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POLITICS: Haiti New Crisis Zone for US, UN

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2004 (IPS) - The strife-torn Caribbean island of Haiti – a world apart from U.S.-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan – may turn out to be another political liability both for the United Nations and the United States because of renewed violence, according to U.N. officials and regional experts.

A sudden wave of violence in the nation in September, reportedly led by supporters of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has threatened to spark a new civil war. A U.N. force, which was sent to keep the peace, is now in danger of battling rebels, some heavily armed.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning asking U.S. nationals not to visit the country. Last week it asked ”non-essential” U.S. diplomats and their families to leave Haiti because of the spiralling violence.

The U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which is still far short of its total troop strength of 8,000 soldiers, conducted several military operations last week, arresting more than 75 people.

But ”if the violence continues,” says a U.N. official, who asked to remain anonymous, ”it will surely have an impact on the development and reconstruction of an already-battered economy.”

Although the insurgency is unlikely to reach the intensity of Afghanistan or Iraq, he says, it should still be ”nipped in the bud”.

When Aristide was forced out of power in February this year, as armed rebels swept towards the capital Port-au-Prince from the country’s north, he accused the United States and France of ”kidnapping” him and spiriting him out of the country on a U.S.-chartered plane.

Despite strong support for Aristide, the nation’s first democratically chosen president, from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) the United Nations refused to back Aristide.

Reverend Gabriel Odima, president of the Africa Centre for Peace and Democracy, is critical of the U.N.’s failure to stabilise the western hemisphere’s poorest nation and rejuvenate its perpetually ailing economy.

”The United Nations has failed the people of Haiti,” Odima told IPS. ”The U.N. policy in Haiti lacks the ability to make tough choices, including balancing rhetoric and action on the ground. The policy failed to develop a coherent strategic vision for the people of Haiti”.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has condemned the fighting and given its backing both to MINUSTAH and to U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Juan Gabriel Valdes.

Interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who was installed in office with the blessings of the Bush administration, is accusing Aristide, now living in exile in South Africa, of instigating the violence against the government in Port-au-Prince.

Latortue has also accused the South African government of complicity in the violence in Haiti.

Odima said that the Latortue administration should come to terms with reality and stop using South Africa as a scapegoat for the instability in Haiti.

”There is a need for more U.N. troops to provide temporal stability, but the final solution will depend on the political stability of Haiti,” he added.

The U.N. force currently has a strength of over 3,000 troops, mostly Brazilian. A 125-strong police unit from China arrived in Haiti last week. A further 622 troops from Sri Lanka are expected by the end of October, along with a joint Spanish-Moroccan battalion, but the force is still not expected to reach the targeted 8,000 troops.

Asked about the slow deployment of the U.N. force, one official said it is purely due to logistical reasons. Some countries contributing troops do not have well-equipped, well-trained soldiers who can be deployed at short notice. As a result, he said, there are long delays in the transfer of troops from home countries to conflict zones.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim was quoted as saying last week that the situation in Haiti was getting worse because the U.N. force is operating at less than half its strength.

Addressing a meeting at the University of Ulster in Britain on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations had a peacekeeping mission in Haiti when Aristide returned to power in 1994, with U.S. military backing.

”We trained a new police force,” Annan said, ”And then we left – along with other international institutions – before a viable peace had taken root.”

”Now we are back, with much of what we did before swept away – almost literally, as the recent floods have bared the legacy of years of misrule,” Annan said.

The lesson – ”a very important one” – he added, “is that everyone needs to stay engaged: the Security Council; member states; international non-governmental organisations (NGOs); and of course, the former parties to the conflict, and the people themselves, who are the most essential actors in any peace-building process.”

Others see different lessons in Haiti’s experience.

”This is what happens when the international community lets the United States destabilise a country: chaos ensues, then more bloodshed,” says Matthew Rothschild, editor of ‘The Progressive’, a magazine of investigative reporting and political commentary.

The administration of U.S. President George W Bush was behind the February ”coup” against Aristide. ”And now the people of Haiti are suffering,” says Rothschild, who has been monitoring developments in the island nation.

”In this instance, as in others, the United Nations bowed to the bully in Washington,” Rothschild told IPS.

”Even though Aristide had the strong backing of CARICOM, and even though Aristide himself was begging for U.N. support, that support was not forthcoming. Instead, the U.N. Security Council left Aristide to twist in the wind.”

That action may come back to haunt the Council, he added. ”What’s more”, said Rothschild, ”the international aid community was complicit in the downfall of Aristide and, as result, in the horrors that have come in the coup’s wake”.

The circumstances under which Aristide left Haiti last February have been in dispute. The United States, which along with France engineered Aristide’s departure to the Central African Republic, says the Haitian president left on his own free will.

But Aristide disputes this account, accusing Washington of kidnapping him and forcing him out of the country.

According to diplomatic sources here, both the United States and France, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, also exerted pressure on Caribbean nations to desist from calling for a U.N. investigation or bringing the issue before the council.

Latortue’s government is planning to hold nation-wide elections in 2005, but no dates have been finalised.

In the current conflict, rebels, some of them former soldiers, are demanding that the old Haitian army be reinstated. They are also accusing U.N. peacekeepers of doing very little to bring law and order to the destabilised country.

The U.S. State Department has accused supporters of the former president of launching ”a systematic campaign to destabilise the interim government and disrupt the efforts of the international community.”

”Over the past two weeks, pro-Aristide thugs have murdered policemen, looted businesses and public installations and terrorised civilians,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters last week.

Compounding the political crisis in Haiti is a humanitarian crisis prompted by last month’s tropical storm ‘Jeanne’ which caused death and destruction. The storm was followed by intense floods in the town of Gonaives where more than 2,000 people died.

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