Interview with Peter Schmitz, Chief of Staff, United Nations Mission in Haiti

Peter SchmitzFor quite a long time, Haiti was known to be a chaotic country with lots of problems and a complete absence of government and governmental institutions. However, since the UN mission was set up, things have significantly improved, and we were curious to know more about what the UN has really done.
So, during his short stay in the city of Calvin, Mr. Peter Schmitz, the Chief of Staff of the Mission in Haiti granted us an interview to tell us about what can be characterized as another success story.
Q : You are the Chief of Staff of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti. We used hear a lot about the violence in Haiti. How would you characterize the situation today ?
Today the situation is much better. I recall how difficult the situation was when I joined the mission in November 2005. There were up to 150 kidnappings per month — at the peak of this crime wave, as many as 240 were kidnapped — which obviously made the population very apprehensive, had expectations were high that MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, would do something about it.
Most of the violence emanated from shanty towns inside the capital, Port au Prince, where would use the impoverished environment as a base to launch their kidnapping schemes, or to extort money from businessmen in the neighborhood.
The situation began to change gradually after we first successfully assisted the Haitian Government in holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2006. A result of this, President Preval was elected and a legitimate Government was established. Following the elections, the kidnapping rate went down immediately, but it picked up later in 2006 and became particularly upsetting to everybody when a whole bus of schoolchildren was kidnapped in December. It became, in a way, a catalytic event for the Government to give us the green light to start operations in the Cit ? de Soleil [one of the major shanty towns in the capital]. The first operation was launched on 22 December. In a relatively short time frame from December 2006 to February 2007, we were able to clear out all the gangs from Cit ? de Soleil.
The way we did it was basically to go for the base of these gangs and dislodge them from there. Given the narrow alleyways and the many escape routes in the shanty town, initially we were not able to arrest many of the gang leaders. However, Haitians live in very close communities. As a result, the moment fugitive gang members turned up in neighbourhoods where they do not belong, people would inform the police. That enabled us and the Haitian National Police to arrest them. Except for one, all of the main gang leaders of Cit ? de Soleil are now in jail.
Q : So one could say that the UN mission in Haiti is a success story ?
Indeed it is a success story ! However, success did not come easy and it is not ours alone. Clearly, the Haitian Government and the Haitian National Police have to be given the credit for these achievements. In fact, the main aim of our mission is to help rebuild governmental institutions in Haiti, starting with the police. One of our main efforts is to reform the Haitian National Police. Police reform has to go hand in hand with justice reform, and that is why the second main effort is to assist the Haitian Government in setting up a proper, uncorrupted and functioning justice system. Only these two efforts together can help reinstate the rule of law in Haiti.
Q : Could you tell us something about the mission. We are based here in Geneva, and we know very little about peacekeeping missions.
Currently we have 7,060 troops. The main troop contributions come from Latin America, which is very much appreciated as it shows that the region itself takes an interest in addressing a regional threat to peace and security, meaning the instability of Haiti. In addition, we have troops from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal and Jordan, which are among the largest contributing countries to peacekeeping operations worldwide.
In addition, we have some 2,091 police officers. About 1,000 of whom are deployed in formed police units used to restore order in riot situations, whereas the remaining the police officers mainly accompany Haitian police officers doing patrols or provide specialized training for the Haitian National Police. Right now, there are about 8,000 Haitian National Police officers, and we hope that by the time we leave, there will be at least 16,000 of them to maintain security and law and order in Haiti.
For the time being, we are training roughly 650 new police officers every year, but that number needs to be increased. As a first step in police reform, we are also helping the Haitian Government to remove corrupt police officers. As result, the number of police officers will probably remain about the same for a while as hundreds of unsuitable police officers leave the police forces and some 650 join every year at the current rate of training. Once all the corrupt or otherwise unsuitable officers have been replaced, the number of Haitian police officers will increase exponentially.
Q : What else do you do apart from restoring law and order ?
The mission in Haiti is what we call a complex peace keeping operation. This means that do not just have police and soldiers to restore security and public order, but that we also have a mandate to coordinate humanitarian assistance and development aid. We have a civil affairs section, which is represented in all 10 departments in Haiti, and which is, in a sense, our backbone network for supporting the people living in the countryside. The mission also collaborates with the United Nations Country Team, which consists of representatives from agencies and programmes such as the UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR, FAO etc. — Altogether we have 14 agencies and programmes . We closely coordinate our activities with the Government and the donor community in order to ensure a coherent overall strategy towards the development of Haiti.
The overall strategy is set out by the Government in consultation with the United Nations and the donors to ensure that it has government ownership and the support of the international community. There are various coordination mechanisms in order to avoid duplication and to ensure that donor money is used in the most efficient way for clearly and jointly identified priorities.
Q : So you are optimistic about development for the year to come ?
Yes, I’m optimistic in the sense that things are getting visibly better. It will take some time, and the mission will have to stay quite a while yet. At the same time, we have no intention of staying forever ; rather we have every intention of being the last peace keeping mission in Haiti. We have had various peacekeeping missions in Haiti before this one, but unfortunately they left too early, i.e. before the institutions of good governance and rule of law had stabilized to the extent that they could be selfsustaining.
Q : Haiti is known to be one of the poorest countries in the world, where life expectancy is dropping. Do you think that everything is on the right track so that economic development can move forward ?
We obviously hope that, when security and the rule of law have been largely restored, even though the situation remains fragile, investors gradually will have confidence to invest in Haiti. In particular the Haitian Diaspora, some 2 million Haitians living in France, the US, Canada and other places, hopefully might find it attractive to invest again in their order to create jobs for the 8 million people living there.
Q : One of our colleagues went to Haiti and told us afterwards that there are hardly any roads.
In Haiti, the infrastructure is in particularly bad shape. Just to give you an example, there are certain places that are only 100 km away, yet it may take more than 8 hours to get there by road. As a result, the mission uses helicopters ; otherwise it would not be able to reach out to the places it needs to be, as was the case was during the elections. We had many situations during the election period where, apart from helicopters, our soldiers had to use donkeys to transport the ballots and other electoral material to certain mountainous areas. This gives you an illustration of how bad the infrastructure is. It is a very fragile environment.
Every tropical storm causes tremendous damage as a result of flooding and mud slides. Each time, many people have to be evacuated to save their lives. Often we and we have to use helicopters to rescue them from the flooded areas. Again, it shows the whole range of the peacekeeping mission’s work.
Q : Do you have the feeling that the media and people in general have forgotten Haiti ?
I would hope that Haiti remains on the front page – not so much with bad news about violence and kidnappings, but with good news in the sense that the situation has improved and that Haiti definitely is worth investment. It is a beautiful country with an exciting variety of culture and art. Unfortunately, tourism virtually has dropped to zero since the mid-80s. It definitely has great potential. In the 1950s and 60s, Haiti was a very popular and attractive tourist destination. We certainly hope that it will be one again in the future.
Q : Is the situation such that you can walk in the streets ? Can you go into Port de Prince without being attacked ?
We have identified certain areas in Port au Prince as « red zones », so if you go there you should take certain security precautions. Fortunately, we did not have any major incidents with international staff, although occasionally some of our local staff became subject to kidnapping. However, outside the urban slum areas, it is safe. I myself quite often hike in the mountain areas – a wonderful experience where you meet friendly Haitian farmers welcoming you with a smile.
Q : Haiti has also been known for being one of the central transit countries for drugs. Is this still the case ?
This is still the case. Unfortunately Haiti has been become one of the transit countries for drug shipments to North America.
We have just started to help the Haitian Government to retake control over its borders. We are assisting the Government to reestablish a customs and immigration system. Customs collection is a significant source of income to enable the Haitian state to provide vital services to its citizens.
Q : On the personal level how is life like in Haiti ?
Life is challenging in the sense that you have to work long hours. You definitely spend more than 8 hours a day in the office 7 days a week. You do not have all that much time for yourself. Being a peacekeeper on a tropical island does not mean that life is a beach.