On Wednesday, December 12 the United Nations’ special representative for its operations in Haiti, Helen La Lime, gave a presentation to members of the Security Council on the current status of the mission (MINUJUSTH) which is set to expire on October 15, 2019. Lime suggested that the mission had achieved a lot, but that challenges remain, especially in light of the current protests and calls for President Jovenel Moïse to step down. Lime argued for more support for the police, a primary focus of the current UN mission:
“It would behoove not only the government of Haiti, but also the international community to fulfill their commitment to fully fund the five-year HNP [Haitian National Police] Strategic Development Plan, so as to ensure the continued buildup of human, logistical and material capacity of the institution.”
Is this emphasis on policing misplaced? There is little doubt that human security is threatened in Haiti - as it is many places. However, it seems that the emphasis on policing is a thin veil for the underlying class dynamics at play, whereby the wealthy desire protection from an impoverished majority.
The UN established a “peace-keeping” mission in 2004 following a coup that forced President Aristide from office that February. MINUSTAH, the original mission, would come to be a dominant presence in Haiti, in a tenure dominated by scandals: Armed incursions into Cite Soleil that killed dozens of civilians, sex trafficking and other abuse of women and girls, and the introduction of cholera into the country in 2010, an epidemic that has killed at least 10,000 people. Against the backdrop of the scandals have been daily operations characterized by the all too familiar bigotry of international aid, whereby international “advocates” have more access to policy makers than the majority of the people impacted by policies.
The principal purpose of MINUSTAH was, in theory at least, to provide security, broadly understood, in the wake of the coup (officially not a coup, but a resignation). Toward that end, MINUSTAH, among other things, oversaw an expansion of Haiti’s police force, from 2,500 in 2004 to 16,000 officers today. MINUSTAH’s mission came to a close in 2017, and was replaced with MINUJUSTH, which has focused primarily on police “professionalization.” In recounting MINUJUSTH’s achievements, however, Lime missed a few details.
In November of 2017, 200 police officers descended on the Gran Ravine area of Port-au-Prince in an “anti-gang” operation. The community was under siege for 6 hours - during which time HNP killed several civilians, beating someone nearly to death with a chair at Maranatha College in front of community members, then killing a teacher who tried to intervene. In total, nine people were killed, five with gunshots to the head - the bodies left in view of the community until the next day. UN “trainers” helped organize the operation, but blamed the deaths on rogue police officers, taking (as is the UN habit in Haiti) “no responsibility” for the killing.
The UN statement on the operation read:
“None of the [U.N. police] unit proceeded to the location at Maranatha College where the alleged killings took place,” the spokesperson wrote. “The planned portion of the operation went relatively well. The post-operation unilateral initiative of some HNP members to conduct a high risk search, proceeding outside of the operational cadre, without advising the hierarchy, without authorization and contravening the operation plan was not part of the planned operation.”
A different kind of security
It should come as no surprise (though many seem surprised) that Haiti’s internal security problems have not been solved by increasing the size of the police force. The underlying structural socio-economic tensions remain, and are worsening: Inequality, economic stagnation, and an indifferent elite (indifferent to the poor, that is), typically backed by the “international community” in their indifference. The class dynamics in Haiti remain consistent: the police sequester and contain the poor, while protecting the wealthy in the name of stability and property. This is, of course, the institutional role of the police within capitalism more generally - not simply in Haiti - a role that has intensified globally in the last decades of neo-liberal pilfering of state resources.
So, as the UN discusses its ongoing role in Haiti, the Haitian people might be better served if the talk was less about the police and more about the UN's debt for the cholera crisis and how it will repay that debt with expansive investments in health infrastructure. Or, they could talk about how to contain (dare we say, "police"?) affiliated organizations like the International Monetary Fund that continue to press for deeper and deeper austerity. The current political upheaval is hard to separate from IMF pressures. For example, the IMF demand for cuts in fuel subsidies sparked huge protests in July - protests that led to the resignation of the previous government.
A security regime that focuses on just working conditions, a sustainable and revitalized economy - especially in rural areas - health and education access, and human rights protections might be more effective than funding more police officers. The so-called “international community” has the resources, and it might even be cheaper than the current strategy. The reason such measures are not taken is that security for the poor is not really the goal. Security for the wealthy, and the system from which they derive their wealth, remains the evident goal. This is not likely to change any time soon. But we can still call for accountability and join in solidarity with those who are trying to change the system.