This is not the first time that the UN has witnessed extrajudicial executions by the Haitian National Police without intervening. In fact they have been directly involved in training the police so they are not merely casual observers but also shoulder a heavy burden of responsibility for the widespread police violence since the overthrow of the democratically elected government.
MINUSTAH is operating under a dual mandate, one part of which requires them "to assist with the restoration and maintenance of the rule of law, public safety and public order in Haiti through the provision of operational support to the Haitian National Police." This mandate was created by the UN Security Council and was largely dictated by the United States, France, and Canada (the countries that installed and unequivocally support the unelected interim government). This mandate requires the UN to support an unelected government that is engaging in massive human rights abuses and political repression. Their primary role is to support and insure the longevity of an unelected and unpopular regime, a fact that has engendered legitimate anger and mistrust towards the UN among the Haitian people and international solidarity activists.
Despite the restrictions of their mandate some people within the UN are becoming uncomfortable with their role of backing up and supporting human rights abuses. The day after the police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators UN special envoy Juan Gabriel Valdes denounced the police actions and said that if that happens again the UN will intervene "with force if necessary", a statement that angered Justice Minister Bernard Gousse who hastened to remind the UN that their mandate requires them to support the police. Valdes said that "the U.N. mandate for the peacekeepers - which requires them to support the police no matter the circumstances - is being reevaluated at the highest levels".
Another high ranking UN official who declined to be named said "We're treading a very fine line and getting pushed by both sides. There is a limit to the leverage we have on this government. Some very powerful countries want the police to stay just as it is. Other countries do not agree. ... We cannot come out and publicly denounce this government. We don't want to jeopardize this mission, because if we left, then this country would really go to hell."
Although the UN has not publicly denounced the Latortue government they have made some tactical changes in the past weeks. The UN barred the police from attending several demonstrations on March 4 and March 8 and on both days over 10,000 people demonstrated without incident. On Friday March 17, thousands of people gathered for funeral services at Parc Lape (peace) with MINUSTAH in sight. Then for the first time in months, the people were able to march by the Justice Department, the National Palace, to the cemetery back and forth without being harassed or killed.
The peaceful nature of these demonstrations clearly supports the position of many human rights groups that the escalating violence of the past few months was a symptom of police brutality and impunity and UN inaction, and not gang violence on the part of Aristide supporters as portrayed by most media outlets. Since the police have been removed from the equation the demonstrations have been unmarred by violence and the Lavalas movement is gaining tremendous momentum. One organizer expressed that demonstrators intend to "keep the pressure on until President Aristide comes back to finish his mandate. Haiti's constitution must be respected."
After the demonstration on March 4 in Bel Air several people in the crowd yelled to the UN "we are not asking you to support Lavalas but that you guarantee everyone's safety and protect human rights as you are mandated to do". Father Gerard Jean Juste echoed this sentiment saying "As long as MINUSTAH's position supports the enjoyment of our human rights, we'll walk along. If they return to their oppressive attitude, we'll reject them like we did for the killer policemen." Father Jean Juste's words speak to the conditional nature of people's feelings towards MINUSTAH. The UN will be judged by their actions and the people of Haiti have not forgotten those that have died as a result of UN duplicity and inaction. The next few weeks will be critical as certain forces within the UN confront the interim government which is displeased by the UN's recent tactical shift.
The second part of the UN mandate requires them to "promote and protect human rights", a difficult task when they are required to support a police force directly implicated in widespread human rights violations. The situation is further complicated by the rapid rate at which members of the former military, many known human rights abusers, are being incorporated into the Haitian National Police. Until recently the former military has primarily been viewed as a renegade armed group, susceptible to arrest and disarmament by MINUSTAH forces. Once they become part of the national police force they are legitimate agents of the state, armed by the international community (thanks to the recent lifting of a decade long arms embargo). As the disarmament and reintegration of former soldiers proceeds the United Nations will increasingly be asked to support a former military disbanded in 1995 for its atrocious record of human rights abuses committed against the Haitian people.
Those within the United Nations must now decide which part of their mandate they will serve: the part that forces them to back an illegitimate government and a violent police force infiltrated by the former military, or the part which requires them to protect human rights. History and the Haitian people will judge them on the basis of this decision. The world is watching.
Unfortunately larger forces are at play and troops on the ground have limited decision making power. That is why it is essential that citizens within the US, France and Canada continue to pressure our own countries to change their position on Haiti. We must continue to denounce and expose the role of our governments in the ongoing repression of the Haitian people.