The world’s response to the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12 has been massive. But, according to a local advocate for the country, just as significant are some governments’ subsequent troop buildups there, mainly, those of the United States and Canada.
Stuart Hammond recently returned from a two-week trip to Haiti that had the Mount Pleasant resident working with a U.S. human-rights delegation. Since then, he has maintained close ties with locals on the ground in Port-au-Prince.
“For the past five years, Haiti has been occupied by a 9,000-person strong UN force,” the Haiti Solidarity B.C. member told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “Now, within the past week, combined U.S. and Canadian forces exceed those UN forces.”
According to a UN backgrounder on MINUSTAH—the UN’s mission in Haiti—in June 2005, the decision was made to send up to 7,500 UN troops and 1,897 police officers to the island nation. Since the magnitude-7.3 quake struck near the capital city, the UN has bolstered its numbers there by some 2,000 additional troops. But, as various news sources have reported, as many as 11,000 U.S. and 2,000 Canadian soldiers have also been deployed to Haiti.
“It’s an issue that has me very, very concerned,” Hammond said. He noted that the U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and he said that many Haitians understand the U.S.’s and Canada’s roles in the 2004 ousting of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“Kidnapping is definitely the word that Haitians use,” he said, referring to the manner in which Aristide left the country.
Furthermore, Canada has supported the exclusion of Aristide’s political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from every election since 2004, Hammond continued. “Haitians are very knowledgeable about what Canada is doing in their country, and they are generally not happy about it at all.”
Dana Cryderman, a spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Straight from Ottawa that the government does not to comment on speculative claims such as those that military operations are interfering with aid efforts. She said that Canadian Forces actions in Haiti are coordinated by the UN and are focused on meeting people’s immediate needs.
Cryderman was not able to provide information on any withdrawal date for Canadian soldiers from Haiti.
Hammond is not alone with his concern over military deployments. On January 19, France publicly demanded that the UN investigate the U.S. military’s role in Haiti. The same day, Médecins Sans Frontií¨res issued a media release complaining that a number of its airplanes have been denied landing at Port-au-Prince as a result of a failure to give medical supplies priority.
James Orbinski, a former head of MSF who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization in 1999, knows how difficult it can be to run an aid mission effectively. Throughout the 1990s, Orbinski’s work for MSF saw him respond to humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kosovo.
“The magnitude of what has happened is so overwhelming,” Orbinski said from his office at the University of Toronto. “One of the first requirements for effective delivery of humanitarian assistance is a relative degree of safety and security. And when that is not present, it is completely unrealistic to expect aid workers to take life-threatening risks. Aid workers are not soldiers, nor are they saints. They are ordinary people who are doing their best under extraordinary circumstances.”
According to Orbinski, a semblance of security is slowly returning to Haiti, which will, hopefully, allow for obvious needs such as water, food, shelter, and effective sanitation to be addressed. The next challenge, he continued, will be to sustain a level of international political interest required to rebuild the country.
Hammond speculated that the date when foreign troops are going to leave could soon become the overriding concern about Haiti. “As it is clear in Afghanistan and Iraq and everywhere else, it is easier to put troops in than it is to get them out,” he said.
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