The U.N. Mission in Haiti Has a Fighting Chance

The situation in Haiti lends itself to international support. The introduction of foreign troops will work best if they are sufficient in number, well-funded, operating with a mandate that fits the situation, and supported with the political will for a clear exit plan and follow-on peace-building mission.

By Charli Carpenter

On the first week of October, a controversial proposal passed the United Nations Security Council establishing a multinational armed mission to Haiti led by Kenya. Despite the concerns of skeptics that this will simply be the latest of a series of botched multilateral interventions there, Haiti’s current security crisis is precisely the kind of situation where a mission like the one envisioned can have an outsized value in promoting human security. Still, whether it can live up to its full potential will depend on a number of factors yet to be determined: the mission mandate, personnel numbers and funding, a planned endgame and—importantly—appropriate benchmarks for judging success in order to maintain political will.
At first blush, it’s easy to see why many Haitians view news of the soon-to-arrive force with a glimmer of hope. Their arrival is meant to buttress the government in its fight against violent gangs, which have killed around 3,000 civilians in the past year and kidnapped, raped or forcibly displaced tens of thousands of others. An infusion of foreign security forces is also meant to support the Haitian police in tamping down vigilante violence by civilians who have taken to attacking accused gang members in their own right, often lynching and burning them in the streets.
At the same time, despite calls for help by Haiti itself for the past year, the U.N. has been slow to agree to authorize the force. Haitian-American organizations have been some of the biggest opponents of a U.S.-led mission, due to past U.S. interventions that seemed to make things worse. Some Haitians feared any new mission would simply prop up an unelected leader, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, without a reasonable prospect of durable peace. And even previous U.N. missions to Haiti have been marred by scandal and viewed by some as ineffective.
In reality, however, this mission has several features that ought to reassure skeptics. The first of these is the fit between the operational situation and the nature of the mission itself. To begin with, it is a state-led stability and support operation, not a mission directed by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Political science research has shown that U.N. peacekeeping missions actually are highly effective at stemming civilian harm, shortening conflicts and making peace agreements stick, and the previous U.N. mission in Haiti, known by its French-language acronym MINUSTAH, was more effective than it is given credit for. But the most successful U.N. peacekeeping missions have generally come on the heels of precisely this other type of intervention envisioned for Haiti: short-term, military missions deputized by the U.N. but led by states, with the objective of stabilizing a situation by coercing and inducing the relevant actors to the bargaining table. By contrast, the major high-profile U.N. peacekeeping failures, such as Rwanda, have generally occurred due to the absence of such a coercive mission and at moments when there was not yet peace to keep.
Second, the mission’s aims fit both Haiti’s needs and the description of the type of humanitarian intervention most likely to be effective. The situation in Haiti is not one where a strong government is preying upon its civilians, requiring a coercive humanitarian war against a sovereign state without its consent. Instead, Haiti is more like a failed or failing state, where the sitting government has lost the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and armed actors and civilians have taken matters into their own hands. In this kind of situation, troops will not be supporting rebels against a government, which can create an escalation in violence, but will be supporting the government in dealing with armed political actors to restore law and order. Foreign interventions of this type, coupled with peace missions thereafter, have often been successful. For example, as political scientist Alan Kuperman has shown, the short and highly effective Liberia intervention in 2003 prevented that country’s civil war from escalating, bringing it to a swift end using this very approach.
Third, the composition of this mission addresses some of the skeptics’ concerns about legitimacy. As a mission led by a non-Western, non-white, African state with buy-in from numerous Caribbean nations, it will avoid the whiff of colonialism present in earlier U.S.-led interventions. Kenya was also careful to seek authorization and support from the U.N. Security Council, despite not technically needing to, given that Haiti had requested its help. That further legitimizes the operation under international law and has contributed to building a strong coalition of the willing. Though the deployment has been temporarily suspended by a Kenyan court pending a challenge of its constitutionality, a favorable ruling would only reinforce its domestic legitimacy as well.
The benchmark for a successful mission should not be whether it eradicates violence, but rather whether Haiti is relatively safer with it than it would have been in its absence.
Fourth, many of the concerns raised by earlier missions are hardly unique to Haiti and don’t outweigh those interventions’ positive impacts. It is true that some MINUSTAH peacekeepers exploited women and girls in Haiti when it was deployed to the country from 2004 to 2017, and some peacekeepers dumped waste into a river that led to a cholera outbreak. But according to political scientist and veteran diplomat Jorge Heine, MINUSTAH was highly effective in terms of its security objectives, as demonstrated by the return of chaos and gang violence once it departed. Moreover, the specter of scandal from previous missions makes it less likely that this one will make the same mistakes. Sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions, which has occurred worldwide, has been the subject of numerous reforms since those concerns came to light. As for wastewater management, which should be a priority for any peacekeeping mission, one of the new mission’s objectives will be to secure public facilities, including waste-water management facilities, to ensure the provision of public goods.
At the same time, many details regarding the mission have yet to be worked out, and how they are worked out will determine whether or not it is set up for maximum possible effectiveness and success. One issue is funding: The $100 million pledged so far by the U.S. will be insufficient, and voluntary contributions will go only so far. Both Kenya and many other coalition members are sending troops in part because the pay is good, and as such their continued troop contributions will depend on sufficient funding by those countries without boots on the ground. Funding will need to be available not only for troop salaries and equipment, but also for aid and inducements to armed actors to come to the table, since a combination of coercion and incentives is more likely to pull the various factions toward moderation.
Another question is how many and what type of forces will comprise the multinational force. Initially, Kenya’s pledge was 1,000 police officers, but an updated Kenyan assessment correctly suggested that between 10,000 and 20,000 would be needed. That is likely accurate, since Haitian police currently number around 10,000 but have not been able to stem the violence. Moreover, given that arriving forces will face a complex and foreign security environment, it is likely that some combination of law enforcement andmilitary officers will be needed. As examples, according to the United States Institute of Peace, the 1994 peace enforcement mission in Haiti included 20,000 personnel, and the MINUSTAH force in 2004 was made up of 6,400 soldiers and roughly 1,700 police. It is thus heartening that a significant number of other nations—including Bahamas, Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Mongolia, Senegal, Rwanda, Belize, Suriname, Guatemala, Antigua and Barbuda, and Peru—have agreed to pledge personnel as well.
Whether military or police, another very important question is how those forces will be trained and what precisely their mandate will be. Simple things like language training for troops from non-Francophone countries is an issue, but so is training on human rights. Concerns have already been raised about the human rights record of some Kenyan police officers. However, few countries’ security sectors have a perfect rights record, and participation in multinational missions can actually be a spur to better domestic performance on security and human rights. Already these reasonable concerns, and the history of peacekeeping scandals in Haiti, has led to explicit language in the U.N. resolution on gender violence and waste-water treatment. It can also motivate strong human rights training for incoming troops and clear rules of engagement that would prioritize supporting the rule of law.
An appropriate endgame is another important criterion for success. As Keith Hines writes, a short-term military operation to stabilize the country will yield gains only if it is coupled with a process of political dialogue leading to elections and a durable peace. And the purpose of the short-term military mission ought to be as much about creating the conditions for a proper follow-on U.N. peacekeeping mission as about tamping down violence, since it is those peacekeeping missions—not military interventions themselves—that have the positive track record on actual peace-building. Indeed, many successful humanitarian interventions, like Libya, turned into quagmires because of the lack of a follow-on peace-building mission under U.N. auspices to prevent a power vacuum after stability was restored. Thus, the stability mission in Haiti must be seen as a first step, not a magic bullet.
This leads to the final point, which is expectations management. Political scientist Roland Paris once pointed out the structural problem with all such humanitarian interventions: If they work, it means terrible things didn’t occur, making them inherently hard to see and therefore assess. In contrast, any costs or negative side effects are all too often clearly and immediately visible to observers. This means that it’s crucial not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The benchmark for a successful mission should not be whether it eradicates violence and completely avoids mistakes, but rather whether Haiti is relatively safer with it than it would have been in its absence.
History points to that being the case more often than not. The situation in Haiti lends itself to international support. The introduction of foreign troops will work best if they are sufficient in number, well-funded, operating with a mandate that fits the situation and supported with the political will for a clear exit plan and follow-on peace-building mission. Even if imperfect however, it’s important to keep in mind the counterfactual: what would happen if Haiti were simply left to dissolve into greater chaos. For now, at least, there is at least hope on the horizon.

About the Author

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter.

This article was originally published by World Politics Review on October 10, 2023. It has been republished and translated with authorization.

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