The Conservatives and their supporters have taken an increasingly aggressive tone against the United Nations. Since June Sun Media, the National Post as well as a Conservative MP and Senator have all called on Canada to withdraw from the international organization. During a September trip to New York, Prime Minister Stephen Harper snubbed the General Assembly while cabinet ministers have repeatedly criticized the UN.
Ignored in all these attacks is the important role the UN plays in Haiti, a leading Canadian foreign policy concern. Since taking office a bevy of Conservative ministers, including the Prime Minister twice, have visited the island while they’ve announced about $1 billion in “aid” to Haiti. Harper’s government has strongly backed UN policy in the Caribbean country, pushing to extend the UN military presence in Haiti.
In April 2009 Canada’s representative at the UN argued there was “no alternative” to staying the course in Haiti. Six months later foreign minister Lawrence Cannon said: “Canada was pleased to co-sponsor the resolution to extend the mandate of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a priority mission for the international community that has enjoyed steady and significant progress.” In November 2011 Ottawa gave $19 million to MINUSTAH (as the force is known in Haiti), which was one of many Canadian payments for the 10 000 strong occupation force.
Notwithstanding the Conservatives aggressive promotion of the mission, among Haitians the UN force is highly controversial. By all accounts most of the country wants MINUSTAH to leave. There have been dozens of large protests against the UN military presence and a 2011 poll of Port au Prince residents by researchers from the Faculté d’Ethnologie de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti found that most of the city had a negative opinion of the foreign troops.
Since taking over from the US/French/Canadian troops that helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and thousands of other elected officials the UN force has been a tool of political repression. MINUSTAH backed up a violent political pacification campaign waged by the coup government’s police force against poor neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince from March 2004-May 2006. It also participated directly in attempts to pacify the slums, including UN raids on July 6, 2005 and December 22, 2006 that each left at least a dozen civilians dead in Cité Soleil (a bastion of support for Aristide).
In April 2008, UN troops once again demonstrated that their primary purpose in the country was to defend the elite dominated status quo. During riots over the rising cost of food they put down protests by killing a handful of demonstrators.
Aside from political repression UN troops have been accused of various abuses ranging from having sex with minors to sodomizing boys. Video footage came to light in January of five Uruguayan soldiers sexually assaulting an 18-year-old Haitian. The soldiers were sent home, but no one was punished. In February, Haïti Liberté complained “there are also almost monthly cases of UN soldiers sexually assaulting Haitian minors, all of which have gone unpunished.”
In a bitter irony, UN soldiers from one of the poorest countries in Asia, Nepal, gave Haiti a disease that thrives in impoverished societies lacking adequate public sanitation and health systems. Ten months after the earthquake Nepalese troops brought a strain of cholera to Haiti that has left 7,000 dead and 700,000 ill. The October 2010 cholera outbreak began when excrement from soldiers at a base in Mirebalais was released into the Artibonite River. Despite conclusive evidence that the UN base was the source, MINUSTAH has refused to take responsibility. Prominent French cholera expert Renaud Piarroux said the way in which the disease spread suggests there were “symptomatic cases” — soldiers with heavy diarrhea — on the base in Mirebalais. In other words, some officials at the UN base would have at least suspected that soldiers carried the disease yet the sewage from the base continued to be dumped into a stream from which people drank and bathed.
Ten months after their reckless sewage disposal caused the cholera outbreak MINUSTAH forces displayed a similar disregard for Haitian health. On two occasions in August 2011 UN trucks were caught dumping feces and other waste in holes near water streams where people bathed and drank.
Evidence of MINUSTAH’s disregard for the poor majority’s well-being is overwhelming. But don’t expect to hear any Conservative criticism of the UN role in Haiti. In that country the international organization is pursuing policy that is popular with Washington and corporate interests. Harper’s Conservatives only oppose the UN when it stands up for Palestinian rights, pursues accords to reduce carbon emissions or doesn’t do what the West wants in place like Iran or Syria.
A version of this article appeared in Embassymag.ca.