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15 février 2005

- Jane Regan

PETION-VILLE, Haiti, Feb 15 (IPS) - Last Thursday, automatic gunfire rattled away in this residential suburb of Haiti’s capital. Roads were blocked. School children scurried. Drivers slipped gears into reverse.

Black-hooded Haitian SWAT police crept along the road clutching M-16s and M-14s. Scores of UN peacekeepers rolled up in armored personnel carriers, radio crackling, rifles and grenade-launchers at the ready.

When it was over, a little five-year-old girl, Dorley Jean-Baptiste, had been shot dead and three other civilians injured, they claim by police gunfire. Police had also arrested three people, but not the man they were after : a former member of Haiti’s long-disbanded Armed Forces.

Jean-Baptiste’s killing is somewhere around the 250th — or maybe even 406th — death by gunshot in the capital over the past four months, depending on who’s counting. She was one more victim of the violence that has plagued the city ever since Sep. 30, 2004, when police and marchers demanding the return of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide — overthrown on Feb. 29, 2004 — exchanged shots, resulting in deaths on both sides.

Since then, armed pro-Aristide gangs have attacked police, shops and drivers ; police have retaliated, sometimes brutally and sometimes, critics say, outright eliminating peaceful Aristide supporters.

Former soldiers who helped overthrow Aristide and who now refuse to put down their arms have also entered the mix. In a number of provincial cities, they patrol and even make arrests with their aging weapons and worn fatigues.

Last Thursday, the Haitian National Police (HNP) decided they had had enough of ex-Sgt. Remissainthe Ravix, leader of one pack of ex-soldiers and a suspect in the recent murder of four officers, so they went after him and his crew. But like many HNP operations, there was « collateral damage », and Jean-Baptiste’s name was added to the list of victims.

Four hundred and six or even 250 people dead in four months would be a high tally anywhere, but it is especially high for a country where some 7,400 U.N. blue helmets are supposed to be keeping the peace.

In place for seven months, but at full strength for only the past two, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has a complex task.

The Brazilian-led force — which, with its civilian component has a budget of 379 million dollars for its first 12 months — is supposed to assure a « secure and stable environment » for the transitional government and the preparation of elections this coming fall.

MINUSTAH is the sixth U.N. mission to hit Haiti in a decade, and comes on the heels of the country’s second U.S.-led invasion and occupation in as many years. When the mission deployed last year, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan promised that this time the U.N. would get it right, but there is a lot of correcting to do.

« Most of those missions, if not all, had as their primary objective the establishment of a stable environment in Haiti, » journalist and press rights advocate Vario Serant told IPS.

« But experience shows that in spite of all those missions, Haiti has remained unstable and her people have remained hostage to insecurity, violence by armed groups, drug-dealing and general criminality. »

Serant, news director for the private Tele-Haiti and a Radio France Internationale correspondent who has been covering events in his native Haiti for 15 years, is hesitant to be overly optimistic about MINUSTAH. After all, its predecessor missions were charged with training the HNP, members of whom are variously in jail for drug-running or human rights abuses, and some of whom led the armed uprising against Aristide last year.

« On paper, this mission isn’t different than the previous ones, » Serant noted. « Now, what is happening on the ground ? MINUSTAH has been here seven months. There are still groups of armed people. There are still areas of the city one can’t go. »

But Haiti is not at war nor is it a protectorate. MINUSTAH is not supposed to take over policing from the HNP — a mere 4,000 men and women responsible for Haiti’s 8 million — even though it is ill-equipped and regularly accused of corruption, drug-running and summary executions.

The two forces have collaborated on many missions in the capital and in the countryside lately, carrying out raids, confronting gang violence or providing security for events. But that was not the case last Thursday when police attacked Ravix’s makeshift « base. » When he arrived on the HNP-ex-soldier shoot-out scene, MINUSTAH Commander Brazilian General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira was visibly upset.

« We were not informed (by the police) in advance. They called us after they started the operation, » Heleno said. « Now we are going to pull our troops out because we wanted to negotiate but the police have decided to bust up all the furniture... It’s not in our mandate to destroy houses. »

Haitian Police Chief Leon Charles expressed similar frustration this week, telling journalists that the HNP didn’t ask MINUSTAH for help — or criticism.

But police on their own haven’t been able to curb the violence nor disarm thugs from any camp.

And in addition to leading to the deaths of dozens of innocent people and some 30 police officers, insecurity in the capital has also led downtown businesses to close their shutters, import-export houses to cut back their orders and schools to lose days or weeks at a time, all of which upsets people like businessman Jerry Tardieu, the vice president of Haiti’s Chamber of Commerce.

« They have not worked at all at helping the police get better training, better equipment and better coordination, » Tardieu told IPS. « Moreover, their principal mission, which is disarmament, is a complete failure. »

A recent study by the International Crisis Group, an international peace-promoting think-tank, estimates there are 300,000 illegal arms in the country, many held by former soldiers or by urban gangs. This frustrates some peacekeepers.

« As police officers we have a real desire to confront the violence, but our mandate is to assist, to orient, to support, » Canadian Constable Jean-Francois Vézina told IPS recently.

The result is that, while there are U.N. peacekeeping bases all over the country, and many citizens say they feel more secure, there are still plenty of hijackings, kidnappings, rapes and robberies. And there are still plenty of armed groups, which bodes ill for the upcoming elections.

Peacekeepers admit they still have work to do. Their own people have been ambushed or shot at on several occasions.

But some say their hands are tied by the delicately crafted mandate. And almost all of the soldiers and police — who hail from over three dozen countries — cannot communicate with Haitians since they speak no French, let alone Haitian Creole, the only language all Haitians speak.

The peacekeepers are under close scrutiny, in part because of the failed missions here and elsewhere in the world during the 1990s.

A 2000 report by Undersecretary-General Lakhdar Brahimi, once the U.N. envoy to Haiti, said that the U.N. « had repeatedly failed to meet the challenge » of preventing war and spreading peace. The « Brahimi Report » recommended that future missions have clearer mandates, a better idea of how much and when to use force, stronger ties between « peace-keeping » and « peace-building » and more support from member states.

MINUSTAH has not been in Haiti long enough for its work to be judged. Peace-builders like U.N. Special Representative Juan Gabriel Valdez appear tireless as they host summit meetings, promote dialogue and help organise upcoming elections.

But the peacekeepers, while providing a visible presence at checkpoints, so far have not stayed in Haiti’s slums and gullies long enough to get to know people and disarm armed groups. Even if they wanted to, their mandate says the HNP should take the lead.

Serant, who continues to see co-workers chased into exile or gunned down, as recently as last week when a newspaper graphics person was killed, feels focusing on MINUSTAH and its shortcomings alone is misplaced.

« After all these international missions, why is Haiti still the way it is ? » he asked. « That is the question that needs to be considered and that needs an answer. But it is Haiti, not the international community, who needs to find the answer. »


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