This week, there have been several days of protests in Haiti against the presence of United Nations troops in the country. The immediate catalyst has been the widespread belief among Haitians that UN troops are responsible for the outbreak of cholera in Haiti - a belief which is not proven, but a belief for which there is considerable evidence, and a belief which the UN has encouraged by its refusal to support an investigation into the causes of the cholera outbreak, ignoring calls from Haitian officials and international public health experts for such an investigation.
Haitian protesters have been chanting: "MINUSTAH go home," MINUSTAH being the name of the UN force.
Why do UN troops remain in Haiti? What are their plans for leaving? Is there a timetable for the withdrawal of UN forces from Haiti? If not, why not?
If the demands by Haitian protesters for UN forces to leave are not just, shouldn't someone have to explain why? No explanation is being given for why UN troops should remain in Haiti indefinitely.
On the contrary, press reports are lending credence to the view that there is no justification for UN troops to remain in Haiti indefinitely. The Guardian reports:
Many Haitians, however, have long criticised the outsiders as a cumbersome occupation force that squanders $500m better spent on building up ramshackle local police and courts.
"Speaking in a personal capacity, I don't know why we have them," said Prospery Raymond, country director of the UK-based NGO Christian Aid. "Yes, we have some gangs but we don't have a war or insurgents."
Most of the population believed the cholera came from the Nepalese [UN troops] and that the UN will do its best to hide it, he said. "If it is confirmed to be from them this will be damaging for the UN and their peacekeeping all over the world."
Al Jazeera presents an even more critical view:
Professor Peter Hallward, an expert in Haitian politics at Kingston University in the United Kingdom, told Al Jazeera that the UN mission was seen by many Haitians as an "occupying force".
"The UN has been there since 2004, to police the consequences of a coup, a coup that overthrew Jean Betrande Aristide, who was elected with a huge mandate several years before that." he said.
"It is seen as the force that came in to pacify the people and persuade them to accept this coup that was a violation of their sovereignty."
Hallward said he believed that Haiti would be able to function without the UN force. "It didn't need the UN before, it didn't need the coup ... The fundamental problem here is that the coup overturned the political system, the continuity of a government that was trying to improve the situation of the people," he said.
Regardless of whether one agrees with these views, the burden of proof is on anyone who wishes to justify the UN military presence in Haiti. It is not "normal" for UN troops to be in Haiti. If their presence cannot be justified, plans should be made for their orderly and timely departure.
And there are several reasons why this is a particularly appropriate time to raise the question of what the plans are for the UN forces to leave, in addition to the protests.
First, the cholera outbreak and the UN response raise fundamental questions about the accountability of the UN military force to the Haitian government and the Haitian people. Why have calls for investigation of the cause of the cholera outbreak been dismissed?
Second, the UN's dismissive and provocative statements in response to the protests indicate a partisanship in Haitian politics that is the opposite of what one would expect from a genuine "peacekeeping" force. The UN has referred to the protesters as "enemies." Really? Wouldn't you expect a genuine "peacekeeping" force, charged with being the cause of a cholera outbreak that has killed 1,100 and may kill 10,000, to show a little humility, empathy, and compassion? Wouldn't you expect a genuine "peacekeeping" force to make some kind of reasonable concession, like agreeing to participate in an independent investigation of the cause of the outbreak?
Third, the UN, in its dismissals of the protests, has sought to refocus attention on the elections scheduled for November 28. OK, what about these elections? In June, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a report prepared under the direction of Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Member, calling for Haiti's electoral council to be reformed so that all parties could participate, instead of some parties - like the Fanmi Lavalas party of ousted and exiled President Aristide - being arbitrarily excluded. Senator Lugar's report was ignored. In October, 45 Members of the House wrote to Secretary of State Clinton urging her to make it clear that Washington would withhold funds for the election if they were not going to be free, fair and inclusive. They were ignored.
These are the elections that are so urgent, according to the UN, that they must occupy all of our attention, so that we cannot afford to investigate the cause of the cholera outbreak.
Let's assume - just for the sake of discussion - that these concerns about the elections will continue to be ignored, and that the Nov. 28 elections go forward as planned, despite these problems and others. The UN will undoubtedly claim the election as a success, regardless of how many people participate. Since, according to the UN, the resulting government will be the legitimate government of Haiti, should not we expect the UN to be planning to hand over all responsibility for security in Haiti to this new government? Why is the UN not broadcasting its plan to do so?
Fourth, the lead government in the UN force is Brazil. Brazil is now undergoing a transition from the government of President Lula to President Dilma, who will take office in January. The arrival of a new Administration is an opportunity for a fresh start, even when the new President is from the same political party, even when the new President served in the previous government. The Colombian government under President Santos appears to be moving decisively to improve relations with Venezuela, even though Santos served as Defense Minister in the previous Uribe government, which pursued a policy of confrontation with Venezuela. Dilma can turn a new page in Brazil's relations with Haiti, by supporting a timetable for withdrawal for the UN troops.
Finally, while there are no U.S. troops in the UN force, we pay for the UN force with our tax dollars. As Members of Congress consider ways to cut the international affairs budget that won't harm useful programs, they should consider calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of UN troops from Haiti.
[UPDATE: The UN seems to be changing its tune, admitting that its troops may have caused the cholera outbreak.]