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On February 15, 2007, the United Nations News Service published an article stating that UN forces in Haiti – MINUSTAH – had transformed a former gang leader’s headquarters in Cité Soleil into a free medical clinic following its raid on the man’s residence. I had just arrived in Haiti to work on a project about the impact of the 2004 Canada-backed coup d’état. I knew MINUSTAH had brought in a few doctors for a photo op after their military operations in the seaside shantytown, but I didn’t realize that fully functioning clinics were being set up. Two days later, I attended a demonstration on the site where the medical clinic was supposed to exist, but it was nowhere to be found. In the two weeks that followed, the UN News Service reiterated the existence of this medical clinic with each new mass arrest in Cité Soleil. By March 2, it stated that more gang headquarters had been converted into “medical and social centres.” I visited and photographed the headquarters of gang leaders Evans, Amaral and Ti Bazil, three of the sites of supposed UN social services, but there was nothing to be found.
It is hard not to notice that the UN’s humanitarian gestures were being performed at the same time as mass arrests were being conducted among a vulnerable population. When I notified the head of media relations at MINUSTAH about the distortions being published by the UN News Service, she agreed they were misleading. She acknowledged that MINUSTAH had only ever handed out water bottles and offered free checkups the day after 72-hour mass arrest operations. Nonetheless, the exaggerations have not abated to this day. Here is a sample from the UN News Service’s most recent article about Haiti (March 23, 2007):
"From helping to set up local municipal administrations to providing electricity, education and health services to restoring a library to laying out a football field, no task is too small or parochial for the UN peacekeepers as they try to make a difference for the people on the ground in one of the poorest countries on earth."
Disturbed by these reports, I decided to look into the arrest operations occurring during my stay in the country. On March 2, MINUSTAH spokesperson David Wimhurst proclaimed to the UN News Service, “We’ve got a good catch.” He was referring to the results of three operations in which UN troops claimed to have arrested one gang leader and sent three more into hiding, one of whom was subsequently arrested. In addition to the gang leaders, 70 “suspected gang members” were also arrested. In other UN News Service articles, these people are referred to as “presumed bandits,” “suspected gangsters,” or “suspected criminals.” Sometimes the term “suspected” is dropped altogether. In the days following these arrests, my Haitian colleague Wadner Pierre and I interviewed four people in Cité Soleil who claimed five of their relatives or neighbours had been arbitrarily arrested, without warrants, on their way to work or school. While we did not corroborate these claims, two of Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon, confirmed that MINUSTAH routinely arrests people without warrants and that it receives information from informants who in desperate economic environments are notoriously unreliable. I wondered how many more of the 70 presumed gang members might be innocent civilians now languishing in the deplorable conditions of Haiti’s prisons.
I decided to take a closer look at what the UN News Service is telling the world about Haitian reality. Most startling is a phrase that has been repeated in every article related to the origins of MINUSTAH: “The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) [was] set up in 2004 to help re-establish peace in the impoverished Caribbean country after an insurgency forced then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to go into exile.” This is a problematic statement.
An insurgency suggests a popular rebellion against a corrupt leader. Mr. Aristide, democratically elected in a landslide victory in 2000, was overthrown in a coup d’état fomented and supported by the United States, Canada and France. The coup followed the deliberate destabilization of the Aristide government by these same countries. The ‘insurgency’ consisted of US-trained and armed former Haitian Army personnel. They swept through the country, killing police officers and civilians, and opening jails. Their leader, Guy Philippe, subsequently ran for President under MINUSTAH’s watch. The US ambassador then threatened Mr. Aristide with the spectre of increased violence in the country if he didn’t step down. US forces then took Mr. Aristide out of the country as Canadian troops secured the airport. It is important to note that these troops were not used to stop the attempted overthrow of the overwhelmingly popular, democratically elected president. Mr. Aristide has not been permitted to return to Haiti since, despite the presence of MINUSTAH. In other words, he was not “forced into exile” but was overthrown by a criminal coup d’état.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.