With the above in mind, I spent August 10-18 conducting interviews in Port-au-Prince with U.S. Department of State, USAID, and UN representatives; senior HNP officials; civil society leaders; would-be anti-government militants; and residents of the capital city. In doing so, I sought answers to the following questions:
- Do HNP senior leaders feel prepared to handle remaining threats to Haiti’s stability and security absent MINUSTAH forces once the mission’s mandate terminates formally on October 15? If so, how did UN and USG assistance contribute both to improved security conditions and to augmented HNP capacity? If not, what could the UN and USG done differently or more effectively?
- Do residents of Port-au-Prince neighborhoods like Cité Soleil, where peacekeeper activity was highest in MINUSTAH’s early years, feel safer as a result of MINUSTAH’s tenure? Do they trust in the HNP to protect them and maintain the nascent stability that has emerged in recent years?
- Do the various actors (HNP, UN, USG, and Haitian citizens) have overlapping conceptions of what security means to them? If not, have the discrepancies led to detrimental outcomes, and what can future stability operators do to prevent such gaps in understanding in similar settings moving forward?
How did you come up with this project and why does it interest you?
My interest in Haiti started in high school when I first read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, which tells the story of Partners In Health, a Boston-based global health nonprofit that got its start in Haiti in the 1980s. The interest intensified after the 2010 earthquake and persisted into my time at Williams College, where my focus on global health converged with a newfound fascination with international politics and security.
While exploring possible topics for a senior history thesis, I came across a story about MINUSTAH, which had first deployed to the country after former President Jean Bertrand Aristide’s 2004 ouster and augmented its presence after the destructive quake. Though MINUSTAH had been credited with restoring relative peace to the Haitian capital, this story noted, it had also inadvertently introduced cholera into the Haitian water supply. When I was conducting this preliminary research in 2014, the cholera death toll hovered between 5 and 6,000; today, though it is killing at a considerably slower rate, that number nears 10,000.
The subsequent undergraduate thesis that emerged from this preliminary research focused on the changing nature of post-Cold War armed conflict and, using UN interventions in Haiti between 1994 and 2004 as case studies, the associated evolutions in international peacekeeping. And while this project fascinated me, I recognized that it was not nearly as rigorous a study as I had hoped. With this in mind, and equipped with a better understanding of the challenges facing stability operators in the 21st century thanks to Dr. Wineman’s spring 2017 Stability Operations course, I decided to return to Haiti this summer to apply a narrower, more security-oriented research approach.
This approach was all the more appropriate in light of UN Security Council Resolution 2350 (April 2017), which granted MINUSTAH a final 6-month mandate extension set to expire in mid-October of this year. I hoped my questions about overall MINUSTAH success and past versus present HNP capacity would be especially timely given mission’s looming termination date, and I plan to use data collected on these subjects to inform my SSP thesis on transfer of security and law and order functions from foreign interveners to local forces in the Haitian context and elsewhere.
Peacekeeping and stability operations have continually attracted my academic interest due to their essential combination of security and humanitarian relief in some of the world’s most difficult operating environments. The ability to study this overlap first drew me to SSP, and I consider myself lucky to have explored it in a context both relevant and familiar.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
My biggest takeaway from the various interviews I conducted in Port-au-Prince was the nuance citizens of the capital city and HNP representatives used in describing their conceptions of security. Particularly in the aforementioned Cité Soleil, arguably the most impoverished pocket of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, young men hesitated to describe their neighborhood as insecure from a traditional, crime- and violence-oriented perspective. The only reason violence had existed there previously, they told me, was due to a near-complete lack of jobs and livelihood opportunities. This meant that the Haitian business and political elite, who are alleged to regularly foment unrest for personal gain, needed only pick up the phone and promise armed groups of Cité Soleil money in exchange for staging a large-scale demonstration or assassinating a prominent opponent. Though not impossible to turn down, such requests were difficult to rebuff for those in such dire financial circumstances.
In recognition of these complex challenges and of the high mistrust of official institutions that exists in areas pivotal to Haiti’s peace and stability, the HNP, and more specifically its Director of Strategic Planning, who I interviewed while in Haiti, have incorporated a human security/community policing component into their newly drafted 2017-2021 Strategic Development Plan. Similarly, not long after deploying to Haiti in 2004, MINUSTAH shifted away from the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts targeting Port-au-Prince’s armed political elements toward a community violence reduction (CVR) approach that emphasized job creation and sought to provide youth alternatives to crime and gang membership. The MINUSTAH CVR program celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2016 and has since been reproduced in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali.
Nonetheless, more work remains to be done in Port-au-Prince and other locations like it, where politics, development, and security remain inextricably linked. For instance, though both the HNP (with U.S. Department of State guidance) and MINUSTAH have embraced a community-based approach to violence reduction, residents of Cité Soleil and similar areas still expressed distrust of the so-called ‘blue helmets’ and HNP officers alike and spoke gleefully about the ongoing MINUSTAH withdrawal. Additionally, controversies like the aforementioned cholera scandal and allegations of indiscriminate peacekeeper and HNP use of force in Cité Soleil between 2004 and 2007 have made it more difficult for the UN and the police to achieve their shared objectives. Due to the so-called “accidental guerilla” phenomenon first articulated by David Kilcullen (2009), security forces may have in fact turned potential allies into actively hostile enemies, thereby making peace more difficult to attain and posing additional challenges to the CVR approach.
Overall, despite the numerous obstacles that threaten the success of stability operations worldwide, I maintain optimism that UN peacekeeping can serve a vital function well into the 21st century, during which security challenges will no doubt continue to follow a familiar pattern of becoming more complex than ever before.
I am enormously grateful to Daniel Tercier, Mizaine Venes, Rene Constant, and Dominique Ignace, my newfound friends and colleagues who provided constant and high-quality assistance during my time in Haiti, and to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service (SFS) and Security Studies Program (SSP) for providing the funding that made this trip possible. I am also grateful to Dr. Irfan Nooruddin, who generously (and without much lead time) agreed to advise me on this project.