Why Haiti Does Not Need an Army

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Demonstrators gesture in front of police officers during a protest against the UN mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. (Photo: Dieu Nalio Chery / AP)

Even in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people – or perhaps because of that disaster – nationalism reared its head during Haiti’s presidential election campaign last year. Many candidates, including the eventual winner, Michel Martelly, sensed that Haitians had grown weary of U.N. peacekeeping forces patrolling their streets, and so they made the revival of the Haitian military a khaki-colored plank in their platforms. But now that Martelly is President, many hope he realizes – if his speech last Friday, Sept. 23, to the U.N. General Assembly is any indication – that an army is the last thing Haiti needs.

More surprisingly, Martelly made it clear that he’s not yet ready to see a reduction of the U.N.’s Stabilization Mission to Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH. This despite U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s suggestion this month that the force – put in place in 2004 after the violent overthrow of then President Jean Bertrand-Aristide and led in large part by Brazil – be drawn down from its present level of more than 12,000 members to its pre-earthquake numbers of some 7,000 soldiers and 2,500 police. Far from seeking even a partial departure of MINUSTAH from Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest nation, Martelly on Friday said there would be “nothing more irresponsible and dangerous than letting [MINUSTAH] leave without an effective national alternative.” And if he was still thinking that the alternative should be the Haitian army, which was dissolved 17 years ago, he didn’t say so.

Haiti analyst Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C., says he hopes Martelly’s U.N. speech “reflects a recognition on his part that for Haiti to successfully entice business investment, and for him to be successful as a President, there has to be security – and for at least the next few years, that means keeping the U.N. peacekeeping forces and focusing not on an army but on an evolving, stronger national Haitian police force.” Schneider is hardly alone in his thinking: representatives of donor nations, who have pledged billions of dollars toward Haiti’s post-quake recovery and reconstruction, tell TIME that re-creating the Haitian military is at the bottom of their wish list. In fact, many wish Haitian politicians would drop the idea altogether and, as Schneider suggests, concentrate on building a credible constabulary.

It’s not surprising that Martelly, 50, made the military pledge a key theme of his campaign. The former carnival singer had a close, and many would say troubling, relationship with Haiti’s old armed forces, which brutally backed the Duvalier family dictatorship from 1957 to 1986 and led an equally harsh coup regime in the early 1990s. When civilian rule was restored in 1994, the military was understandably disbanded, but a growing number of Haitian politicians and citizens feel it’s time to revive it.

(See “‘Sweet Micky’: Is Haiti’s Next President Democrat or Demagogue?”)

Their resolve has strengthened since MINUSTAH troops from Nepal last year were accused of bringing cholera into Haiti, sparking an epidemic that has since killed more than 6,000 people, and especially since U.N. soldiers from Uruguay allegedly sexually abused a Haitian teen in July, an incident caught on video. Martelly blasted those “unacceptable blunders” in his U.N. speech, and the Haitian Senate last week passed a resolution calling for U.N. forces to leave the country by 2015.

But Martelly seems to be in closer touch with reality at the moment. For the past decade, Haiti has been a major Caribbean drug transshipment point, and it’s often been awash in gang violence and kidnappings. With the help of the international community, a revamped national police force is slowly coming together, with more professional vetting of recruits and academy training. The force currently has about 10,000 officers, but foreign law enforcement advisers hope to see 20,000 as well as more specialized units. Meanwhile, as Martelly insisted, MINUSTAH’s presence in Haiti matters.

Having an army doesn’t. In fact, the clamor in Haiti for a military reflects one of the most flawed mindsets still plaguing Latin America and the Caribbean today. Because dependable rule of law has for so long been so absent in the region, many of its citizens have come to believe that soldiers, not cops, are their default security solution. But armies aren’t meant to fight crime – and when they do, as we’ve unfortunately witnessed in Mexico the past five years, they often end up exacerbating the problem. Haiti could indeed use improved civil defense forces like disaster response teams or a coast guard. But it faces few if any foreign military threats, so it doesn’t need an army – neither the expense of it nor the real risk of human rights abuses. It does need modern, professional, well-paid investigative police to stave off lawless chaos as it tries to rebuild out of the quake rubble still blanketing its landscape.

That also entails an effective judicial system – prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who can prove to Haitians that they don’t need to keep troops in the street to keep order. Schneider says “there was still a lot of buzzing about [creating] a new army” when he visited Haiti this month, a sign of “how fragile the situation still is there.” Fortunately, Martelly acknowledges Haiti’s precarious state. The hope is that he also acknowledges that an army won’t improve it.