There's a special kind of horror that comes from watching a human catastrophe escalate in front of our eyes, knowing that for most of us sending money is the only useful thing we can do. I remember seeing the terror of the Rwandan genocide explode, visible even on U.S. television, while up close and personal I watched the U.S. and French diplomats in the Security Council working openly to prevent the United Nations from acting to stop the genocidaires. And despite all the differences between natural disasters and those caused by human beings, the sense of helplessness is much the same watching the Haiti crisis from the safety of our living rooms. This time, of course, the U.S. is not trying to prevent humanitarian assistance. President Obama made all the right commitments to the Haitian people, promising emergency assistance AND that we would stand with them into the future. He made clear that it is indeed the role and responsibility of government to respond to humanitarian crises, and that's a good thing (even if he also anointed his predecessors to lead a parallel privatized response).
But the reality is, on the ground, some of the same problems that we've seen so many times before have already emerged, as U.S. military forces take charge, as the United Nations is pushed aside by overbearing U.S. power, as desperate humanitarian needs take a back seat to the Pentagon's priorities. Saturday morning's New York Times quoted Secretary of State Clinton saying, "we are working to back them [the Haitian government] up but not to supplant them." That was good. But then she said she expected the Haitian government to pass an emergency decree including things like the right to impose curfews. "The decree would give the government an enormous amount of authority, which in practice they would delegate to us," Clinton said. So much for "not supplanting them." Already the U.S. military controls the airport. That means, according to the UN's World Food Program, that of the 200 flights in and out each day, "most of these flights are for the United States military. Their priorities are to secure the country. Ours are to feed." The WFP's planes full of food, medicine, and water were unable to land in on Thursday or Friday, because the priority was U.S.-defined security. On Saturday at least two Mexican planeloads of humanitarian supplies were turned away while several more planeloads of U.S. troops landed.
And given that at this time there was not widespread violence threatening to prevent the delivery of aid, this privileging of troops over water, medicine, and food may well have cost Haitian lives. This militarization of the aid effort was based solely on the expectation, not the reality, of large-scale violence. The U.S. decision to send the Marines first, before doctors or water, was based on the anticipation that there would be violence that would prevent the distribution of supplies. In fact, despite widespread anger and looting, especially of food, incidents of real violence (though widely reported) have been relatively few and isolated. The bottom line must be who is in charge. With the Haitian government devastated, any necessary turn-over of authority should go to the United Nations rather than to the U.S. military. The U.S. should put the Pentagon's massive airlift capacity at the service of Haiti and the United Nations, not the other way around. Militarizing the provision of aid is not going to save the most lives. Unfortunately, we've seen this all before. Below is an excerpt from my 1995 book, Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN. Seems too many lessons are still unlearned. In the meantime, sending funds is still crucial. One of the organizations that has been working on the ground in Haiti for more than 20 years, Partners in Health, is now doing extraordinary work responding to the emergency. You can reach them for updates of conditions on the ground and to donate funds at www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti.
Haiti: In Washington's Backyard
On the morning of September 22, 1994, the New York Times was filled with articles about the UN: Taiwan's bid for UN membership had been turned down; UN-sponsored negotiations on nuclear power plants were stalled; the UN faced continuing crises in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia. There were also two-and-a-half entire pages devoted to the thousands of U.S. troops occupying Haiti and the pending return of exiled President Aristide, and the words "United Nations" never even appeared. That night, Nightline devoted a full 45-minute show to an hour-by-hour chronology of the Haiti crisis, and the decision-making process that led to the U.S. occupation. In the entire 45 minutes, nowhere did the words "United Nations" appear. Once having granted its before-the-fact approval of anything the U.S. might choose to do, the UN was utterly excluded from Washington's decisions about Haiti's fate. When Dante Caputo resigned his post as the UN's special envoy to Haiti on September 19, 1993, he committed the unthinkable for a top U.N. official: he openly criticized the U.S., the organization's most powerful member state. "In effect," he wrote in his letter of resignation, "the total absence of consultation and information from the United States Government makes me believe that this country has in fact made the decision to act unilaterally in the Haitian process." His resignation marked a key juncture in the UN's involvement in Haiti. The organization had done little during the years that Haiti languished under the U.S.-backed family-military dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier and his successor son, Baby Doc. Haiti was understood to be central to Washington's sphere of influence, and the UN had been kept marginalized. Even when mass mobilization finally led to the end of Duvalier rule and the election of the popular priest, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide early in 1990, the UN also played relatively little role in assisting the fledgling government in dealing with the economic devastation that had for years made Haiti the poorest country in the western hemisphere and a lucrative center for U.S. manufacturing industries eager to exploit Haiti's pennies-a-day workers. But when mass uprisings threatened the long-standing industry-friendly stability of Haiti, and brought Father Aristede to power, the U.S. realized its interests now lay in stabilizing the desperately poor country, insuring that U.S. economic interests were unaffected - whoever occupied the presidential palace. So when the Haitian army, many of whose officers had been trained by the Pentagon, overthrew Father Aristide, replacing him with a military junta, the U.S. allowed Aristide to wait out his banishment in Washington D.C. During his more than two years of exile, Father Aristide became a rallying point for the anti-junta mobilization of the huge expatriate Haitian communities in New York, Miami, and elsewhere in the country. Simultaneously, his months of dispossession taught the populist priest the bitter realities of what his hosts would require to insure his return. Caputo, a former foreign minister of Argentina, represented the United Nations in negotiations aimed at ending the military government's rule. He was the key architect of the UN-brokered Governor's Island Accord that achieved, in July 1993, the first commitment by the junta leaders to leave the island. But the Haitian military quickly reneged on their agreement to step down. Further, they expelled the team of human rights monitors operating jointly under United Nations-Organization of American States auspices. While the monitors had been unable to prevent virtually any of the violence that wracked Haiti under the junta's rule, their presence had played an important role in keeping public attention focused on the brutality and human rights violations that continued unabated. The U.S. role was ambiguous. Washington policy-makers officially supported Father Aristide and backed his return to Haiti, but the military junta was led by officers with a long history of training by and continued connections to U.S. military and CIA institutions. And the U.S. itself was clear that "the United States intends to contain Haiti's popular movement, by force if necessary. The objective, in the words of one U.S. Army Psychological Operations official, is to see to it that Haitians 'don't get the idea that they can do whatever they want.'" What the U.S. did want was minimal stability, just enough to insure economic viability for Haiti to continue as an off-shore factory labor pool for U.S. manufacturers. A World Bank plan was crafted in August 1994, imposing structural adjustment plans on the feeble Haitian economy. Implementing those plans could be most credibly carried out by Father Aristide - although that was not necessarily required. There were no illusions in the Pentagon: one military official asked rhetorically, "Who are we going back to save? ...It's not going to be the slum guy from Cite Soleil....It'll be the same elites, the bourgeoisie and the five families that run the country." But while U.S. military officials may have been clear on their goals, the uncertainties of how to mesh those goals with "peacekeeping" realities quickly emerged. Fear of casualties and uncertainty about how much to risk led to a debacle at the harbor of Port-au-Prince. Under the terms of the Governor's Island Accord, a UN embargo against Haiti was to be lifted, in exchange for the creation of a 1,300-person international force to retrain the Haitian police, and the return of Father Aristide at the end of October. On October 11, the amphibious Navy ship U.S.S. Harlan County sailed towards Port-au-Prince, carrying the first contingent of UN police trainers. Waiting for the armed navy ship were a few hundred supporters of the military regime, who fired their guns in the air and threatened a port-side riot. Although the port was largely empty of civilians, other than a small coterie of diplomats led by the U.S. charge d'affaires, no effort was made to challenge the pro-junta thugs. Instead, the Clinton administration immediately decided to turn the ship away from the Port-au-Prince harbor, causing a major UN retreat and ultimately providing Lt. General Raoul Cedras and his junta with another year in power. U.S.-UN relations in Haiti continued to deteriorate. In late spring of 1994 the Council tightened the so-far largely cosmetic sanctions. (The impact of the sanctions on the Haitian population was not cosmetic, of course, except for the wealthy elite.) Once the sanctions resolution was ratcheted up, leading to potentially serious consequences for those in power in Haiti, Security Council talk immediately shifted to military options. On July 31st, U.S. diplomats won UN agreement to send a U.S. invasion force to Haiti to "Uphold Democracy." ...President Clinton spoke to the General Assembly a few weeks later, claiming that his administration supported "ready, efficient, and capable UN peacekeeping forces." But it was clear the U.S. had little intention of sharing power, resources, or operational decisions with the global organization, to allow the UN to become "ready, efficient, and capable." Many Non-Aligned and other small countries retained strong memories of Washington's Gulf War unilateralism in 1990-91, and the UN Security Council, in unofficial response, crafted resolution 940 to endorse the coming U.S. invasion with the proviso guarantee of a UN oversight role in what was acknowledged to be a U.S.-controlled military move against Haiti. New Zealand Ambassador Colin Keating believed the resolution reflected "the lessons picked up from the Gulf War." Keating, representing his country on the Security Council, had played a key role in the Council's debate, insisting on assurances of more active UN involvement. The day after Clinton told the Council that the U.S. invasion of Haiti was imminent, Keating described how "the resolution said the member states could use 'all necessary means,' but it also includes UN monitoring. The monitors will be on the ground even in phase one, 80 or so monitors deployed at the same time as phase one, and will stay in Haiti throughout phase two." But Ambassador Keating's hopes were misplaced. Phase one was understood to be a non-UN military invasion, led by the U.S. but with enough troops from a few countries to provide a plausible cover of "multilateralism." The commitments of 23 countries to provide token troops were announced with great fanfare by U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State Perry and Christopher, but a full week into the U.S. occupation of Haiti, not one soldier from Britain, Israel, the Caribbean states, or any of the other back-up contingents had yet set foot on Haitian soil. As for UN human rights monitors, the first 16 were not even scheduled to arrive in Haiti until seven days after the U.S. troops landed. As things worked out, of course, the U.S. invasion was transformed at the last minute into a no-shots-fired, more or less friendly occupation. Eleventh hour negotiations, accompanied by significant concessions, by former President Jimmy Carter convinced the junta to step down (though not requiring them to leave the country) and allow President Aristide to return. Part of Special Representative Dante Caputo's anger stemmed from the nature of that compromise agreement negotiated with Cedras by the former president. The Carter agreement provided no guarantees that Cedras and the other military leaders would leave the island, did not disarm the military and police, mandated additional weeks in power for the military junta legitimized by "cooperation" with the U.S., and provided no date certain for the return of President Aristide. "It's so weak that the agreement could become a danger," Caputo told the New York Times. If the overall responsibility for the Haitian crisis was truly an international matter, the UN should have responded when President Clinton announced he was about to send U.S. troops to Haiti. Especially since Clinton was justifying the U.S. invasion on the basis of the Security Council's permission, the Security Council should have gone into emergency session and issued a new mandate. Instead of relying on a former U.S. president, any last-minute diplomacy aimed at averting a potentially-bloody invasion should have been in the hands of the UN directly. The organization's highest ranking negotiator should have been sent back to Port-au-Prince with U.S. support. But the negotiator, Dante Caputo, and the UN as a whole, had already been cut out of Washington's loop. The special envoy's resignation also raised a fundamental question of whether the UN had any control of, or even involvement in, the military actions it authorizes. Phase two of the UN Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), the post-invasion UN peacekeeping effort, was supposed to be carried out by a truly multilateral UN force. But U.S. officials immediately began negotiating with the secretary-general to allow 70% of the troops and the commander of the UN Blue Helmets to come from the U.S. military. Boutros-Ghali was said to be outraged at the idea of such overt U.S. domination of a UN operation, but the eventual compromise still allowed about 40% U.S. troops. As for the commander of the "UN operation" in phase two, Boutros-Ghali announced on November 15, 1994, that he had appointed U.S. Lt. General Daniel Schroeder as the Force Commander of UNMIH. But three hours before the secretary general declared his choice of Gen. Schroeder to the UN command, the Pentagon announced the appointment. And U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright issued a press release the same day, "welcoming" the announcement and noting smugly that the secretary-general had appointed Schroeder "at the suggestion of the United States." Outlining the lessons of Somalia that it was "unfortunately too late" to apply to Haiti, one analyst described existing parallels. "In both cases, the United States long supported despotic regimes and watched passively as they eventually fell. Innocent people suffered and died during and after the transition. The tragedy for the two countries is that humanitarian relief and military reinforcement came so late. Preventive diplomacy was either insufficient or ineffective." Certainly since the U.S. occupation and the transfer of authority to the "UN force," the rapes, murders, torture, and arbitrary arrests that characterized the junta's military rule in Haiti diminished somewhat, though they did not end. The World Bank's plan for Haiti, what the Financial Times in London called "Big Brother's Haiti Blueprint," brought the beginning of a return of U.S.-based manufacturing interests, and thus U.S. control of Haiti's economy to Port-au-Prince. But Haitians continued to die of preventable diseases, Haitians still lacked basic education and health care, Haitians remained economically, if not absolutely politically disempowered and dispossessed. When President Clinton traveled to Haiti to oversee the transfer of power from the U.S. occupying force to the UN's phase two force led by [U.S.] General Schroeder, the Washington Post headlined the stark reality: "To Clinton, Mission Accomplished; to Haitians, Dashed Hopes." For Clinton, the Post said, "the Haiti mission was narrowly defined, and a success. The mission was to return Aristide and give Haitians time to begin to rebuild their battered nation..." But for the Haitians, hope of actual American help in rebuilding that embattled nation did not arrive. "The United States, burned by the Somalia experience, did not view its mission as ...anything else that smacked of 'nation building.'...A primary concern here, American and Haitian officials said, was avoiding U.S. casualties." ... The plan was that the U.S. forces would stay until the Haitian environment had been made "safe and secure." Then the UN mission would take over. An optimistic headline writer in the UN's October 1994 Secretariat News described a "Big UN Role" in Haiti during phase two. But the World Bank was now running the economic show, and U.S. General Schroeder commanded UNMIH's Blue Helmets. By the time the U.S. allowed any serious involvement of the UN in Haiti, it was already too late for preventive diplomacy. Even as Presidents Carter and Clinton began their private political minuet, and U.S. marines packed their parachutes over Haiti, the UN was kept out of the frame.
The day after Clinton announced that a U.S. attack was imminent, the Security Council did not convene for urgent discussion over how to avoid the looming threat of military invasion and occupation. Instead, a Fellini-esque scene took over the UN. It might have been a production designed to mirror the hollowness of the UN's Washington-assigned role. The invasion of Haiti was imminent. The Security Council actually was in closed session - but on an unrelated matter, not on Haiti. And it was Staff Day at UN headquarters, so clowns, acrobats, and musicians filled the halls to entertain UN employees and their families. As U.S. planes carrying U.S. paratroopers streaked across the Caribbean sky, and as irrelevant Security Council discussions droned endlessly on, three confused but cheerful women wandered, virtually into the Council chamber before being stopped. "Isn't this where we can buy greeting cards?" one asked the bemused guard.