On November 15, as it hosted delegates from more than 80 countries at the United Nations Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial Conference in Vancouver, Canada announced a series of new initiatives as part of the government’s efforts to re-engage with a peacekeeping tradition that it has of late supported more in theory than in practice. This announcement came a month after the UN shuttered its controversial MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission in Haiti. As MINUSTAH departs after 13 years, it leaves behind a tattered reputation, a legacy of sexual exploitation and abuse, and the deadliest cholera epidemic in modern history. What transpired in Haiti highlights many of the serious challenges currently faced by UN peacekeeping as a whole. While Canada has made some welcome commitments, there remains considerable room to take leadership in addressing these challenges.
The first issue Haiti raises is the rather large one of the ultimate purpose of peacekeeping interventions. It is undoubtedly true that peacekeeping has changed dramatically since the Pearsonian heyday of Suez and Cyprus, when peacekeepers patrolled clearly demarcated lines between clearly identified parties. But even in an era when conflicts are less easily delineated, how to explain the alphabet soup of missions Haiti has seen since the end of the Cold War: MINUSTAH was preceded by UNMIH, UNSMIH, UNTMIH, MIPONUH and MICAH. In all, peacekeepers have been absent from Haiti in only two years since 1993, despite the fact that Haiti has never once been at war during this period.
Nor can the presence of blue helmets be explained as a measure to subdue chaos: Haiti’s homicide rate has consistently been considerably lower than that of many of its Caribbean neighbours, none of which have faced a similar intervention. Instead, the motives of the major powers behind peacekeeping missions in Haiti have frequently come into question, and Canada’s motives have been no exception. MINUSTAH in particular has long been deeply unpopular in Haiti, yet the people have had no real say in its mandate or duration. Prime Minister Trudeau spoke to the ministerial conference about the need to “rethink how we engage, not just where we engage” with peacekeeping; perhaps Canada also needs to reflect upon the question of why we engage.
The second challenge for the UN that is highlighted in Haiti is the continued impunity of individual UN personnel for harms committed against those they are meant to protect. These include crimes ranging from sexual exploitation — trading rations for sex, for example — to violent sexual assault. Canada has condemned such heinous acts and identified them as a concern that must be addressed going forward, but it could go further by actively advocating for a concrete international mechanism to hold those responsible accountable, such as that proposed by organizations like AIDS-Free World. The government could also build credibility for its much-touted feminist foreign policy by adopting firm measures to deal with abuses by its own peacekeepers. For example, Canadian police officers deployed with MINUSTAH who fathered and subsequently abandoned children in Haiti avoided any sanction simply by retiring from the force. Voicing support for a zero-tolerance policy is surely not enough by itself; taking action to make sure proper measures are in place to enforce accountability at home and abroad is also required.
Lastly, gross accountability fiascos implicate the conduct of not just individual peacekeepers but also of the United Nations as a whole. Nowhere has the UN’s failure to live up to its own principles of promoting human rights and the rule of law been more obvious than in connection with the Haitian cholera epidemic. Ignoring basic principles of sanitation, UN peacekeepers allowed infected human waste into Haitian waterways in 2010; the result has been over one million cases of a disease that had never before been seen in Haiti, leading to more than 10,000 deaths.
Only after more than six years of advocacy by cholera victims did the UN finally make a feeble admission of moral responsibility for the epidemic. It continues to deny legal responsibility, despite irrefutable scientific evidence and the conclusions of its own legal and human rights experts; in a scathing report one called the UN’s approach “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.” To date, the UN has taken insufficient steps to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again or to provide the resources necessary to make amends to its victims and eradicate the disease it introduced.
Conscious of the stain on his legacy, outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did announce a new approach to the epidemic in the waning months of his tenure. However, by treating the response as a matter of charity rather than legal obligation, the UN is once again failing in its obligations to provide justice to victims. The UN’s $400-million plan is currently less than 5 percent funded, despite the fact that the entire plan costs less than the budget for a single year of MINUSTAH, while offering benefits that are more tangible to the people of Haiti.
Canada can insist that, given its woeful underfunding, the remainder of the cholera plan be funded through mandatory assessed contributions.
Canada must be commended as the top financial contributor to the cholera plan. As Canada has noted, the UN’s members have a collective responsibility to right this wrong in Haiti, and Canada can serve as a positive example. Canada’s leadership, however, would have had even greater impact had it used the opportunity of the ministerial conference to remind the UN of the vital importance of adhering to the same principles of human rights and rule of law that the organization promotes around the world. But it is not too late. Canada can use its voice as the largest donor to ensure that the UN bases its remedial actions on consultation with victims and chooses an approach that will place their needs and rights above political expediency in New York, where the conversation has shifted away from the plan’s commitments to victims. Canada can also insist that, given its woeful underfunding, the remainder of the cholera plan be funded through mandatory assessed contributions. It will take a coalition of countries to build momentum in favour of such an approach, but that is exactly the type of political leadership that Canada is well placed to provide.
Canada has good reason to be proud of peacekeeping as part of its heritage, but it should not forget that this legacy arose as a result of bold leadership on the international stage. In accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1957, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson said, “Of all our dreams today there is none more important — or so hard to realise — than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
Such faith is in short supply in Haiti when it comes to peacekeeping. New approaches have given way to more of the same, with MINUSTAH immediately replaced by a new mission with a new acronym, MINUJUSTH. Given the UN’s unresolved history of impunity in the country, this latest mission’s full name — United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti — is filled with a sad irony.
All the issues that have arisen in Haiti — from the purposes of peacekeeping missions and the politics behind them, to providing redress to those harmed by the very people charged with protecting them — require serious debate and concrete reform. In announcing Canada’s new measures, Trudeau noted that “we won’t be able to deliver true, transformative change without a real institutional change.” If that change is to be achieved within UN peacekeeping, Canada will have to demonstrate leadership in confronting the serious challenges that the Haiti missions, past and present, have brought to light.
This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.
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