PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haitian police firing tear gas clashed on yesterday with demonstrators who demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers in a protest against the alleged rape of a man by a group of Uruguayan marines.
Police in the capital Port-au-Prince used the gas to stop about 300 protesters from entering a square in front of the damaged presidential palace where survivors of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake are still sheltering in a tent and tarpaulin camp.
Traffic was disrupted as pedestrians and camp dwellers, many clutching small children, fled the swirling tear gas. Some demonstrators hurled stones at police officers.
The UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has faced a public outcry since the emergence earlier this month of a video shot by a cell phone camera that shows laughing Uruguayan marines pinning a young Haitian man face down on a mattress and apparently assaulting him sexually.
In the latest incident to besmirch the reputation of the more than 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the poor Caribbean state, four Uruguayan troops suspected of being involved in the July 28 assault have been detained and are facing court-martial. The alleged victim, Johnny Jean, has testified to a Haitian judge that he was raped.
Yelling “MINUSTAH has to go” and “rapists,” the demonstrators marched through streets of the earthquake-scarred capital. Some carried anti-UN banners, one of which called the UN peacekeepers in Haiti an occupation force.
“Justice for Johnny, justice for all the victims of rape by MINUSTAH, justice and reparation for all the Haitian people who are victims of the cholera epidemic brought by MINUSTAH,” one of the protesters, 30-year-old Simon Mourin, told Reuters.
“They have to leave or we will be at war with them.”
The police moved to stop the protesters from entering the Champs de Mars square in front of the palace as the government has prohibited public demonstrations from being held there.
MINUSTAH has launched an inquiry into the July incident. Uruguay has formally apologized to Haiti and condemned the actions of the accused soldiers as aberrations.
UN peacekeepers in Haiti have faced public anger before, notably over allegations that Nepalese UN troops brought a deadly cholera epidemic to the country after their camp latrines contaminated a river. This sparked riots last year against the UN peacekeeping contingent.
The United Nations said yesterday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had sent a senior team to Haiti to tell the government “how seriously the United Nations and the secretary-general himself take the allegations of misconduct and sexual abuse.”
The team, led by top peacekeeping official Anthony Banbury, military adviser General Babacar Gaye, would meet MINUSTAH “to support all necessary measures … to enforce the UN’s zero-tolerance policy on misconduct by its personnel,” spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Nesirky also said the world body appreciated the swift response by Uruguay, which contributes troops to the UN peacekeeping contingent in the Caribbean nation along with Brazil, Chile, Nepal and several other nations.
The Chilean head of MINUSTAH has said he will ask the UN Security Council to allow a gradual reduction of peacekeeping forces in Haiti.
Some critics condemn the UN mission as an occupying foreign military force in Haiti, but many credit the peacekeepers with helping to reduce crime and violence.
MINUSTAH was established by the Security Council in 2004 and has been helping Haiti’s short-staffed and ill-equipped police maintain security, especially during elections plagued by fraud and unrest.
Haitian President Michel Martelly, who won an election in March, says Haiti still needs the peacekeepers but has called for a redefinition of their future role and for the creation of a Haitian security force to eventually replace them.