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HAITI: Military Playing Large Role in Relief Efforts

Marguerite A. Suozzi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 25 2010 (IPS) - As international attention turns to the long-term reconstruction of earthquake-stricken Haiti, U.N. officials pledged that the Haitian government would have full involvement and authority over the process.

MINUSTAH soldiers provide security at a crowded stadium in the coastal city of Léogâne where food is being distributed. Credit: UN PHOTO/Sophia Paris

MINUSTAH soldiers provide security at a crowded stadium in the coastal city of Léogâne where food is being distributed. Credit: UN PHOTO/Sophia Paris

“This relief and recovery process will not work without Haitian government ownership. They need to be in the lead,” Tony Banbury, the principal deputy special representative of the secretary-general for the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), told reporters via satellite on Monday.

“Of course there is a huge role for different components of the international community. We can be very helpful to the Haitian government, providing them clear information on our assessment of needs, the capabilities we can bring to bear, how best to deliver the assistance, et cetera. But the Haitian government needs to be the one taking responsibility for the big decisions that are going to affect their people,” he said.

In Montreal on Monday, Edmond Mulet, the assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, presented a United Nations proposal at an emergency donor meeting on Haiti, attended by over a dozen countries, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several other aid agencies.

In the proposal, Mulet called for an “international coordination architecture” to manage and organise the multitude of actors and players working on the ground and more broadly to reconstruct Haiti.

“The proposal that Mr. Mulet has launched this morning in Montreal is designed to coordinate and integrate the political sphere, with the aid response sphere, with the military sphere, and integrate it at all levels,” Banbury told reporters.

Part of the proposal calls for the wider establishment of a Joint Operations and Tasking Centre that would coordinate all humanitarian activities in Haiti.

While United Nations officials are clear in their support for the Haitian government to lead the nation’s reconstruction efforts, Haiti is clearly in need of financial assistance and resources from foreign sources.

Military forces seem to be a critical part of the international community’s contribution to Haiti, as military and police from the United Nations, United States, Canada and the Dominican Republic establish their presence on the island.

“We have three priorities,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters last Thursday, accompanied by former U.S. President Bill Clinton at a briefing on the situation in Haiti.

“First, continuing to provide the humanitarian assistance with effective mechanisms to deliver all these relief items to the people who need it,” Ban said, where military forces have played a pivotal role.

“Second, provide security and stability for people,” continued Ban, who confirmed the Security Council’s approval of an increase of 3,500 military and police forces to be deployed to Haiti in the coming days. “Thirdly, the reconstruction of the Haitian economy.”

Mulet told reporters last Friday that U.S. and Canadian troops would assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid and food and water. “Already, 40 percent of the distribution of humanitarian aid is already being done by our military and we will continue doing that but we need more assistance and more people to be involved with that distribution system,” he said.

The number of military personnel in Haiti has not stopped growing since Jan. 12, when the violent 7.0 earthquake struck the island. With the Security Council’s approval of an extra 3,500 troops to be deployed to Haiti in the coming days, the United Nations’ military and police presence in Haiti has reached 8,940 and 3,711, respectively.

By Sunday, the number of U.S. military personnel in Haiti was set to reach 20,000. The Dominican Republic has contributed a contingent of 130 military personnel to protect the humanitarian aid corridor established by MINUSTAH which stretches between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

But support for the continuous increase in military personnel deployed to the island has not been unanimous among the international community. Cuban leader Fidel Castro criticised the United States for sending military personnel to Haiti on Sunday, saying it amounted to an occupation of the island. Bolivian President Evo Morales has also condemned the United States for its presence in Haiti, according to media reports.

Friday morning, in front of the 69th session of the General Assembly, Ambassador Maria Rubiales of Nicaragua said it was sad to see foreign militaries creating obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian aid, in reference to blockages at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport. She accused foreign powers of taking advantage of the disaster “to take control of a bloodstained brother country.”

“Haiti needs doctors, engineers, teachers, construction materials, it needs to strengthen its agricultural production, it doesn’t need soldiers,” said Rubiales.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a fierce critic of Washington, accused the United States of “occupying Haiti undercover” on his television programme ¡Aló Presidente! and French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet lodged a formal protest with U.S. authorities via the French embassy saying, “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.”

Margaret Sattherthwaite, an associate professor of clinical law at New York University, the director of the International Human Rights Clinic and the faculty director for the Center for Human Rights & Global Justice, told IPS that the presence of U.S military rather than civilian forces in Haiti is the result of a large transfer of resources and power from the Department of State to the Department of Defence over the last 10 years.

Sattherthwaite also cited the international community’s misunderstanding of Haitians as one reason for the continued mobilisation of troops to Haiti.

“There is a sense of ‘Oh my God’ what if there is a massive insurrection, what if there are security issues, and there is just not an understanding of the population. So I think that when misunderstanding and fear is driving policy then you’re going to have a more militarised response,” she said.

Sattherthwaite also expressed concern that the current military presence will not be sustainable in the long-term reconstruction of Haiti.

“I think that the emphasis should be on building a professional police force in Haiti that can actually contribute to real human security, rather than outside troops coming in,” she told IPS.

Though most contributions to the relief efforts have been awarded in the form of grants, the International Monetary Fund issued its 100-million-dollar contribution in the form of an interest-free loan that Haiti would be obliged to repay.

Though there has been talk of changing the status of the loan to a grant, William Murray, a spokesperson for the International Monetary Fund, told IPS that “Due to a policy change initiated last summer on the terms of lending to the world’s poorest countries, which took effect in early January, the 100-million-dollar augmentation of our existing loan to Haiti will carry no interest and will require no principal payments for more than five years.”

“Also, Haiti currently does not have any immediate debt service to the Fund on its existing loan arrangement,” he said.

Former U.S. president and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton told reporters on Thursday that he was in talks with investors about the long-term reconstruction of Haiti through the Haiti Action Network (HAN), but the mention of Haitian companies was notably absent.

“These are by and large businesses that either are operating in Haiti, or are interested in operating in Haiti, some American, some European,” Clinton said.

“The coordinator of that effort, Denis O’Brien, is an Irish businessman who owns Digicel, the big cell company there, and employs a very large number of young Haitians selling his cards. He basically is driving this process for our group and making everybody keep their commitments,” he said.

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