One of the most interesting developments in the Security Council’s work in the past decades is the increasing frequency and immediacy of “road trips” ambassadors are taking to the most problematic places on their agenda. Recent delegations have gone on missions to Afghanistan and numerous African nations, among other places. A year-old Russian proposal for an ambitious Middle East trip is still on the table, though possibly overtaken by events.
In mid-February, the council sent a 15-member mission to Haiti, ahead of important discussions occurring later this month and in March about the future of United Nations peacekeeping there. Haiti is trapped in political paralysis and remains woefully behind in repairing the human and physical damage of the January 2010 earthquake.
Ambassador Susan Rice, the United States envoy to the UN, who led the council delegation to Haiti, is expected to report formally on Feb. 28, followed by a report from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in early March. But speaking at a news conference in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 16, Rice previewed some of the discouraging impressions diplomats picked up during their four-day visit. These include the persistence of pervasive sexual violence in a population still displaced and often homeless in many areas; lagging reconstruction efforts; and scant progress in building public institutions, a working legal system and a credible police force.
Complaints about the UN
On its part, the Haitian government of President Michel Martelly raised issues of sexual crimes against vulnerable Haitians by some UN peacekeepers and continued to ask the UN to accept full blame for a post-earthquake cholera epidemic that has killed more than 7,000 people in the past two years. The origin of the dangerous cholera strain, endemic to South Asia, was traced to the base of peacekeepers from Nepal. Without sewage systems or clean water supplies throughout Haiti, however, the infection spread rapidly long after the likely source of contamination was removed.
Haiti’s president has also tried to convince the UN that his country needs a national army, since the last force was dissolved in the mid-1990s after turning against a previous president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The proposal has been met with great apprehension by Security Council members and other governments involved in the rebuilding of the country. Council members have reiterated their preference for a greater strengthening of the Haitian National Police, separate from an army, since domestic law and order is a far greater priority than any external threat. Haiti’s only land border is with the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola and has posed no danger.
Finally and most recently, the Haitian government has stopped short of prosecuting a former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, for human-rights abuses during his time in office from 1971 to 1986. Duvalier, known as Baby Doc – his late father was the notorious François Duvalier, Papa Doc, who terrorized Haiti for 20 years before his son’s reign – returned uninvited from exile in France last year. A Haitian judge indicted him for corruption, but argued that the statute of limitations had run out on charges of torture and other human-rights crimes.
Fragile as ever
Analyzing the diplomats’ trip to Haiti, Security Council Report, a nongovernmental trove of up-to-date information on the agenda and workings of the council, said on Feb. 17: “Council members seem to have come away with the impression that the situation in Haiti is still very fragile. In particular, the visit appears to have deepened their concerns about Haiti’s political stability given the lack of political cohesiveness between the president, the parliament and the prime minister.”
The Security Council Report’s analysis also said that doubts had only grown during the visit about the future role of the UN in Haiti and the relevance of the current peacekeeping force, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as Minustah after its initials in French. “While [the council members] acknowledge that the work Minustah is doing is important, they believe some of it, such as the reconstruction work, should now be left to others in the UN who are better equipped to perform such tasks,” the report said.
The resignation of Prime Minister Garry Conille on Feb. 24, just four months into his appointment, has also cast doubt on the progress of Haiti’s reconstruction.
Security Council missions have been traveling the world since the mid-1960s, and there have been criticisms of their trips around the UN from time to time – just as Americans often think of Congressional foreign trips as junkets footed by taxpayers. But the UN missions, as the latest one to Haiti clearly demonstrates, can give experienced diplomats an almost visceral sense of a place about which they will have to make important decisions.
Eye-opening in Africa
One of the most ambitious of these trips, in May 2000, was made under the leadership of the late Richard Holbrooke, who was then US ambassador to the UN. He took a delegation of six other Security Council members – from France, Britain, the Netherlands, Namibia, Mali and Tunisia – on an exhausting tour by way of a clunky old chartered Egyptian plane of nearly all the African nations involved in some way in the spreading conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The itinerary for the trip, on which I went as a reporter, took us to Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Uganda – with Holbrooke adding Ethiopia and Eritrea to discuss a stalemate on the Horn of Africa.
The personal impressions garnered in meetings with the continent’s leaders on that trip were striking in how they suggested what future cooperation – or lack of it – the council might expect in untangling African imbroglios: the cold-shoulder treatment in Zimbabwe or Ethiopia, for example, and the constructive earnestness of meetings in Rwanda. People at street level also made themselves heard, as in the cries for peace from desperate Congolese gathered along the route of a council convoy passing through the ramshackle town of Kananga.
Holbrooke, speaking after his trip to Ray Suarez for the PBS NewsHour online, argued forcefully from that experiences that nothing in Africa could be ignored or brushed aside again, as the world had once turned its back on Rwanda or AIDS beyond American borders.
“Those people in the West who wish to draw a large Berlin-type wall around an entire continent are going to learn the hard way that the problems they are trying to seal off exist already on the other side of the wall,” he said. “And the only way to deal with these problems is to tackle them frontally. This is not easy. Africa is daunting.”
[This article was updated on Feb. 26.]
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.