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HAITI: Tensions Mount Ahead of Controversial Polls

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations’ role in rebuilding Haiti is again being questioned days after peacekeepers clashed with a group of activists protesting the renewal of the 12,000-member U.N. military and police force near the Haitian capital of Port-au- Prince.

Reports from Haiti suggest that most of the demonstrators had come from the post-earthquake camps that still dominate the capital. They raised anti-U.N. slogans at the Oct. 15 rally. Despite being peaceful, many of them were reportedly roughed up by both the U.N. and the Haitian police.

“The U.N. should prioritise helping people in Haiti,” said Dan Beeton of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Its peacekeeping mission should work with Internally Displaced People (IDP) and others and aid them in rebuilding their communities.”

The protest in Port-au-Prince was organised by a group of democracy activists in opposition to a Security Council resolution last Thursday that renewed the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, also known as MINUSTAH.

The U.N. mission in Haiti has been in place since the 2004 ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which was backed by the previous U.S. administration led by President George W. Bush.

Eyewitnesses say Haitian police used rifle butts to beat demonstrators and journalists, including some foreign correspondents. One report said a policeman smashed his rifle into the mouth of a demonstrator from the Kanarin camp, knocking out his front teeth.

A statement from the legal aid group Bureau des Avocats Internationaux criticised the U.N. role and said money is being “wasted on the mission”, which it called “ineffective”. The group said protesters want “real assistance, not the renewal of … an occupying military force”.

The U.N. has allocated about $380 million for the mission this year.

In July 2005, U.N. soldiers in Haiti also operated in aggressive manner against democracy activists, dubbing them “gangsters”, especially those who represented the poor and downtrodden. In that incident, U.N. troops used helicopters, tanks, machine guns and tear gas against peaceful residents.

The recent use of force against civilians occurred as Haitians are preparing to go to polls to elect a new government next month. Observers say many people in Haiti are sceptical about the interim government’s posture on neutrality because 28 political parties have been excluded from the contest, notably the highly popular Lavalas party of former president Aristide, currently in exile in South Africa.

The U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week called on the Haitian government to ensure “credible and legitimate presidential elections”, which are due on Nov. 28. It also calls on Haitian authorities to take necessary steps to improve judicial system and address the issue of prolonged detentions.

Observers say the way the U.N. cooperates with the Haitian police often results in aggressive acts against opposition activists.

The U.N. peacekeeping force is not doing what it is supposed to do, said Beeton, noting that the peacekeeping force is mandated “to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence”, and “support …Haitian human rights institutions and groups in their efforts to promote and protect human rights; and to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country.”

Many people in Haiti think the U.N. peacekeeping mission is an occupying force “costing millions but doing little to ensure the security of the general population,” he said.

Asked about the U.N. troops’ clashes with Haitian activists, U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS, “We stand by the right of the people to peacefully protest.” Pressed to explain why in the past, and as recently as last Friday, the U.N. peacekeepers reportedly cracked down violently against civilians, he said that, “Peacekeepers are trained to handle the situation in a peaceful manner.”

To Beeton, that is not true. “The U.N. should actually protect people’s human rights instead of violating them, as happened on Oct. 15. It should start prioritising prevention of rape and gender-based violence in the IDP camps,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of U.S. lawmakers have also voiced concern about the Barack Obama administration’s vague policy towards Haiti.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 45 members of Congress questioned the credibility of the upcoming elections, particularly in light of the exclusion of more than a dozen parties, which they said “will undermine both Haitians’ right to vote and the resulting government’s ability to govern”.

“We call on you to make a clear statement that elections must include all eligible political parties and ready access to voting for all Haitians, including the displaced. The United States government should also state unequivocally that it will not provide funding for elections that do not meet these minimum, basic democratic requirements,” the letter said.

It stressed that Haiti needed a strong, representative government in the wake of January’s disaster which left a million and a half people homeless and more than 200,000 dead.

Beeton says he feels no less troubled by the current administration’s policy towards Haiti than what had happened in 2004, when Aristide was deposed in a coup.

“Why is the U.S. funding these elections when they are so clearly deeply flawed?” he asked. “Voting access looks to be a major hurdle which neither the Haitian government nor the international community seems ready to address.”

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