Marc Lacey’s Sunday New York Times piece describing UN peacekeepers’ recent incursions into the gang-infested Cite-Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince sheds some light into the difficult task blue-helmets face in Haiti. There are 8,000 mostly Jordanian and Brazilian blue-helmets in Haiti. And as the Times piece explains, they are starting to stake a more aggressive posture against organized criminal groups that terrorize urban slums and threaten the democratically-elected Preval government. Heavily armed UN troops are acting as a constabulary force, going block-by-block to apprehend crime bosses in order to make life more tolerable for the residents of Port-au-Prince.
Because Haiti is so close to American shores, it stands as a sharp example of how peacekeepers can take on a role that would otherwise fall to American soldiers.Perhaps more so than other peacekeeping operations, success or failure in Haiti will have a direct impact on life in the United States. A collapse in Haiti could prompt refugees flooding American shores, as happened in the early 1990s. And reverberations from state collapse in Haiti would have a profound effect on the large Haitian diaspora communities in major American cities, which would no doubt shoulder the cost of absorbing new refugees.
In an episode recalled in James Traub’s book The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told then-Secretary General Annan in late 2004, “There are six thousand Brazilian troops in Haiti. If they weren’t, there would be six thousand marines.” The General Accountability Office backed this view with a detailed study comparing Haiti’s UN mission to a hypothetical American deployment there. The study found the UN mission in Haiti achieves its objectives while being eight-times less expensive than a comparable deployment of US marines.
Indeed, the important and cost-effective work of UN peacekeeping in Haiti underscores how crucial it is for the United States to pay its peacekeeping obligations in full. As congress debates the White House budget request (which short-changes peacekeeping) members would be wise to draw the connection between the budget they pass and the crucial burden-sharing role UN peacekeeping plays in places like Haiti.