21 July 2005 Edition

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UN troops accused over Haiti outrage

As THE world is only too aware, despite the presence of United Nations' peace-keeping troops in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, horrific massacres were perpetrated against the Bosnian and the Tutsi civilian populations respectively. Now UN forces are under the spotlight for their role in Haiti following an incident, on 6 July, in which peace-keeping troops killed at least 23 civilians.

The incident is deeply damaging for an organisation supposed to set human rights standards. The UN now faces a huge credibility gap in Haiti where it's seen by many to be aiding the maintenance of an unpopular regime in the Caribbean island.

On 6 July, more than 300 heavily-armed UN troops carried out a full-blown military attack on a densely-populated section of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Multiple sources confirm that the peace keepers killed at least 23 people. Eyewitnesses report that the UN troops used helicopters, tanks, machine guns and tear gas in the operation. Lieutenant General Augusto Heleno, the Brazilian commander of UN troops in Haiti, defended the operation.

On 14 July, when people from the neighbourhood of Cite de Soleil took to the streets to protest at the killings, UN tanks opened fire, leading to further casualties. Among those killed on 6 and 14 July were several young children.

US community radio programme Democracy Now, contacted school teacher Seth Donnelly, who was in Haiti as part of a labour/human rights delegation sponsored by San Francisco's Labour Council, and who interviewed Heleno after the massacre. Donnelly reported: "Lieutenant General Augusto Heleno initially challenged us as to why were we concerned about the rights of the 'outlaws,' and not the 'legal force'. The subtext of Heleno's comments were that the Port-au-Prince community itself was an outlaw community.

The Haitian Government is considered by much of the population to be a puppet of the US administration. The US State Department and Haiti's wealthy elite recently called for the UN to take tougher action against supporters of Aristide's political movement, Lavalas. The Cite Soleil neighbourhood that suffered the attack is comprised largely of supporters of the Lavalas Party.

The new reign of fear began on 29 February 2004, when US Marines occupied the National Palace after arresting the democratically-elected President of Haiti, Jean Betrand Aristide, taking him from his residence in the middle of the night. Although the US State Department said Aristide had agreed to leave the country, this was refuted by the former Haitian president. From his exile in the Central Africa Republic he stated he was forced out of the country.

This is not the first time the US has intervened in Haiti's political process. In 1987 the Macoutes, a state-sponsored paramilitary force, backed by CIA and former army officers killed thousands of people, mainly in Port au Prince putting an end to plans for a general election and maintaining the rule of notorious dictator Duvalier.

In 1990 the people voted for President Jean Bertrand Aristide but seven months later in September 1991 there was a coup d'etat. Haitians suffered under a brutal military dictatorship from 1991 to 1994. The Haitian Armed Forces (FADH) and the paramilitary Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) were the principal organisations behind a reign of terror against unarmed civilians. This included at least 3,000 murders, 300,000 internal refugees, 40,000 boat people, 7,000 homes destroyed, and countless tortures, rapes, thefts, and beatings.

Aristide returned to office in 2000, but in 2004 he was forced into exile first in the Central African Republic and then in South Africa. Then, Aristide supporters were killed in a raid by US Marines in the neighbourhood of Bel Air. The pattern of violence and repression has continued and the latest incident involving UN forces adds to the litany of disaster

The UN military mission in Haiti — the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) — was established in June 2004. Since its arrival its activities have been criticised by a variety of human rights organisations. From the beginning, soldiers with the UN mission have worked closely with Haitian police conducting raids on the poorest neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince.

A recent report from Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights which does not question the legitimacy of the UN presence in Haiti nevertheless concludes: "MINUSTAH has provided cover for abuses committed by the Haitian National Police (HNP) during operations in poor, historically tense Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods. Rather than advising and instructing the police in best practices, and monitoring their missteps, MINUSTAH has been the midwife of their abuses. In essence, MINUSTAH has provided to the HNP the very implements of repression. The report also attacked the unwillingness to protect civilians from political violence, saying, "the failure to do so when civilians beg for UN assistance is simply incomprehensible".

The UN is now seen by many as having compromised its role by helping to keep the current regime in power Accusations of UN complicity in a campaign by the government of Gerard Latortue to terrorise supporters of Lavalas have mounted. On 28 February, UN soldiers stood by while police opened fire against a demonstration for democracy. Two people were killed. Despite detailed documentation of murders by the Police Nationale de Haiti (PNH) over the previous five months, the UN insisted in a new report released on 25 February that "the general security environment across Haiti has improved."

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