On February 28 Brazilian UN troops, part of the MINUSTAH mission in Haiti, stood by as police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing five and wounding dozens. Following the demonstration UN officials condemned the shooting and for the first time stated that if this happened again they would intervene "with force if necessary". They also restricted the police from attending several demonstrations later that week.
These bold, and ultimately disingenuous, statements from UN special envoy Juan Gabriel Valdes created a moment of hopefulness and peaceful demonstrations swelled in numbers over the past weeks in response to the heightened security brought about by conspicuous police absence. People felt a new degree of safety and the nonviolent pro-democracy movement was gaining tremendous momentum.
Until last Thursday, March 24, when police once again opened fire on thousands of unarmed demonstrators in Cite Soleil as they courageously took to the streets to demand the return of President Aristide and the release of all political prisoners in Haiti. Reports indicate that between 3 and 5 people were killed. Apparently UN forces were present at the demonstration but not in sight when the shooting took place. They have yet to release a statement about the incident.
Then on Friday evening Father Gerard Jean Juste, beloved priest and pro-democracy activist, was attacked by an assailant as he returned to the church rectory. Friends managed to chase the attacker away and later he was captured and detained by community members. Then the following evening as Father Jean Juste was doing a live interview with Flashpoints radio on KPFA in Berkeley several men in black masks jumped out of a car and began firing at the rectory with machine guns.
These attacks eerily came on the same day that Father Jean Juste delivered a special mass commemorating the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a liberation theologian killed by US trained militias in El Salvador on March 24, 1980.
Calls were made to the Brazilian UN following both incidents but as of Saturday morning UN troops had yet to arrive on the ground.
Just last week Father Jean Juste said "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."
Why this return to an oppressive attitude? These past weeks marked a critical moment for the MINUSTAH mission in Haiti. UN officials were faced with a choice between two conflicting components of their mandate: to back an illegitimate government and a violent police force infiltrated by the former military or to protect human rights.
In the first year following the overthrow of the democratically elected government UN troops primarily focused on fulfilling the first part of their mandate to the detriment of human rights, and numerous lives were lost as a result of this duplicitous and politically repressive policy. On September 30 MINUSTAH soldiers watched the Haitian National Police provoked a violent incident that left 4 policemen dead by firing into the demonstration.
Then on January 5 UN troops arrested Jimmy Charles, a Lavalas organizer. Community members begged them not to turn him over to the police, fearing for his life. Ignoring these demands the UN turned him over to the police and on January 15 his body was found in the morgue with 6 bullets.
The people of Haiti, particularly the families of those that died, have not forgotten these incidents, nor have they forgotten that it was the UN that trained the police and continues to prop up an illegitimate government in direct violation of their OAS obligations.
Nonetheless there were many who heard Juan Gabrial Valdes say 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" and felt a moment of hope.
Was it possible that a combination of international pressure and personal shame would move the UN to change their policy? There seemed to be some recognition that the MINUSTAH mandate, as written, is untenable. It is simply impossible to defend human rights when one is required to back those committing the abuses.
Hope was further bolstered as the UN began to take aggressive steps to dislodge the former military from several towns where they have been terrorizing the populations. Three UN peacekeepers lost their lives last week in violent clashes with the former soldiers. There appeared to be a new willingness to take the necessary risks involved in any serious disarmament plan, unfortunately at the cost of several lives. These acts, though commendable, should not overshadow the return to a fatal UN policy of inaction and duplicity that resulted in the recent civilian casualties in Cite Soliel.
Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the events of March 24 and the incident with Father Jean Juste indicate that the much hoped for shift in UN policy has not occurred. There are larger forces at play that are intent on defending the legitimacy of an unelected and unpopular government at the expense of innocent lives. Troops on the ground are forced to comply with a mandate dictated by the United States, France and Canada and they will have to live with the memory of the lives lost as a result of their inaction and ongoing collaboration with a brutal police force.
On Tuesday March 29 Haitians will once again take to the streets in Port au Prince and Cap Haitien to commemorate the signing of their constitution and to demand that the international community respect that constitution. Human rights groups, international solidarity activists and Haitians ask that the UN troops in Haiti do just that by protecting the demonstrator’s rights to peacefully assemble and ensuring Father Jean Juste’s safety. They have the power to do so and once again the world will be watching.
SASHA KRAMER is a graduate student at Stanford University who has travelled to Haiti 3 times in the past year on human rights delegations.