a mere 51. This figure is supposed to include all instances of reported transactional sex relationships with peacekeepers in host communities.The recent ‘Code Blue’ campaign, launched in 2015 and aimed at ending immunity for sexual violence by UN peacekeeping personnel by encouraging UN personnel to leak compromising documents, has further increased the pressure on the UN to take into account the impacts of its presence on vulnerable segments of the local population.
How the UN will end up dealing with issues of compensation to victims of cholera in Haiti and other issues of abuse of power will in fine reflect the seriousness of the UN in dealing with the general issue of unintended consequences of peacekeeping and accountability. In the words of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, “peace operations are not simply something the United Nations does but what the United Nations is” (UN 2015, iii). Unfortunately, right now, the Haitians don’t see a very flattering image of what the United Nations is.