A UN-backed anti-gang operation in the Grand Ravine area of Port-au-Prince ended in the summary execution of civilians on a school campus — but the killings have been largely ignored. We speak to Jake Johnston, who reported on the incident for the Intercept
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. According to a recently published report in the Intercept, the United Nations mission in Haiti appears to bear some responsibility for a police massacre of Haitians that took place last November. The report details how Haitian police forces raided the Grand Ravine area of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, along with the support of a contingent of UN soldiers based in Haiti.
During the raid, anywhere between eight and twelve apparently unarmed residents were executed. Joining me to talk about what happened and the UN’s responsibility in this is the report’s author, Jake Johnston. Jake is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and joins me from Washington DC. Thanks for being here today, Jake.
JAKE JOHNSTON: Thanks for having me.
GREG WILPERT: So you arrived in November on the scene in Grand Ravine, Haiti, just a few days after this massacre took place. Tell us a little bit about what happened, what you saw, and according to the witnesses what happened there.
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yeah, exactly. I arrived with a broadcast team from Al Jazeera that I was traveling with. It was about four days after the massacre had taken place. What was most shocking to us was just how fresh it all seemed. Again, the courtyard and the surrounding area, littered with bullets, tear gas canisters. The blood stains were still there and hadn’t been cleaned up. It was just something that seemed like it had happened just hours or like a day before and not four or five days.
Again, there was a tremendous amount of victims and family members still on the campus grieving, trying to make sense of what had happened and really just trying to put this story together. So what we’ve been able to do both with the witness testimonies from that day and also with the great work of some local human rights organizations that have done investigations is try and sort of piece together what actually happened on November 13th.
GREG WILPERT: So, give us a brief rundown according to what the witnesses told you. What is it that happened?
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yeah. So this was an anti-gang operation planned in conjunction with the local police force responsible for the capital, as well as the UN mission, MINUJUSTH, which took place in November. So it started in the surrounding neighborhood of Grand Ravine, which has been an area with intense gang battles and violence over the previous year. Now, at some point during this raid, Haitian police officers ended up sort of getting onto this campus, this school campus, which is located in the middle of the neighborhood. Ostensibly, officially looking for Haitian gang members.
Now, they didn’t find any immediately. There was a scuffle at the campus. There was tear gas fired. The director of the school, who’s been leading it for around 30 years, arrived on campus and tried to calm things down. What happened is, some time after that there was … It was discovered that a certain amount of gang members, maybe 10 or so, were actually hiding in a room on campus, and when the Haitian police went to open that room, they were met with gun fire and two Haitian police officers were slain.
It seems like after that, according to the witness testimony and according to the local human rights organizations, is that the Haitian police seemingly enacted revenge on these innocent bystanders at the school. That started with the guard of the school who was shot and killed, and then Louis Armand, the director of the school, was actually publicly beaten in the middle of the courtyard by Haitian police officers. When other faculty tried to intervene, they were actually killed.
David-Jean Baptiste was a professor, and he was shot five times including once in the head. Again, just a sort of chaotic situation, which resulted in at least nine civilians dead. Now, what happened right after that was the police deflected anything, denied that anything, any civilians had been killed. Days later they admitted six civilians killed, but it was clear from the moment we got there and from talking to witnesses that that number was an understatement of what actually took place.
GREG WILPERT: So, as far as you can tell, what was the role of the UN troops in this particular incident?
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yes. That’s an excellent question. The UN was planning a support role in helping plan and provide perimeter support to the operation. That much is their official role. Now, what the UN told me, and again, this was months after the fact, or almost two months after the fact, was that they responded to these reports of shots fired when the Haitian police officers were killed, and that two units of UN police officers showed up to the campus, administered first aid and secured the perimeter, but never actually went to the location, to the courtyard, the main courtyard of the school where this massacre actually took place.
I think that raises a number of questions. One is, if the UN was there and providing perimeter support, securing this campus, how could such a massacre and how could such a terrible thing take place just a few hundred yards from them on the school’s campus? The other thing is really sort of … It makes one wonder in terms of after the fact now, when there are so many questions surrounding what actually happened, what role can the UN play in shining light on what happened and holding those who are responsible accountable?
GREG WILPERT: Actually, that’s something I wanted to go into in terms of what is the UN actually doing in Haiti right now, and where are these troops from, and specifically what is their mission at the moment?
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yeah. That’s the question. Really, you have to go back a number of years from when this UN mission started, which took place in 2004 following a coup d’etat. Thousands of UN troops were sent to Haiti ostensibly to provide stability and increase capacities for the Haitian police. Now, I think now, sort of looking back, the most obvious question is: stability for whom? Was it for the residents of these poor neighborhoods or for transnational capital and for the elite of Haiti?
What we have seen from Wikileaks cables is that the U.S. viewed this mission, this UN mission, as sort of a means to help manage Haiti, and a way to push back on these populous forces that had been empowered in Haiti and were overthrown in the 2004 coup. So after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, there had been a string of left leaders that had been elected in every election. Now, since MINUSTAH has come across, we’ve seen a drastic change in the democracy in Haiti, once in which participation of Haitians has actually declined in each election and sort of begging the question here of, again, who has benefited from the billions of dollars, really, that have been spent ostensibly on security and stability?
Now, that mission after the election last year in 2016, the international community determined that Haiti had achieved this stability with that election and decided to withdraw the thousands of troops that had been stationed in Haiti. They were replaced by about 1600 police officers and a new mission took place called MINUJUSTH, which was focused ostensibly on justice while still providing that support to the police. So you have troops currently, or police officers, from a number of countries across the world, and again this is ostensibly a mission now focused on justice, on holding these actors accountable and getting to some of these root causes of impunity and a lack of accountability that has allowed these sorts of events to take place in the past.
GREG WILPERT: Speaking of impunity, there has been an issue, as you mentioned, for the Haitian police for a long time. Has anything been done recently other than stationing the UN troops there, and has anything been done to hold the police accountable in this particular case in the massacre in Grand Ravine?
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yeah. Certainly, there has been significant support to bolster the police inspector general and to increase the capacity in order to provide the oversight and investigation necessary to hold these actors accountable, both in this and other instances. I think what we’ve seen is that very little of this effort transpires in public to the extent that there is any accountability at all. I think that’s what’s really most concerning in this case. There was an investigation that’s been launched.
The inspector general has transmitted a report to an investigating judge. It’s unclear what might come out of that. It’s possible that police officers involved could be arrested, but again, this is happening very much behind closed doors. I think one thing that was very clear in speaking with witnesses is that if they’re not going to see what’s happening, if they’re not going to be able to sense this justice or see this justice and accountability, what impact does that really have?
I think the broader question is, well, what role the UN can play in promoting justice in Haiti really has to start with an internal look at their own role in Haiti for the last 13, 14 years. UN troops had been involved in deadly raids in the past without accepting responsibility or accountability for those actions. Of course, in 2011, it was UN troops that introduced cholera to Haiti, an epidemic that’s killed over 10,000. It took years for the UN to even acknowledge their own role, and we’ve yet to see them really truly step up and take responsibility for those actions.
Of course, on top of that, there’s been hundreds, if not thousands of cases, of sexual exploitation and abuse of Haitians at the hands of UN troops, again with this lack of accountability. So for the UN to transition into this role of promoting justice, I think that’s why this case is so important. It’s really an opportunity for the UN to prove that they are able to have some positive impact in the realm of justice in Haiti.
GREG WILPERT: In addition to the very big issue, really, of accountability, what else do you think needs to happen with regard to the role of the UN forces so that they can play a more constructive role? What should they be doing there at the moment?
JAKE JOHNSTON: Yeah. Again, I think one really interesting aspect that came out of this investigation on what took place in the Grand Ravine and what’s happened since is a role of authorities themselves, politicians in Haiti who have their own responsibility for this gang activity. One thing that human rights investigators have pointed out is that many of the armed groups in neighborhoods such as Grand Ravine have been provided weapons from authorities, so it’s really sort of attacking these networks of corruption and these networks of impunity that allow this violence to thrive, that really is going to go towards getting to the root cause of some of this violence.
At the same token, so many billions of dollars have been invested in this concept of security and stability in Haiti over the decades, and yet very little has been done to address the root socioeconomic causes that really allow this violence to thrive as well. So for instance, neighborhoods such as Grand Ravine, they lack almost any government services. There’s very little educational opportunities, job opportunities, housing, etc. So without investing that same amount of money in those issues, these further raids and further efforts to increase the security and stability are bound to continue down the same path.
GREG WILPERT: Well, we’ll continue to follow what’s happening in Haiti. I’m speaking to Jake Johnston, research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Thanks again, Jake, for having joined us today.
JAKE JOHNSTON: Thanks so much for having me.
GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.