A local advocate for Haiti says that recent clashes between Haitians and United Nations forces are typical of what he described as the UN’s controversial presence in the country.
“I really think it is just a situation where there’s a straw that broke the camel’s back,” Stuart Hammond told the Straight. “But I don’t think there is a new element here.”
On November 15, BBC News reported that hundreds of protesters gathered in Cap Haitien, the country’s second-largest city, and threw rocks at UN peacekeepers. The gathering occurred amid a cholera outbreak that has already left more than 1,000 people dead, and which some Haitians believe was brought into the country by UN personnel.
“Whether or not that is true, I think this cholera epidemic has brought a lot of tensions that have existed for a long time with the MINUSTAH [UN] mission,” Hammond said. “There have been lots of rough encounters."
A member of Haiti Solidarity B.C., Hammond last visited the country in January. He explained that many of the Haitians he talks to say that the UN is primarily viewed as a military force that largely confines its responsibilities to protecting the privileged.
“The tensions are very real,” he maintained. “People do resent the presence of the UN.”
Nearly one year after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake left an estimated 230,000 Haitians dead, more than one million people remain in camps for displaced persons.
Speaking from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Sophie Chavanel told the Straight that the situation remains dire.
The communications director for the Canadian Red Cross said that a combination of cramped living quarters and inadequate or nonexistent access to clean water and sanitation infrastructure has made for the perfect breeding ground for a water-borne disease like cholera.
“It kills very fast but it is treated easily,” Chavanel said. And so in addition to providing clean water, the international Red Cross effort has made education a central piece of its work to combat the disease.
“We are distributing more than 2,500,000 litres of water every day in camps in Port-au-Prince, as well as in many regions such as the Arcahaie region,” she detailed. “And we’ve reached more than 1.5 million people with this campaign to inform people about the cholera outbreak, the symptoms, and what they should do if they have symptoms.”
Chavanel noted that Haitian authorities recently admitted that current fatality numbers are incomplete, and that the risk of a wider outbreak remains.
According to Chavanel, locals’ frustrations with the UN have not spilled over to affect the work of other international groups. “Right now, there is nothing threatening the Red Cross at all,” she reported.
Since the cholera outbreak began in late October, the Canadian government has pledged $5 million to combat the spread of the disease. On Monday (November 22), federal Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff called for the government to send a mission to Haiti to determine if Canada should devote more resources to the effort.
Hammond, who has long been an outspoken advocate for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Haiti, questioned what a more-prominent role for Canada would look like.
“The record of Canadians has been okay but the record of the Canadian government has tended to favour military aid,” he said, adding, “I think it is the foreign military presence that people really get angry about.”
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.