Soldiers Without a Cause: Why Are Thousands of UN Troops Still in Haiti?

April 01, 2012

Dan Beeton
NACLA Report on the Americas, Spring 2012

See article on original website

Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince, protesting the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Some held signs reading, “MINUSTAH and Cholera Are Twins” and “Haiti Without Occupation.”[1] It was October 19, 2011—the one-year anniversary of the discovery of the first cholera case in Haiti in over a century.[2] The disease has now killed 7,000 people and infected more than half a million.[3]

From the start, cholera victims, witnesses, and medical professionals had a hunch how the deadly epidemic had started. United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, had been seen dumping sewage into the Meille River, a tributary of the Artibonite, which provides drinking water to tens of thousands of people.[4] Several scientific studies, and eventually a report from the UN itself, showed the clear link between UN troops and the cholera outbreak.

This story is perhaps the most well-known of the scandals surrounding the 12,000-plus UN force in Haiti, which began following the 2004 coup against the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The outrage was given renewed publicity in November, when the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti filed a complaint at the UN seeking damages on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims.[5] But reintroducing a devastating disease to a country woefully ill-prepared to contain it is just one of many crimes that have marked MINUSTAH’s seven years in Haiti. Others include the killings of civilians, rape, the impregnation of underage girls, and involvement in child prostitution. Yet MINUSTAH’s very existence—and the heavy U.S. role in guiding it—likely remains unknown to most U.S. citizens. In Haiti, meanwhile, and increasingly in Latin America as well, opposition to MINUSTAH is growing, part of a larger call for economic and social solutions to Haiti’s problems instead of military responses.

MINUSTAH includes 8,856 military troops and 3,582 police from 56 countries around the world.[6] Yet classified U.S. State Department documents made available by WikiLeaks reveal that the United States has a leadership role behind the scenes. “[MINUSTAH] is an indispensable tool in realizing core USG policy interests in Haiti,” a 2008 cable by then U.S. ambassador Janet Sanderson states, noting further on that it “is a financial and regional security bargain.”[7] Sanderson describes MINUSTAH’s role as a proxy force, in place of U.S. troops: “In the current context of our military commitments elsewhere, the U.S. alone could not replace this mission.”

“MINUSTAH is how the U.S. has outsourced its control of Haiti,” attorney Bill Quigley explained in Port-au-Prince, as I and other members of a fact-finding delegation listened to him describe Haiti’s security situation. As a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and someone with long-term involvement in Haiti, Quigley has witnessed many impacts of U.S. intervention in the country.

Raymond Paul, a grassroots leader, liberation theologian, and former political prisoner, has experienced the upheaval and violence that U.S. usurpation of Haitian democracy has meant.[8] “Every time the Haitian people decide to exercise their right to vote, they manage to organize a coup against that government,” he said of the United States.

Sanderson’s cable is clear that the United States is indeed continuing to intervene in Haiti—through MINUSTAH: “Without a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping and stabilization force, we would be getting far less help from our hemispheric and European partners in managing Haiti.”[9]

Sometimes this “managing” has included the use of MINUSTAH forces to commit human rights abuses at the behest of Haiti’s powerful elite. Another cable, from 2006, describes a meeting between elites and then U.S. chargé d’affaires in Haiti Timothy Carney. The business leaders urged Carney to allow MINUSTAH to carry out violent raids in the Cité Soleil slum—a center of anti-coup sentiment—and “pleaded” with him for more ammunition for the police.[10] The cable makes clear that Carney gave the green light for such a raid, even though “such an operation would inevitably cause unintended civilian casualties given the crowded conditions and flimsy construction of tightly packed housing in Cité Soleil.”

Because such areas were repeatedly targeted for these raids, especially in the two years following the 2004 coup, in which Haiti was governed by an unelected regime, many coup opponents and analysts have suggested that MINUSTAH’s role has largely been one of political containment—a conclusion supported by statistical evidence. A 2006 study in The Lancet concluded that there were some 4,000 political killings during this period, almost half of which were committed by anti-Aristide groups, the Haitian National Police, or (coup) government forces.[11] (Respondents surveyed for The Lancet study did not identify pro-Aristide groups as responsible for any of the murders.) WikiLeaked documents also reveal that MINUSTAH participated in other political activities, such as spying on student groups, and that it sought to keep Aristide from returning from his exile in South Africa.[12]

“It’s clear that MINUSTAH has not come to protect the Haitian people, but to protect the minority that is close to the U.S.—the rich,” explained René Civil, a grassroots activist and former political prisoner.

Civil’s comments were echoed by Yves Pierre-Louis, Port-au-Prince editor for the newspaper Haïti Liberté: “Every time we ask for food, for land to cultivate, the government authorities call on MINUSTAH to tear gas people, to shoot,” he said.

But the U.S. government’s political motives behind MINUSTAH are not confined to Haiti. The force includes troops from several left-leaning Latin American governments—but not Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chávez, has been outspokenly opposed to the occupation. As one WikiLeaked State Department document explains, “An increasingly unifying theme that completely excludes Chavez, and isolates Venezuela among the militaries and security forces of the region, is participation in international and regional peacekeeping operations.”[13]

While South American nations have increasingly moved away from U.S. foreign policy goals in a number of areas, involvement in MINUSTAH—whose troops are led by Brazil—remains one area where the United States is getting its way. This could be a dangerous precedent, considering that MINUSTAH is in effect a foreign military force that was sent in to ensure the outcome of a U.S.-orchestrated coup d’état.[14] South American support for MINUSTAH conflicts with the firm opposition to coups these countries have demonstrated in response to situations in Honduras (2009), Bolivia (2008), and Ecuador (2010). In the latter two cases, Latin American solidarity was important in preventing destabilization attempts from succeeding.

Disturbed by the many reports of MINUSTAH’s rights abuses, the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch organized a large delegation to Haiti in October to see up close how UN troops interacted with the Haitian people. We spoke with representatives of over a dozen community, human rights, women’s rights, or similar organizations, and visited schools, foundations, clinics, feeding programs, slums, and camps housing thousands of people made homeless by the January 2010 earthquake.

Everyone we asked had complaints about the UN mission. This anti-MINUSTAH commentary was complemented by the pervasive “Aba Okapasyon” (“Down With the Occupation”) or “No UN” graffiti we saw throughout Port-au-Prince. The “blue helmets,” as they are known, had a ubiquitous and intimidating presence in the capital city, sometimes making a point of showing the massive rifles they carried.

Ironically, the UN Security Council extended MINUSTAH’s mandate another year just days before the cholera outbreak anniversary. The discrepancy between MINUSTAH’s actions, in its negligence in causing a disease epidemic, and its mandate to, among other things, ensure “a secure and stable environment” and to “promote and protect human rights” was not lost on its critics. But it also fit a pattern.

The Security Council cited gender-based violence (known as GBV in NGO and UN jargon) as one reason for the mandate extension. Yet women’s organizations we talked to told us plainly that MINUSTAH isn’t doing anything about GBV, even though it’s a much bigger problem now in post-quake Haiti. Women and girls in the many tent camps throughout Haiti are regular targets of attack.

“Since the earthquake, there has been a big increase in violence against teens and children—as young as 17-months-old,” explained Jocie Philistin, Project Coordinator for Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), which is composed of sexual-assault survivors. KOFAVIV provides an array of support services for survivors, and ways for them to become more empowered and help prevent future attacks. The New York-based organization Digital Democracy has partnered with KOFAVIV to create an emergency response system for sexual assault victims, and to track assaults as they occur. “For 2011, we have 350 cases [of assault] in the database so far,” Digital Democracy’s Emily Jacobi said. “60 percent of these are children.”

“MINUSTAH is supposed to represent security, but they don’t come into the camps at all,” a representative of another organization, Women Alert and Fighting for the Development of Haiti (FEMCADH), told us. Other women sexual-assault survivors had similar complaints: MINUSTAH hasn’t fixed anything; MINUSTAH assaults people; there is more violence because of them; their presence perpetuates itself.

During our trip, we spoke to Ansel Herz, an independent journalist who broke the story of MINUSTAH troops fathering children in the town of Port Salut and leaving the mothers (one being a 17-year-old girl) behind, as well as the story of the troops’ rape of an 18-year-old man.[15] Herz told us about what he observed during his time in Haiti covering MINUSTAH.

“MINUSTAH’s actions create a huge imbalance of power and a lot of unreported abuses,” Herz said. “MINUSTAH says the problems are because of just a few bad apples, not the fault of the mission as a whole. That’s the official line.”

The abundance of recorded misdeeds is evidence that the “few bad apples” excuse is incorrect. Yet, so far, there have been few repercussions for the mission—either its leadership or the troops themselves. When over 100 Sri Lankan troops were found to be soliciting prostitution, including from children, they were sent home.[16] Under the Status of Forces Agreement that governs MINUSTAH behavior, the UN troops have immunity from the Haitian justice system. The country contributing the respective troops is supposed to punish them, but there is little evidence that the Sri Lankan troops ever faced justice.[17] As several Haitian organizations have pointed out, the Haitian government has also been negligent in following up with Sri Lanka to ensure accountability.[18]

Another case, that of Gérard Jean-Gilles, has been a nonissue for the UN and the international community, despite the troubling facts. Jean-Gilles, a 16-year-old boy who did tasks for Nepalese MINUSTAH troops, was found hanging from a tree inside the UN base at Cap Haitien shortly after employees of the nearby Hotel Henri Christophe heard cries from inside the base: “They are suffocating me.”[19] The UN troops reported that Jean-Gilles had committed suicide, but this was later ruled out during the autopsy, according to reporter Thalles Gomes. The UN troops’ story, as Gomes reported for Brasil de Fato, also “did not explain how the young Gerald [sic] had managed to get into the military base, tie a rope on the patio and hang himself without any soldiers noticing.”[20] In a report on the case, Herz noted that just a day before his death, the troops’ interpreter accused Jean-Gilles of stealing $200 from her and that other Haitians working at the base said that the interpreter was having an affair with the base commander.[21] MINUSTAH impeded the investigation of Jean-Gilles’s death, among other things arguing that the interpreter had impunity, even though she was only a contractor for the troops. The judge pursuing the case concluded, “The UN is blocking the Haitian justice system.”[22]

Herz also documented another repeat offense by UN troops: pollution. He described chemical and other waste dumping at the MINUSTAH base at Port Salut in a report for Inter Press Service: “IPS observed foul-smelling fluids passing through white pipes above- and below-ground alongside a dirt road that leads to one of the U.N. bases.”[23]

Similar dumping was how MINUSTAH appears to have caused the cholera outbreak. Considering the scarcity of safe drinking water in Haiti, and the numerous tent camps, Haiti was a prime candidate for waterborne disease to spread rapidly and widely. All it needed was for the pathogen to be introduced.

While cholera may be the most common source of people’s anger and impatience with MINUSTAH—over 80% in the greater Port-au-Prince area believe the force is responsible for causing the epidemic, according to a forthcoming study for the University of Michigan and Small Arms Survey—it was almost certainly a case of negligence, albeit criminal.[24] But MINUSTAH has killed civilians outright as well.

Following the 2004 coup against Aristide, the climate was one of open political repression, with Fanmi Lavalas (Aristide’s political party) and Aristide government officials put on “Wanted” posters and hunted down—some imprisoned, some killed.[25]

“After the coup in 2004, if René [Civil] and I were found in the country, we would have been chopped up,” Raymond Paul explained. “Thank God we were not found in the country.” While there is little evidence of MINUSTAH involvement in these killings, some were carried out by Haitian police as armed UN soldiers stood by.[26]

The Haitian elite, many of whom helped to orchestrate the coup, saw MINUSTAH as a tool of repression to be used to quell opposition to the new order being imposed on the country at the time, as the aforementioned cable by Carney describes.[27] The subsequent raids on Cité Soleil and other slums, and earlier operations—most notably an assault on July 6, 2005, targeting gang leader Dread Wilme—resulted in over a dozen civilians being shot, with an unknown number killed. The high toll should come as no surprise, considering that MINUSTAH fired some 22,000 rounds in just seven hours that day, according to declassified U.S. Embassy cables.[28]

But even in the years since the interim regime left power, MINUSTAH has continued to curtail political expression. Most notably, MINUSTAH troops have violently suppressed demonstrations, often in coordination with the police. UN troops repressed protests in November 2010 against MINUSTAH’s role in the cholera outbreak and other abuses with tear gas and live ammunition, killing three protesters in one week.[29] And as recently as 2010, MINUSTAH troops have been accused of aiding a massacre, at the Les Cayes prison.[30]

But most of those we talked with were equally opposed to the new president Michel Martelly’s idea to reconstitute the Haitian armed forces, as a replacement for MINUSTAH: “The same people responsible for deaths and human rights violations in the past are now looking to come back into power,” a student, who did not wish to be named, told us, referring to former army officers. “This is very traumatic for families of those killed in the past.”

The modern Haitian army was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 following a survey showing overwhelming popular support for the measure. It had been created by U.S. Marines during the U.S. occupation of the country (1915–34) and it historically acted almost exclusively as a tool to be used against the Haitian people, especially under the dictatorships of “Papa Doc” (François) and “Baby Doc” (Jean-Claude) Duvalier (1957–86), and then by post-Duvalier dictators. When Aristide finally came to office with Haiti’s first democratic elections, the army ousted him in a coup just eight months into his term.

“It’s scary when you think about the return of the Haitian army, that has the habit of violating people’s rights,” Civil said. “It’s scary to think about that, when we know what they did in the past.” Civil worries that the army’s return could mark a return to the Duvalierist era, when openly discussing opposition to government policy was not possible.

“We don’t need the military, we need solidarity,” one student told us. His opinion does not appear to be isolated; a majority oppose the army’s reconstitution, according to a new survey.[31]

Several analysts and activists we spoke with suggested that the money required to bring back the army would be better spent rebuilding a country still reeling from the 2010 earthquake. Many in Port-au-Prince also suggested that the more than $2 million spent each day on MINUSTAH could be put to more effective use as well.[32]

“MINUSTAH gets almost $1 billion per year. If this were spent on agriculture, health, education, the violence and insecurity would diminish,” Haïti Liberté editor Pierre-Louis said.

Indeed, in a country where so much industry is privatized, the huge amounts spent on MINUSTAH—the many trucks, tanks, and other vehicles, and the mission’s many bases scattered throughout the country—seems a dubious priority. Money for either the army or MINUSTAH’s budget could instead be used to invest in the Haitian people by, for example, providing free primary and secondary education. But most Haitians, despite the high poverty and unemployment in their country, have to pay in order to send their children to school.[33]

Opposition to MINUSTAH seems to be growing. Not only have demonstrations increased since the start of the cholera epidemic, but recent surveys show that a large majority of people want the UN Mission out of the country, soon. A survey conducted by Columbia University students in August found that 65% said they want MINUSTAH to withdraw within a year (of these, 10% wanted the force out within six months, and 30% wanted immediate withdrawal).[34] If truly representative of the Haitian population, this means that most people want MINUSTAH out before its mandate expires in October 2012.

The anti-MINUSTAH sentiment has sparked a solidarity movement. In October, various Latin American Nobel Peace laureates, intellectuals, and other prominent figures sent a letter to the MINUSTAH member governments of Latin America, urging a timetable for the rapid withdrawal of the mission, or, failing that, for the countries to unilaterally withdraw.[35] On November 5, the first continent-wide conference against the “occupation” of Haiti was convened in São Paulo, Brazil, with participation from over 600 members of trade unions, social movements, political parties, and other organizations, from several countries. The concluding statement called for the mission’s immediate withdrawal, noting that “Haiti needs doctors, engineers, teachers and technicians—not occupation troops.”[36]

This message was in sync with what we heard in Port-au-Prince. “The solution is not military, it is social and economic,” Pierre-Louis explained. “Eighty percent of the population has no work. Only 20% to 30% can read or write. Health care is zero—nothing.”

The fact-finding delegation to Haiti also propelled SOA Watch to take an active role in the campaign for MINUSTAH withdrawal, making the connections between the SOA and the U.S. role behind MINUSTAH.[37]

“MINUSTAH is like the SOA in that it’s an outsourcing of U.S. military power,” SOA Watch’s Becca Polk concluded.

“Every dollar given to the military is a theft from the people of Haiti,” SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois told reporters in Port-au-Prince.

Dan Beeton is International Communications Coordinator with the Center for Economic and Policy Research ( He traveled to Haiti in October as part of a School of the Americas Watch–organized fact-finding delegation.

[1] Ansel Herz, “Oct. 19 Demonstration Marking One-Year Since Haiti Cholera Outbreak,” Flickr,

[2] Paul Farmer, Haiti After the Earthquake (Public Affairs, 2011), 188–90.

[3] UN News Centre, “Post-Earthquake Assistance in Haiti Shifts to Reconstruction – UN,” January 6, 2012.

[4] Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, “Petition for Relief,” submitted to the United Nations on November 3, 2011, available at

[5] Ibid.

[6] MINUSTAH, “MINUSTAH Facts and Figures,” United Nations (website).

[7] Janet Sanderson, “Why We Need Continuing MINUSTAH Presence in Haiti,” U.S. Embassy Port au Prince cable 08PORTAUPRINCE1381, October 1, 2008, released by  WikiLeaks.

[8] Amnesty International, “Haiti: Political Prisoner Annette Auguste Finally Released Following 26 Months of Detention,” August 31, 2006, available at

[9] Sanderson, 2008.

[10] Timothy Carney, “Haitian Private Sector Leaders Call for General Strike Due to Rising Insecurity,” U.S. Embassy Port au Prince cable 06PORTAUPRINCE29, January 6, 2006, released by WikiLeaks.

[11] See, for example, Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2007), 281–86; Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A Random Survey of Households,” The Lancet 368 (September 2006): 6–9.

[12] Dan Coughlin, “WikiLeaks Haiti: US Cables Paint Portrait of Brutal, Ineffectual and Polluting UN Force,” The Nation, October 6, 2011; Center for Economic and Policy Research, “MINUSTAH Brought Cholera Into Haiti; Sought to Keep Aristide Out,” Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch (Blog), July 1, 2011.

[13] Craig Kelly, “A Southern Cone Perspective on Countering Chavez and Reasserting U.S. Leadership,” US Embassy Santiago cable 07SANTIAGO983, June 18, 2007, released by WikiLeaks.

[14] For detailed accounts of U.S. involvement in the coup, see Hallward and Randall Robinson, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (Basic Civitas Books, 2007).

[15] Ansel Herz, Matthew Mosk, and Rym Momtaz, “U.N. Peacekeepers Accused of Sexually Assaulting Haitian Teen,” ABC News, September 2, 2011.

[16] BBC, “Sri Lanka to Probe UN Sex Claims,” November 3, 2007.

[17]Lanka News Web, “Sri Lanka: Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture,” November 26, 2011, available at

[18] Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Haiti, Let Haiti Live and UnityAyiti, “Haiti’s Renewal of MINUSTAH’s Mandate in Violation of the Human Rights of the Haitian People,” Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, March 24, 2011, available at

[19] Thalles Gomes, “Morte de jovem haitiano gera novos protestos contra a Minustah,” Brasil de Fato, September 13, 2010, English translation available at

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ansel Herz, “The Death of Gérard Jean-Gilles: How the UN Stonewalled Haitian Justice,” Haïti Liberté 5, no. 10 (2011).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ansel Herz, “Other Complaints Dog U.N. Mission,” Inter Press Service, September 7, 2011.

[24] Athena Kolbe and Rob Muggah, “University of Michigan Study and Small Arms Survey of Health and Safety in Urban Haiti” (forthcoming).

[25] Thomas M. Griffin, “Summary Report of Haiti Human Rights Delegation—March 29 to April 5, 2004,” National Lawyers Guild International Committee (website),

[26] See, for example, Thomas Griffin, “Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November 11–21, 2004” (Center for the Study of Human Rights, University of Miami School of Law, 2005), 31–34; Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights and Centro de Justicia Global, “Keeping the Peace in Haiti? An Assessment of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti Using Compliance with its Prescribed Mandate as a Barometer for Success” March 2005, available at

[27] For one explanation of elite motivations for wanting a crackdown on gangs see Hallward, 201–02.

[28] James B. Foley, “Human Rights Groups Dispute Civilian Casualty Numbers from July 6 MINUSTAH Raid,” U.S. Embassy Port au Prince cable Port au Prince 001919, July 26, 2005, released under Freedom of Information Act to Keith Yearman.

[29] Center for Economic and Policy Research, “MINUSTAH Responds to Day of Protests By Tear-Gassing IDP Camp,” Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch (blog), November 18, 2010.

[30] Free Speech Radio News, “A Test for Haiti’s Prisons As Trial Opens in 2010 Killing of Inmates,” October 18, 2011.

[31] Trenton Daniel, “Study Suggests Homicides Dropping in Haiti Capital,” Associated Press, November 16, 2011.

[32] MINUSTAH, “MINUSTAH Facts and Figures.”

[33] Pi James, “Podcast #27: Educating Haiti’s Children, Six Months On,” UNICEF, July 12, 2010.

[34] Grant Gordon and Lauren Young, “Haitian Perspectives on MINUSTAH Before the Mandate Renewal,” October 12, 2011, available at

[35] Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and others, “Letter to Latin American Presidents Re Withdrawal of MINUSTAH, October 5, 2011, availabe at

[36] Laura González, “Sao Paulo Anti-Occupation Conference: The Continent Has Raised its Voice for Haiti,” Haïti Liberté 5, no. 19 (2011).

[37] Father Roy Bourgeois, “Standing Against Militarism and Violence: From Haiti to Fort Benning,” Common Dreams, November 18, 2011.

Support Cepr


If you value CEPR's work, support us by making a financial contribution.

Si valora el trabajo de CEPR, apóyenos haciendo una contribución financiera.

Donate Apóyanos

Keep up with our latest news