The United Nations

As I was leaving Tuesday’s meeting with Kofaviv, I was asking myself why the United Nations never came up in the conversation. The text we had been talking about is by Thomas Hobbes. He claims, among other things, that we humans are naturally inclined to conflict, and that only the presence of a power that we fear makes us safe from one another. Connecting his point to the UN presence in Haiti, where several thousand heavily armed UN soldiers constitute what is called a “stabilization” force, seemed only too obvious. It was on my mind through almost the entire class. But the group found other things to talk about, and I never found quite the right moment to bring it up.

A little way down the street from the Kofaviv office is the side street that leads up to the Social Sciences branch of the national university. That’s the branch where Frémy and several other of my Haitian colleagues studied. It has long tended to be a source of political activism, attracting as it does some of the more radical of Haiti’s intellectuals and youth.

As I got to the intersection, I saw a student whom I recently met. He was working with some of his friends to block the street. They had hauled the wreck of an automobile into the middle of the intersection, and were now surrounding the wreck with large rocks and tires. When I asked him what they were doing, he smiled and said that they were celebrating the anniversary of the UN. It was, in fact, United Nations Day. The student, whose name is Jean-Louis, laughed as he said that the UN was in Haiti to help Haitians and that they had decided to help too. His sarcasm could not have been more clear.

UN forces have now been in Haiti for over two years, and it seems worth considering what they are accomplishing. In and around Pòtoprens, one sees them everywhere: standing in and around the tank that sits within 100 yards of Suzette’s home in Douya, driving personnel carriers or fancy SUVs up and down between Pòtoprens and Delma on any of the three congested roads that link the two, guarding the entrances – or should I say “the exits”? – of the city’s slums, sitting in Epi D’Or, Delma’s first-rate fast food establishment. I even heard that they passed by Ka Glo once. There are Brazilians, Argentineans, Jordanians, Sri Lankans, Peruvians, Moroccans, Nepalese, Chileans, and others.

The first time their presence really struck me here was shortly after I arrived. I was traveling to Ench with Saül, riding in a pick-up truck on the road that connects Pòtoprens with the Central Plateau. Just before we got to Tè Wouj, a small market on the way, we saw a contingent of Nepalese soldiers, sitting on and around two armored personnel carriers. When we got to Tè Wouj itself, the market was filled with heavily armed Haitians in an irregular range of semi-uniforms. They seemed to be just wandering around, snacking and chatting with market women. A few turns in the road after Tè Wouj, we saw another Nepalese force. We had just crossed two battle lines. The Haitians, who were part of a group identifying themselves as former members of Haiti’s disbanded military, were surrounded. That Haitian force had been one of the collection of violent and non-violent groups that had contributed to the deterioration of the situation here before President Aristide left in February 2004. But it had not put down its arms when Aristide left and the interim regime supported by the American government took power.

What was most striking to me at the time was how little the battle lines meant to those of us who just happened to be heading to Ench that day. Though it is intimidating to see a heavily-armed military force, and even more intimidating to see a heavily-armed group of irregulars, nothing actually happened. We were not stopped. No one asked any questions. Apparently, we were of no interest to either side. Shortly after we made the trip, the force of former soldiers evaporated.

Things have changed in Haiti since that time and, except for continuing inflation, the changes have mostly been improvements, at least as far as I can tell. Pòtoprens is very much safer than it was. A year ago, both Haitians and foreigners needed to be very particular about where they went around the capital. Gunfire was a constant in several neighborhoods. Kidnapping was a daily occurrence.

Things really are different now. But it’s hard to know whether to credit the UN. The most dramatic change we’ve seen can serve as an example. Violence stopped very suddenly in Site Solèy shortly after René Préval was recognized as the winner of the presidential election. It just stopped. At least for awhile. This was after months of almost continuous fighting between the Haitian police, supported by UN forces, and the area’s gangs.

I don’t think there was much connection, though, between that sudden peace and anything that the UN forces or the Haitian police were doing. It would be more accurate, I think, to say that the gang leaders decided they wanted to give Préval an opportunity to deal with them peacefully. Or that they found some less violent way to further their interests.

I have occasionally seen UN soldiers roll up their sleeves to do real work. I once passed a friendly group of Chileans, with shovels in hand and a tractor helping out, repairing a road between Twoudinò and Fòlibète that floods had made impassable. One reads about school construction and other useful labor as well.

But we should not kid ourselves about such work. Unemployment in Haiti is extremely high. Ka Glo itself, where most of the men are skilled construction workers, is filled with guys who can’t find jobs. It is hard to understand why the UN or any other organization would think that it is in Haiti’s interest for them to send teams of soldiers to do construction work. It would, I imagine, be much less expensive and more beneficial to hire available Haitians.

And those projects may not all be as helpful as one would like. The heavy – though distant, Mom – shooting that I heard last Saturday was directly connected to one such project. Here’s a link to a description in the “International Herald Tribune”:

But the story I heard from numerous conversations – none of which was, I should add, with an eyewitness – was at odds with the newspaper report. I heard that, in the course of building a road, UN troops were knocking down houses. The houses were being bulldozed with all their residents’ possessions inside, and the residents were neither being compensated nor helped to find a new place to stay. I was told that residents were trying to defend themselves.

I cannot vouch for the truth of the matter. I wasn’t there. But the story both reflects Haitian opinions of what the UN is likely to do and further denigrates the UN in Haitians’ eyes.

Usually, if I ask a Haitian what the UN is doing here in Haiti, they will say one of two things. Either they’ll say that they are doing nothing or that they are making money. Salaries for UN personnel are large. I once spoke to a Chicago police officer who was considering an offer of over $100,000, tax-free, to spend a year in Haiti training police. High UN salaries must be especially attractive to those who come from poor countries. It’s easy to take a cynical view of the UN’s work.

I should, however, finish with a serious and opposing view. When I asked Suzette what she thinks of the presence of the tank and its soldiers so near her home, she said, a little sadly perhaps, that she is glad that they are there. Their presence, she said, has settled things down. If they had not been there, she added, she could not have invited me. It would not have been safe.

Simple answers are hard to find. To say that things would be better or worse without the UN presence would be hard to argue convincingly. Comparing reality to hypothesis leaves lots of room for the imagination. What is clear is that a peace that simply depends on the presence of an occupying power is not a good peace. It may be better than nothing, but it’s not simply good. Sooner or later, Haitians will have to be allowed to work things out.