What Haiti taught me about good-intentioned policies and their colonial power structures

In the wake of the UN's response to sexual abuse in Haiti, Chantel Cole visited the country with a team of Canadian researchers. She explains what she learned there about the importance of local actors having a seat at the policymaking table.

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November 6, 2019
Children play with kites in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

After years of learning about Haiti, I knew that when and if life presented me with the opportunity to visit the island it would be an intensely powerful experience.

I was correct. As a first-generation Canadian of Afro-Caribbean descent, having the chance earlier this year to visit the site of the first and only successful revolution by the enslaved peoples of Africa was a profoundly formative moment.

Haiti is where, at the turn of the nineteenth century, enslaved peoples — who were stolen from Africa, shipped to the “New World” by European colonizers and then exploited and worked until the point of death — proclaimed that Black people are as equally human as white people. They staged a rebellion and, after 12 years of bloody struggle, came out victorious. Haiti is also now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. That these facts coexist is not coincidental. Haiti’s troubled trajectory and its contemporary state stems from a legacy of wrath and punishment from the colonizing white supremacist powers who could not stand the idea of a free Black republic.

What brought me to this beautiful, vibrant, dynamic, culturally rich island was a rather grim situation. In May, I travelled there as part of a team of Canadian researchers investigating sexual misconduct by United Nations peacekeepers. Haiti, unfortunately, is part of a long list of countries where peacekeepers deployed as part of United Nations missions have engaged in sexually violent and disturbing events including gang-rapes, and even child sexual slavery. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the wave of incidents as a “cancer in our system.” Looking at some statistics makes the severity of the problem clear. According to a 2017 investigation by the Associated Press, there were 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers and other personnel within the previous 12 years of peacekeeping missions globally. Just last year, current UN Secretary-General António Guterres admitted that “unacceptable cases of sexual exploitation and abuse have tarnished the reputation of U.N. peacekeeping.”

The 13-year term of the Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which officially ended in October 2017, has been tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct and documented cases of sexual abuse by peacekeepers against men, women and even children as young as 12. Between 2007 and 2017, according to Human Rights Watch, there were more than 100 allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation against MINUSTAH personnel. This figure is likely an underestimate, as inadequate reporting mechanisms, fear, shame and other sentiments felt by victims (or those described also as survivors) understandably lead them not to report their experiences.

When I began my research, the vast majority of published research and investigative work that I encountered highlighted the fact that numerous girls and women (in Haiti and elsewhere) have been sexually victimized at the hands of peacekeepers. But as a racialized woman and intersectional feminist, it was important to me to set aside all my preconceived notions and biases developed through immersing myself in media and scholarly accounts of the situation. Instead, I believed it was important to understand how Haitian women and girls interpret their own experiences. I did not want to blindly accept the way media and outsiders have painted their stories. Having the chance to go to Haiti to meet with some of the women directly affected by the presence of peacekeepers was an opportunity to hear their stories directly from their mouths.

A problematic policy?

Sex between peacekeepers and locals in host states is almost exclusively described as sexual abuse and/or exploitation, especially by the media and the UN itself. Media outlets reporting on the issue broadcast articles with headlines that read something along the lines of “peacekeepers sexually abuse and exploit locals in [insert host state].” These headlines aren’t necessarily wrong; as already noted, there are many cases of peacekeepers abusing their position of power by sexually abusing locals. However, media headlines do not tell the whole story. That there is a heavy focus on sexually violent and abusive encounters between peacekeepers and locals is understandable and justifiable as these sorts of interactions are both a significant and harrowing part of the story. However, such narrow interpretations can result in oversimplified policy prescriptions. The UN’s widely promoted zero tolerance policy is one such example.

“Such a ban re-produces and reinforces a caricature unfortunately rampant in both the media and social science research.”

The UN adopted the zero tolerance policy in response to the emergence of allegations across peacekeeping missions globally, increased media scrutiny and public outcry. The policy prohibits peacekeepers from sexually exploiting and abusing “beneficiaries,” the term given to any individuals who may possibly benefit from UN peacekeeping presence in a particular state. This is important as the UN should be seeking to prevent such abuse. But this is not what makes the policy problematic. The policy, more broadly, also bans all relationships between peacekeepers and beneficiaries no matter the nature of the relationship. The reason for this absolute ban over relationships is because the UN states that any interaction between a peacekeeper and beneficiary is always based on an unequal power dynamic. On the surface, that sounds pretty sensible. I think it is hard to argue against the reality that a power dynamic exists between UN personnel and a beneficiary. But, let’s dig deeper into the assumptions that underlie this all-encompassing ban. The UN, through this policy, is assuming that the presence of a power dynamic always means beneficiaries who are involved in sexual interactions with peacekeepers are automatically exploited, powerless and without agency. Here lies the problem: such a ban re-produces and reinforces a caricature unfortunately rampant in both the media and social science research: that of a woman in the “third world” who is feeble, passive, powerless and who needs saving. A woman who is unable to make decisions to shape her life circumstances. A woman who is unable to undergo reflection and active decision making to forge her path and way forward. A woman who is passively forced into her terrible life circumstances. But what’s going on is just the opposite: these women are actively evaluating their situations and making decisions to navigate and deal with their life circumstances.

We must be cautious of reproducing these unfortunately common “single” stories. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi expressed in her acclaimed 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, reducing complex beings and situations into a single narrative — specifically, narratives of helpless and passive victims — is extremely dangerous. Each individual life encompasses a heterogenous experience and reducing multiple people and their stories to one single story robs them of their humanity, misrepresenting and simplifying complex phenomena.

If we hone in on what is taking place at the micro-level and reject a generalized description, it is easy to see that women in Haiti (just like women in all other places around the world) are diverse — they have different life circumstances, interests, desires, etcetera. There are situations in which women actively choose to engage in sexual relations with a peacekeeper and situations where women want to and do so in a consensual relationship.

Haiti Liberté reported that the vast majority of sexual relations between Haitians and UN soldiers are in exchange for essential items such as food, money, clothing and childcare items. While poverty is clearly the underlying cause of many of these decisions, we shouldn’t overlook that these women still practice their agency (although in several cases, it is most certainly confined) through taking matters into their own hands and actively deciding to have sex with a peacekeeper as a way to deal with their present circumstance. Apart from this, the stories that have virtually been left unheard are the ones where women talk about the consensual relationships they had with a peacekeeper. One story, in particular, caused me to rethink my own assumption that all sex between peacekeepers and locals is sexual exploitation and abuse. A woman recounted her experience to me of having been in a relationship with a peacekeeper for eight years. Although she and him are no longer together, she remains in contact with him, still loves him, says her children (from a separate relationship) are fond of him and know him as a father. “I would be considered a ‘victim,’ but I am not a victim,” she said. Several other women also spoke about their consensual relationships with peacekeepers, which they expressed in terms of love or simply a desire to have sex.

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Two women walk in front of a United Nations car in a street of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A new kind of policymaking

These stories matter because they show we need to be more nuanced when it comes to making policies that address global issues. My experience in Haiti has compelled me to call on policymakers to move away from colonial policies, namely, ones that portray certain (most of the time racialized) populations as helpless, passive and oppressed, and which adopt top-down, quick, one-size-fits-all fixes that do not reflect or take into account local realities. This will only exacerbate the problem.

Colonial structures in policymaking unfortunately play out in several sectors. In the development sector, communities are often faced with powerful actors (governments and/or organizations) imposing ‘community development’ projects that promise to spark ‘economic growth.’ Many times, communities are not sufficiently consulted and included in the planning and execution of projects and do not benefit from these projects. On the contrary, they are marginalized and exploited.

Similarly, with governments and global organizations beginning to acknowledge the imminence of the climate crisis, these same colonial logics seem to be manifesting in climate policy. For example, many governments’ environmental policies include conservation efforts focused on protecting rainforests, which are home to vital biomes and significant amounts of the world’s biodiversity. However, Indigenous communities who call these lands home are often displaced by these efforts and denied access to their livelihood and ancestral lands. This is an unfortunate and counter-productive reality, given that Indigenous communities having control over their land and being granted legal ownership is key to successful rainforest conservation and climate mitigation, as US journalist Alexander Zaitchik astutely pointed out last year.

In the case of sex between peacekeepers and women in Haiti, the zero tolerance policy (without being accompanied by other measures to address systemic issues such as poverty and resource-scarcity) threatens the goal of supporting, protecting and empowering the very people (i.e.: beneficiaries) that the policy is meant to serve and benefit. One of the inadvertent consequences of the zero tolerance policy is that it exacerbates poverty by taking away the one option for survival that many have. Furthermore, the policy takes away the sexual freedom of women in Haiti who have the right to be sexual beings if they so choose and enter into sexual relationships of their choice. It also reinforces a notion that is reminiscent of the colonial era: that populations in the Global South are to be controlled by external actors who make rules to regulate and dictate their actions.

This applies to the thinking behind solutions for so many issues. Although my own research, and this essay, focuses on sex between peacekeepers and beneficiaries, this kind of call goes for all policymakers and practitioners working in different institutions, across different sectors. When creating policies that affect people’s lives, no matter how well-intentioned you may think they are, you should listen to those impacted directly, hear their stories, mobilize local knowledge and expertise, recognize nuance in local realities, and in putting this together, collaboratively (with the communities in focus) come up with comprehensive solutions to complex issues.

Concretely speaking, in the Haitian case, nuanced policymaking would consider that sexual relations between peacekeepers and beneficiaries manifest in several ways (as abuse, exploitation, and consensually), and would then work collaboratively with various actors — locals, local organizations, UN personnel, government officials, experts etc. — to come up with appropriate and effective interventions. In the case of abuse, this points to the need for better training of peacekeepers, and harsher punishments, improved reporting and investigation mechanisms, as has been argued by many. But in addition to those measures, there is also a need to acknowledge and fight deeply ingrained toxic ideologies and gendered norms that are historically inherent in military cultures which manifest in peacekeeping missions as sexual violence. Ideologies like misogyny, militarized masculinity, sexism, gender-based violence, racism and colonial attitudes must be explicitly recognized and subsequently resisted and fought against in the development stage of missions and throughout the duration of missions.

“This quick-fix zero tolerance policy on its own does not reflect the complicated nature of the situation.”

Regarding situations of exploitation, we must acknowledge that alongside the peacekeeper’s abuse of power, the socioeconomic environment makes many beneficiaries vulnerable to be exploited. The women we met with during our time in Haiti underscored the need for income-generation activities as an important step to eliminating situations in which girls and women have sex with peacekeepers to secure access to goods necessary for survival. Specific income-generation activities mentioned by some women were jewelry-making and weaving paired with business education.

Finally, we must consider consensual relationships between peacekeepers and beneficiaries. Admittedly, I did not even consider these types of relations before hearing the first-hand stories of the women who had this experience. I think the obvious power dynamic between a peacekeeper and beneficiary makes it a difficult task to see these relationships as appropriate. However, it is not our (myself, the UN, pundits, scholars, journalists, etc.) place to approve or not approve of the relationship of two consenting adults. Therefore, employing the zero tolerance policy to outright ban all relationships is inappropriate, in my view. However, what I suggest can be done in these situations is that the peacekeeper and their partner should be required to disclose the relationship, given the peacekeeper’s primary obligation is to do their job.

Where to start? Local cooperation and collaboration

My hope is that the above serves as a clear lesson to policymakers that addressing the situation of sex between peacekeepers and beneficiaries is not so easy as enforcing a top-down zero tolerance policy.

Some might argue that the zero tolerance policy is the best, most immediate and effective way to eliminate instances of peacekeepers sexually abusing and exploiting beneficiaries in host states. Indeed, peacekeepers who abuse their position of power should be denounced and punished. It is also critical that beneficiaries in vulnerable positions are protected from peacekeeper abuse. But employing the zero tolerance policy as the magic bullet to eliminating all sexual relations between peacekeepers and beneficiaries (not just the relations that are abusive and/or exploitative) moves the UN away from the imperative and necessary work of addressing the various angles of the situation.

So what would I propose be done by the UN instead? While I do not proclaim to have all the answers, I believe the necessary starting point is that the UN acknowledges that this quick-fix zero tolerance policy on its own does not reflect the complicated nature of the situation, nor is it appropriate for addressing the multiple manifestations of and underlying reasons for the occurrence of sexual relations between peacekeepers in beneficiaries.

By extension, then, the necessary starting point would be to work towards a solution in cooperation with local actors in host states, particularly local organizations and most importantly, the women who have directly been impacted by the peacekeeper presence. Here is when various angles of the situation will be brought to light allowing for more comprehensive, nuanced, targeted and context-specific policymaking. Perhaps there is widespread support for the zero tolerance policy. Perhaps there is not. Maybe there are mixed reactions and conflicting perspectives. The fact is, without creating opportunities for local consultation and speaking directly to the women impacted, it is impossible to know and therefore, to come up with constructive policies. I have searched extensively for evidence that beneficiaries were part of the process of developing the zero tolerance policy, and have yet to find any. So above all, the women whose lives have been affected by peacekeepers (whether they are a survivor of abuse, were exploited, or were involved in a consensual relationship) should have a seat at the table where these policies are made, rather than having the policies enforced upon them.

Haitians, just like peoples of other once-colonized parts of the world, should not be reduced to objects, objects that need to be controlled by policies enforced upon them by external actors. Haitian women carry the tenacious spirit of their ancestors who started a revolution in the struggle to take back their country. This revolutionary spirit and fight for self-determination lives on: Haitian women have agency and they have the answers. They should be the ones leading the way.

Research associated with this article was presented at the 2019 Women in International Security (WIIS)-Canada annual workshop, held in June in Toronto, where the author won the Five Minute Thesis Competition.