Minus UN peacekeepers, Haiti police face security challenge

Amelie BARON
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A Brazilian member of the UN peackeeping mission in Haiti patrols the Cite Soleil slum of the capital Port-au-Prince in this file photo

The withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Haiti over the next six months marks a milestone in the country's progress toward political stability but challenges remain for security and the independence of police.

The United Nations Security Council voted Thursday to approve the departure of the military mission known by its acronym MINUSTAH by October 15.

The resolution was proposed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the world body's largest financial contributor, the United States, reviews peacekeeping missions with a view to closing or drawing them down.

MINUSTAH will be replaced with a smaller, police-only force in Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

The UN peacekeeping mission was deployed in 2004 to help stem political violence after the departure of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Created amid an extremely tense political context, the UN mission has been seen ever since as an occupying army by many of Aristide's supporters.

Haitians' anger over these international forces has only been aggravated by a series of scandals as UN personnel committed sexual crimes against civilians.

The reputation of MINUSTAH was further damaged in 2010 by an outbreak of cholera introduced by Nepalese UN peacekeepers serving in the mission.

More than 9,000 Haitians have died in the epidemic since then.

Haitians as a result are either indifferent about or happy with the idea of the looming end of the MINUSTAH mission, even though there is widespread fear of renewed insecurity in the capital Port-au-Prince.

"I can say today to everyone, 'don't panic,'" Michel Ange Gedeon, director general of the Haiti National Police, told AFP. The HNP will be the only guardian of national security once the UN mission ends.

"The HNP has drawn lessons from the sad experience of former UN missions in the country where, some years later, the United Nations has been forced to call them back," Gedeon said.

"Today, it is a question of transferring competencies to be able to deal fairly with any reoccurrence of instability," he said matter-of-factly.

Created in 1995 following the demobilization of the army, the HPN currently has nearly 13,000 agents, not enough to ensure the security of the 11 million people in the poorest country in the Americas.

"We all agree that it is unthinkable that Haiti has no control of its borders," said Gedeon, clearly frustrated that he lacks the means to fight weapons smuggling and drug trafficking.

The first challenge will be to raise the professionalism of the Haitian forces.

"We ought to have a very strong police oversight capacity, to address not only issues of human rights violations and the excessive use of force by police officers, but also questions of corruption among the staff," he said.

- Fears of politicized police -

With the announced departure of MINUSTAH, civil society organizations fear a return to a politicized national police force.

"One hears many rumors about people in the organized crime sector who are close to those in power and are pushing the administration to undermine the police," said Pierre Esperance, director of the National Network of Defense of Human Rights.

After a rock-throwing incident against the motorcade of President Jovenel Moise last weekend, several HNP commissioners and authorities were replaced in the cortege by other HNP staff at the decision of the presidency.

At the same time, certain people in the motorcade denied the truth of the facts characterized as "terrorist acts" by Moise, who took office two months ago.

"It's too soon to go ahead with these changes -- in my opinion, it's a pretext because one still doesn't have the result of the investigation," Esperance said.

The top law enforcement officials want to preserve the neutrality of the police but are urging authorities to respond to the needs of ordinary Haitians by reducing crime, mainly caused by poverty, according to police data.

"The first reflex of the youth living in the poor neighborhoods is to 'look for life' as the saying goes and anything is permitted," Gedeon lamented.

"Inflation, currency depreciation... unfortunately those are the factors that largely feed into this instability," he said.

Almost 60 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.

And the country is still struggling to recover from the massive Hurricane Matthew in October that wreaked more than $2 billion in damage, killing hopes for an economic revival through agriculture.