Canada Considers Deploying Troops to Haiti
A peacekeeping mission would inherit a controversial legacy
Canada is considering sending troops to Haiti to replace Brazilian peacekeepers set to leave in October. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made reclaiming Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation a major part of his government’s foreign policy platform.
Ottawa has 36 soldiers deployed on U.N. peacekeeping missions globally — down from a peak of more than 3,000 in 1993. Trudeau has also suggested that his nation would seek a seat at the U.N. Security Council in 2020.
According to Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, Trudeau’s plan calls for 1,000 to 2,000 police officers and soldiers to bolster security and take over from the Brazilians after they depart.
In some ways, Haiti makes for an excellent place for Trudeau to test his vision of greater multilateral engagement. Canadian NGOs and aid officials already play a huge role in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
But decades of international military interventions in Haiti have long been a source of controversy. And if the experience of the Brazilian troops are any indication, the peacekeeping mission may turn out to be both murkier and more violent than the name suggests.
Above — a Canadian soldier stands guard during the 2004 international intervention. Canadian Forces photo. At top — Brazilian MINUSTAH peacekeepers move through a Haitian neighborhood. U.N. photo
Three years after a 1991 coup ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton launched the American-led Operation Uphold Democracy. The intervention forced the dismantling of the military regime, and Aristide returned from exile.
When American troops handed security over to U.N. forces, Canada took on a central role. Canadian Brig. Gen. J.R.P. Daigle was the mission’s force commander from March to June 1996. Daigle led the renamed U.N. Support Mission in Haiti for another year, and Canadian Gen. Robin Gagnon led the subsequent U.N. Transition Mission in Haiti in 1997.
Aristide returned and served out his term, and subsequently won the 2000 presidential election. But allegations of corruption and despotism plagued his tenure, with critics claiming he won the election through fraudulent means.
By 2004, another coup ousted Aristide. This time an international force of American, Canadian, French and Chilean troops landed in the country to restore relative order. After the intervention force left, the blue helmeted U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti — known by the French acronym MINUSTAH — assumed responsibility.
A handful of Canadian troops donned blue berets, and several members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police joined the mission to train Haitian cops, but Brazilian troops made up the largest proportion of the U.N. force. It was an opportunity for the rising South American economic and political powerhouse to demonstrate leadership on the global and regional stage.
MINUSTAH was also the first peacekeeping operation authorized without a peace agreement to enforce. Rather, the U.N. mandate tasked the troops with the much more vague mission of clamping down on heavily-armed gangs and traffickers that had become ubiquitous in Haiti’s notorious slums.
Brazilian troops went into neighborhoods heavily armed — more so than the average peacekeeper — and engaged in intense firefights with gang members in occasional house-to-house fighting. These violent encounters often raised the ire of activists.
In particular, the killing of Dread Wilme — who depending on who you ask was either a ruthless crime lord or a community activist — was particularly controversial. Estimates of those killed in the raid vary starkly, from as low as five to as high as 80, depending on the source.
“We are under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence,” Brazilian Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira told a congressional commission after returning home from leading the mission in Haiti.
He specifically cited officials from Canada, France and the United States as pushing the peacekeepers to be more aggressive.
In January 2006, Pereira’s replacement, Gen. Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar, was found dead at his hotel from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. WikiLeaks later revealed that Dominican president Lionel Fernandez suspected that anti-Aristide hardliners murdered Bacellar because he allegedly didn’t adopt a tougher strategy.
Aristide has long claimed the U.N. peacekeeping force is aimed at keeping him from power, and is part of an attempt by world powers to crush the Haitian people’s aspirations.
While some members of Canada’s Haitian immigrant community have enthusiastically supported the country’s involvement, other Canadian activists have echoed Aristide’s claims. They insist that Ottawa’s troops took part in forced regime change, and that the current U.N. mission is a foreign occupation.
Some Haitians, including several politicians, share these views and are openly suspicious.
“Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay are not the real occupiers of Haiti,” Haitian Sen. Moise Jean-Charles told Haiti Liberté in 2013. “The real forces behind Haiti’s military occupation — the powers which are putting everybody else up to it — are the U.S., France, and Canada, which colluded in the Feb. 29, 2004 coup d’etat against President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. It was then they began trampling Haitian sovereignty.”
Haitians also expressed outrage when a deadly Cholera outbreak was traced to members of MINUSTAH’s Nepalese contingent, whose members likely unknowingly carried the disease to the island nation.
Regardless, the security situation does seem to have improved significantly since 2004, and the last election was mostly peaceful. Most observers attribute this to both peacekeepers and an increasingly competent police force. Blue helmets also played an important role in disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake killed thousands of Haitians and nearly 100 members of the U.N. mission.
Trudeau’s Liberal Party government unseated the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in part because of Canadians’ frustration with their country’s entanglements in Afghanistan and the current wars in Iraq and Syria.
While Trudeau is promising to make good on his campaign pledge to bring home Canadian warplanes from the Persian Gulf, he’s actually increasing the amount of troops on the ground in Iraq.
Blue helmeted missions are often considered a gentler and more humanitarian brand of military endeavor. But if Ottawa is serious about being involved in international peacekeeping, Haiti may come to be a sobering reminder that modern day peacekeeping is often just as messy, complicated and thankless as any other military operation.