Esther Brito Ruiz

Researcher in the Defence and International Security Department

The constraints of future peacekeeping missions in Haiti: understanding the legacy of sexual abuse and unaccountability 

On July 7th 2021, the world watched as news of a group of armed men storming the quarters of the Haitian president ended in the assassination of the head of state. The assassination of Jovenel Moïse has caused a political stir in the country and will lead to a new round of elections. In the meantime, Haiti’s interim government has made a controversial call for the United Nations and the United States to send armed military to secure key infrastructure points and ensure safe elections.

This request calls back to a turbulent history of foreign intervention in the country and has increased public distrust in the interim government. However, there is very well a possibility that negative developments regarding the security of the Haitian state will read the United Nations to deploy a mission in support at the transition process, as was done in the past. This is especially probable in the face of the United States declaration that it has no prospect of sending military. This potential deployment raises severe concerns on the future of Haiti and its developing security situation. Were this to be the case, it will be necessary for the UN to address the shortcomings of their previous engagements in the state, and ensure operational measures are taken to differentiate this potential new military deployment. Within this narrative, we must never forego the notion that it is the Haitian people that must be the agents determine the future of their country, and UN forces must solely – if deployed – serve to help support and secure those popular demands, without incurring in the harm these missions have historically caused to the community. With this aim, its necessary to understand the history of the United Nations mission in Haiti as a precondition for building a more responsive, accountable, and effective operation.

The UN Mission in Haiti: the legacy of sexual abuse and cholera

Throughout the last two decades, Haiti has experienced a variety of trying situations – ranging from civil and political unrest, coups, the assassination of political leaders, the proliferation of organized-crime, and severe natural disasters.  Some of these circumstances were what prompted UN Resolution 1542, through which the United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The Peacekeeping Operation (PKO) took place from 2004 to 2017 and had its fair share of both successes and failures. Having mobilized almost 8500 military and police personnel, as well as over 1500 civilian staff, the mission represented the largest UN engagement in the country’s history (Kolbe, 2020). The mission’s original mandate was to protect civilians against organized crime and cycles of violence (Lemay-Hébert, 2015), but was expanded in 2010, after the earthquake worsened the condition of existing governance structures. As a result, the mission was tasked with providing humanitarian support, helping manage elections, and ensuring the protection of human rights. However, its presence became  despised by the local population – with peacekeepers holding as little legitimacy with local populations as local institutions (Mary Fran & Roslyn, 2013).  This perception was due to both the critical negligence of the PKO that caused a cholera epidemic, which killed thousands of Haitians, and the horrific instances of sexual assault by peacekeepers.

The MINUSTAH mission is known for their precipitation of a deadly cholera outbreak in 2010. After the devastating earthquake Haiti suffered, negligent sanitation practices within a UN peacekeeping base brought forth one of the most severe cholera epidemics in the state’s recent history. Over 800.000 Haitians needed medical attention, and almost 10,000 lost their lives (Ivers & Guillaume, 2017). This paradoxical failure called into question the peacekeeping mission’s presence in Haiti and whether they were fulfilling their mandate or worsening the situation further (Agbedahin, 2019). 

Adding to his is the mission’s troubling legacy of unaccountability in regards to sexual abuse. While this was not the only UN operation in which accusations of severe sexual violence against members of local communities occurred (Lee & Bartels, 2020) – allegations have been registered across missions in Haiti, CAR, Libera, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the rape of civilians by UN peacekeeping forces in Haiti became a notorious feature of the mission. A long line of feminist scholarship has explored the gendered dynamics of sexual violence in PKOs – noting that adverse local socio-economic conditions facilitate the coercive scenarios in which sexual abuse in PKOs occurs (Vahedi, Bartels, & Lee, 2021; Vahedi, et al. 2021). While the UN has instituted a Zero Tolerance Policy, the MINUSTAH mission saw 119 registered allegations of sexual abuse from 2007 to March of 2021 – with the real number is estimated to be much higher (Kolbe, 2020). Additionally, beyond the direct cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers, it is considered that MINUSTAH created what is called a “Peacekeeping Economy” in Haiti –economic activity derived directly from the presence of peacekeepers and international aid workers – which led to an expansion of the local sex industry and an increase in human trafficking (Toledo & Braga, 2020).   

Allegations of sexual abuse have often been denied investigation, even when extensive evidence has been provided, proving them true (Ivers & Guillaume, 2017).  This denies justice for victims and naturally worsens – if not nullifies – the role of PKOs as protectors. There is little recourse for victims due to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which decreets that troop-contributing countries maintain legal jurisdiction over the troops sent to PKOs (Reiz & O’Lear, 2016). This creates legal lagoons where victims in states harboring PKOs are unable to seek redress. While there is a base for this arrangement with regards to international security – fewer countries would be as willing to engage in missions if they were required to renounce legal control over their troops – this has severe human rights implications. One example of this is the conditions suffered by children fathered by MINUSTAH peacekeepers – which studies have shown experience high levels of economic deprivation and have been denied access to basic services and education (Lee & Bartels, 2020).  Overall, there has been no accountability for perpetrators or compensation for victims – painting the mission as almost an occupying force, rather than a provider of aid and security.

Policy changes needed for any future United Nations Missions in Haiti

The following measures would serve as a starting point to restructure future UN operations in Haiti: 

Firstly, the legal framework established by the UN SOFA needs to be reconsidered in this case so as to increase the accountability of sexual violence by peacekeepers – weather by structural amendments to UN procedures or by agreements with troop contributing countries. This is a precondition for any realistic re-entry of UN troops into the state, and would help promote public trust. In addition, compensation funds or other redress measures would need to be facilitated to victims – both with regards to sexual abuse claims and the cholera epidemic. While a compensatory fund was established for the later, financing has been scarce and the recognition of responsibility by UN officials has been lacking. 

Secondly, the inclusion of binding international human rights law principles in the deployed mission can also help both enhance operational effectiveness and promote greater accountability (Howland, 2006). This can be argued of legal precedence due to the binding commitments of both the UN and the troop contributing states based on treaty commitments. As such, any approved and funded UN operations would be subject to these incurred obligations. While there is increased consensus on this matter, there is no practical operationalization of these obligations on the ground. A prospective mission into Haiti could serve as a testing ground for these new obligations, which would not only serve to enhance transparency and accountability, but also increase local reporting of abuses. Of course, this will be dependent on a strong and consistent enforcement mechanism. 

Thirdly, some UN missions and policymakers have suggested that more gendered balanced missions – with a higher presence of female peacekeepers – might serve to reduce instances of sexual violence or increase reporting by victims (Karim and Beardsley, 2016). This view can be problematic insofar it may be based on the belief that increasing the number of women in PKOs will serve to automatically reduce sexual violence (Simić, 2010). This of course, not in any way the case (Mazurana, et al., 2002). There have been studies have implied that – only if and when adequately trained, engaged, and visible – women peacekeepers can contribute to operational success by aiding in more gender-aware policies and contributing to changes in mission’s behavior (Karim & Beardsley, 2016). However, the impact of gender-mixed units in peacekeeping are not generalizable and remain context specific, contingent upon certain commonalities in identity – be they linguistic, cultural, ethnic or other – between the host community and the peacekeepers (Heinecken, 2015). In this same line, this impact depends on interaction with local communities– if this engagement is to make local women and girls to be more inclined to report abuses to female peacekeepers (Valenius, 2007). However, long term reductions will have to address the root causes of sexual misconduct and necessitate severe and consistent punishment for perpetrators (Simić, 2010). A future UN mission in Haiti would benefit from PKO’s troops that speak a common language with the local population or share other identity features that can help them better interact and promote trust with local communities. 

Ultimately, these policies can serve as a starting point from which a potential UN deployed mission can start to build back trust in Haiti, after their lackluster heritage. If the security situation in Haiti were to worsen, and UN engagement became a reality, future missions must be ready to adhere to these and added policies so as to fulfill their fundamental obligations: those of their mandate and those of the founding principles of the UN.

Agbedahin, K. (2019). The haiti cholera outbreak and peacekeeping paradoxes. Peace Review31(2), 190-198.

During the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), reports of sexual abuse and exploitation and children fathered by peacekeepers were brought forward to the UN

Heinecken, L. (2015). Are Women ‘Really’Making a Unique Contribution to Peacekeeping?: The Rhetoric and the Reality. Journal of International Peacekeeping, 19(3-4), 227-248.

Howland, T. (2006). Peacekeeping and conformity with human rights law: how MINUSTAH falls short in Haiti. International Peacekeeping13(4), 462-476.

Ivers, L. C., & Guillaume, Y. (2017). The Price of Peace? Peacekeeping with Impunity Harms Public Health in Haiti. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene97(3), 639.

Karim, S., & Beardsley, K. (2016). Explaining sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions: The role of female peacekeepers and gender equality in contributing countries. Journal of Peace Research, 53(1), 100-115.

Kolbe, A. R. (2020). Prospects for Post-Minustah Security in Haiti. International Peacekeeping27(1), 44-57.

Lee, S., & Bartels, S. (2020). ‘They put a few coins in your hand to drop a baby in you’: a study of peacekeeper-fathered children in Haiti. International Peacekeeping27(2), 177-209.

Lemay-Hébert, N. (2015). United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). In The Oxford handbook of United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Mary Fran T, M., & Roslyn K, C. (2013). Peacekeepers and the people: Domestic evaluations of peacekeeping operations in Haiti. Journal of International Peacekeeping17(3-4), 385-413.

Mazurana, D., Lopez, E. P., Johnston, N., & Cobley, B. (2002). Gender mainstreaming in peace support operations: Moving beyond rhetoric to practice. International Alert. 

Reiz, N., & O’Lear, S. (2016). Spaces of violence and (in) justice in Haiti: a critical legal geography perspective on rape, UN peacekeeping, and the United Nations status of forces agreement. Territory, Politics, Governance4(4), 453-471.

Simić, O. (2010). Does the presence of women really matter? Towards combating male sexual violence in peacekeeping operations. International Peacekeeping, 17(2), 188-199.

Toledo, A., & Braga, L. M. (2020). Abuse and Sexual Exploitation in Peace Operations: The Case of MINUSTAH. Revista Estudos Feministas28.

Vahedi, L., Bartels, S. A., & Lee, S. (2021). ‘Even peacekeepers expect something in return’: A qualitative analysis of sexual interactions between UN peacekeepers and female Haitians. Global public health16(5), 692-705.

Vahedi, L., Stuart, H., Etienne, S., Lee, S., & Bartels, S. A. (2021). Gender-Stratified Analysis of Haitian Perceptions Related to Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Perpetrated by UN Peacekeepers during MINUSTAH. Sexes2(2), 216-243.

Valenius, J. (2007). A few kind women: Gender essentialism and Nordic peacekeeping operations. International Peacekeeping, 14(4), 510-523.

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