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Jan. 14 2010 - 7:54 am | 338 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Haiti Will Need Some Political Finesse

As widely reported, Haitian President Rene Preval has estimated that there may be “hundreds of thousands” killed by the earthquake – an extraordinary sum. By comparison:

  • An estimated 30 thousand were killed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka – almost half of the 70 thousand killed in Sri Lanka’s 25 year civil war.

Clearly, the impact of the earthquake on Haiti is massive – and the aid effort to rebuild the woe-beset nation, also wracked by a series of hurricanes, will be massive as well.

Former President Bill Clinton has weighed in the Haiti crisis, with an appeals for assistance and coordination.

And he’s one to watch in the coming weeks – not as much for disaster relief, but political finesse.

President Clinton is the UN Special Envoy to Haiti – a post he assumed in 2009, to help the UN and Haitian leaders cement a fragile peace since the last outbreak of fighting and a military coup took place in 2004 (not to be confused with the coup in 1994, in response to which President Clinton sent US troops.)

The UN peacekeepers are  – or sadly, had been – working to promote peaceful political processes, and to strengthen the rule of law across Haiti.

The focus in Haiti now, of course, is on saving lives and alleviating the humanitarian crisis.

But sitting in offices in the State Department and the United Nations, I’ll wager, are the policy-wonks whose job it will be to ensure that the humanitarian disaster will have no negative impact on the peace processes.

But it goes beyond that. The wonks will look for ways the earthquake can be used for good -  that perhaps Bill Clinton will spearhead.

There are two recent precedents to look at:

First, there’s Aceh, Indonesia.  Aceh was home to a very tired, low-intensity 25 year-old insurgency between the “Free Aceh Movement” and the Indonesian government.  It was a resource conflict, essentially – Aceh is rich in timber and oil.  From the perspective of the independence movement, far too much of the profit from Aceh’s natural wealth ended up in the pockets of politicians in Indonesia’s faraway capital.

Peace efforts came and peace efforts went in Aceh (some of which I covered.) But it was the sheer enormity of the tsunami that forced both sides to sit down, throw in some international mediation, and seriously hammer out a peace agreement.

Then there’s Sri Lanka.

The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had been fighting a 25 year war -  the rebels believing that ethnic Tamils were consistently shortchanged by the predominantly ethnic-Sinhalese government. So they wanted independence.

Like in Aceh, the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers,  the aid-community, the press, the policy-wonks  – everyone was positively aflutter with the notion that the overwhelming tragedy of the tsunami might finally unite the long-divided country, ending the years of bitter hostility.  Give peace a chance.

Two billion dollars of aid was pledged to Sri Lanka following the tsunami.

And it made things worse.

Sri Lanka’s domestic politics, international donor politics, and the very logistics of delivering aid conspired — and that aid, in the end, was distributed in an extremely uneven manner.  The Sinhalese in the south received far more assistance than the Tamils in the north.

(This is an extremely complicated subject, which I may weigh in on in the coming days and weeks.  One dimension however, was that the US put the Tamil Tigers on the State Department’s controversial official terror list. That means the US – and organizations that rely on the US for funding – could only legally give money to the Sri Lankan government to distribute. The Sri Lankan government simply did not exist in Tamil Tiger controlled areas. Therefore, no one – not even civilians — in those areas received any benefit of US funding. US funds went to exactly one side in the civil war, which arguably only exacerbated tensions.)

Long story short, Sri Lanka fell apart again.   (The Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 – amid reports of horrendous human rights abuses by government forces.)

Of course, Haiti hasn’t got a separatist insurgency.

But  consider this: UN peacekeepers have been in Haiti, in various missions, since 1993.  Sixteen years (!) of peacekeeping suggest that whatever peace the UN had achieved remains fragile.  And we don’t know yet if the key Haitian leaders involved in forging that peace have survived the earthquake.

So you take poor country, with simmering political tensions, a horrific tragedy that may create a political vacuum — and throw in millions and millions of dollars - $100 million from the US alone?  Whoa.

Will it be Aceh, or will it be Sri Lanka?

That’s situation that the Haitian government, the policy-wonks, the donors, the UN and the Bill Clinton’s of this world are going to have to finesse.


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  1. collapse expand

    Just as at the earthquake was hitting I was listening to a PBS Newshour story from the night before about economic progress and hope in Haiti. It said good things about this pres and I’m hoping he can also perform in this new tragedy. Go Aceh! Boo Sri Lanka!

  2. collapse expand

    RE:Haiti Will Need Some Political Finesse

    Yep, the time is ripe for Haiti’s own Hope and change clown to take charge…

    Remember all political leaders are liars….and let’s not wish another one on haiti

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    I'm a freelance journalist and writer who has recently returned to the US after 17 years living overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia.

    In 1992, I went to Cambodia – then at the height of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission - to cut my teeth on journalism.

    ….I was in Hong Kong, for the 1997 Handover to Chinese rule; and then it was off to

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