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UN Must ‘Stay the Course’ in Haiti, says UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Interviewer: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
Interviewee: Jean-Marie Guéhenno
January 10, 2006

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Jean-Marie Guéhenno, undersecretary-general for UN peacekeeping operations and former French ambassador to the European Union, says real progress has been made in Haiti. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been wracked by violence since the February 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and elections there have been postponed four times because of instability. But Guehenno says Haiti is moving “closer to a key milestone,” the rescheduled elections February 7, and most of the country “is more or less...stabilized.” For real progress to be made, however, the United Nations must be clear it is ready to “really stay the course.” He spoke with cfr.org’s Mary Crane January 9, 2005.

Let’s start by summing up the United Nations’ presence in Haiti since the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago. Can you tell us what the status of UN peacekeeping forces is in Haiti?

Maybe I should start by saying that the United Nations has been involved in Haiti several times in the past, and I think when we were requested to come back to Haiti after the departure of President Aristide, it was clear, I think to everybody, that this time the international community should really stay the course and learn from past failures.

The main lesson from the past failures is that there was never a sufficiently comprehensive effort in Haiti. An election is an important event, but an election is the beginning of something, not the end, and it has to be complemented by a much broader effort to rebuild the state. And that’s why in Haiti today we want to address the situation on a number of fronts. First, of course, is to bring security to Haiti. The beginning of the mission, as you know, was difficult because the troops were not necessarily prepared for the challenges they encountered.

And where are most of the troops from?

Most of the troops come from Latin America. We have troops from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala—there are a number of Latin American countries. These are the main countries. The leadership of the mission is also from Latin America. Since the tragic death of [UN mission commander] General [Urano Teixeira da Matta] Bacellar this weekend, we will certainly have another Brazilian commander and we are in touch with Brazil to identify a suitable force commander. It’s really our intention to keep a Brazilian force commander and Brazil has made a major commitment to the mission.

So when I look at the strategy of the mission, [the] first [priority is] to bring a measure of security. Everyone is focused on what is not yet right—that is, the disarray in [the capital] Port-au-Prince. But what I see is the progress that has [been made] in the rest of the country. When you look at what the situation was even a few months ago, when [there were] road-blocking attempts in the northern part of the country, that has stopped. Myself, I was in Port-au-Prince earlier this year in June and I wanted to visit some of the tough places and one of them was Bel Air. The only way I could visit Bel Air was in an armored personal carrier with a blue helmet and jacket, and now you can walk in Bel Air.

Today, there is one place that remains a very tough spot indeed and that is [the Port-au-Prince suburb of] Cité Soleil, which is a focus of our attention. We are not going to let the situation in Soleil fester. This is a touchy situation because it’s a slum, an urban environment with a high-density population. It’s the kind of place that’s very difficult to operate a military force. We are looking at ways to strengthen our posture there so we can stop the activity of the gangs and at the same time not hurt civilians.

The gangs that are conducting the kidnappings?

The gangs that are conducting the kidnappings and that sometimes participate in drug trade and the proliferation of weapons in Haiti. This is a serious threat. In one part of Haiti—the road that is alongside the Soleil slum—that is where most of the kidnappings happen, as well as in the slum itself, which is a very dangerous place at this stage. We’ve been discussing that with our military and our police and we’re going to intensify our operations in that part of Port-au-Prince. What I’m driving at is when you look at Haiti today, six months ago there were many spots which were “no-go” spots. Today there is one place that is a no-go spot—that is Soleil—but the rest of the country is more or less quite, or being stabilized.

Now, I think Soleil is tough, also, because we are getting closer to a key milestone in the life of Haiti after the departure of President Aristide, and that is the election. I think now the election is becoming a reality. It has been postponed several times, and now we are told we are going to have a firm date in early February and I’m very pleased. We’ll have to stick to that date. I think the prospect of the elections is making a number of spoilers nervous.

What needs to change between now and the February 7 elections for the vote not to be postponed again?

I think the main difficulties for the election so far have been logistical. It’s been a major effort of the Organization of American States. They have put a lot of work there. There have been difficulties in producing the cards and then distributing them and making sure that everybody will collect the cards and that they will vote. So for that, you need enough time to inform the people so that they are in a position to vote on the day of the election. We are now quite convinced that there is no major technical impediment to the election.

The only real threat is the people who do not want an election, because in an election, there will be winners and there will be losers. Haiti has been really afflicted by this sort of winner-take-all culture, where people feel that they can’t afford to lose.  Our message is, “Yes, there will be winners and losers but it will be in a fair and transparent election.” We will make sure that is the way the election happens. We will also make sure the winners respect the losers and that Haiti after the election will not sideline all the people who lost election. I think that is very important and that Haiti has to move beyond that culture of winner-take-all. One of the reasons for the mission to be strong in Haiti is precisely [to help] get over that.

Now, that is not a message that appeals to everybody and I think, to be frank, our voice has not always been strong enough on that. We haven’t been heard as much as we should have been. We have to be very clear that we will really stay the course, supporting a police that is respected by every Haitian; a judiciary system that is a fair judiciary system; basically supporting a state of all Haitians, not a particular group of Haitians. And that way I think people will be much better prepared to accept the result of the election, whatever that result may be.

These challenges touch on my last question, which is that the challenges Haiti poses are similar to challenges the UN faces in other peacekeeping operations. What conditions are necessary for peacekeeping success? And what reforms are you considering that will ensure future operations are successful, as part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s larger reform plans for the United Nations?

Well, Haiti is a very good example of the need to connect peacekeeping and peace-building. In a peacekeeping mission, the troops with the blue helmets, they can stabilize the situation. But really, the foundation for long-term success is to have a state that can deliver the basic services of a state, starting with security and the rule of law. If that doesn’t exist, any success is very precarious indeed. And that has been the past experience of Haiti, where the international community focused on one part of the equation and forgot about the other part. And I do hope that this time we will be consistent and coherent enough to focus as much on the peace-building as on the peacekeeping side of Haiti. That’s really for me what success would mean.

What specific actions do you plan to take to combine the peacekeeping and the peace-building processes in Haiti?

It’s not just the policing, for instance, which has been done in the past. You also need to look at the judiciary and at the basic structures of the state. Because if you have a police force that is not paid; if you have a leadership that is not transparent; and then if you do not have a judiciary, effective corrections very quickly start to unravel. That is what has happened in the past. So you need to have a much more holistic strategy. You need to be much more comprehensive in your approach. That is usually the case.

The particular challenge of Haiti is that it is a very proud country. It was one of the first independent countries [in the region] and it has been independent for 200 years, now. So it’s a very fine line for the international community to tread on. We have to be strong, we have to be forceful, but we have to be respectful so that, on the one hand, we make it clear we are not going to support anything that is corrupt or doesn’t support the interest of all the Haitians. On the other hand, we do understand that this is not our country; this is a country where we are guests and where we have to help and support.

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