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. Reach them here for updates of conditions on the ground and to donate funds.
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. But when mass uprisings threatened the long-standing industry-friendly stability of Haiti, and brought the populist priest Father Jean-Bertrand 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. But soon Aristide was overthrown by Haitian military officers, many of them U.S.-trained.
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 the U.S. would require to guarantee 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. And the U.S. itself accepted that the removal of junta leader Raoul Cedras might be desirable to restore stability. But as one U.S. Army Psychological Operations official put it, the real U.S. goal "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 1994 World Bank plan imposed structural adjustment plans on the feeble Haitian economy. Implementing those plans could be most credibly carried out by Father Aristide. 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, fear of U.S. casualties was powerful – this was shortly after the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia that left 18 U.S. troops dead. Things got messy. Under the terms of the Governor’s Island Accord, the military junta agreed to accept a 1,300-person international force to retrain the Haitian police and the return of Father Aristide at the end of October in exchange for ending the U.S.-led embargo. On October 11, the amphibious 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. The port was largely empty of civilians, but 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.
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."
The UN Security Council 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.
The U.S. military invasion would include enough troops from a few countries to provide a plausible cover of "multilateralism," very similar to the cosmetic "coalition of the willing" that provided political cover to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. 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.
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 ostensible permission, the 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 demanding that 70% of the UN troops and the commander of the UN Blue Helmets to come from the U.S. military. Secretary-General 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."
Comparing the lessons of Somalia with Haiti, one analyst described how, "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."
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 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 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."
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author with David Wildman of the new Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.