Sunday, September 4, 2011

On Responding

This week it seems that more than the usual number of incidents have taken place in Haiti about which I wish I had the time, skill and understanding to write in a balanced, nuanced way.

Perhaps the most significant has been the circulation of a fuzzy cell phone video of Uruguayan peacekeepers perpetrating an alleged sexual assault in Port Salut. The boy's and his family's claims that he was assaulted have been corroborated by a medical examination, revealing a nauseating and evil abuse of power in which armed soldiers violated of the body, dignity and future of an 18-year old boy. It is further infuriating that per a UN agreement with the Haitian government (called a Status of Forces Agreement), the perpetrators cannot be legally tried or prosecuted in Haiti. 

Disappointingly, though, I find that much of the dialogue surrounding this incident has itself been vitriolic and hate-mongering -- similar, in fact, to much of that which has been written concerning the UN's refusal to take responsibility for the introduction of cholera [yet another conclusive study here], other incidences of physical or sexual abuse carried out by soldiers, and indeed of the Peacekeepers' presence here in general.

I often ask myself where this kind of journalism and/or activism will get us? Who (other than the people who already agree that MINUSTAH should have withdrawn yesterday) will read some of these pieces - which often carelessly throw around the "-isms" that we on the left (myself included) so love to use - neoliberalism, imperialism, neocolonialism, class-ism, elitism  - and be convinced that perhaps the "occupation" is unjustified, oppressive and a gross misuse of resources? How many of the diplomats and policymakers who have the power to make decisions regarding MINUSTAH's future in Haiti will get beyond the first paragraph of a letter that decries them as imperialistic, exploitative technocrats in order to learn more about the real issues at stake?

And, indeed, are these responses - when the line between journalism and activism gets blurred and journalists are inciting protests or shaping people's responses to fit within the dictates of their own social and political views - not imperialistic in and of themselves? As an advocate/activist married to a journalist, I am especially sensitive to (and ofttimes culpable of) this. How often do I pressure Ben to go take pictures of some protest or event because I want coverage of it to seep into the mainstream media (especially that one picture that sort of makes it look like there might have been more people there than there really were). Only a slight manipulation or exaggeration, but for a good cause, right? You should all be thankful that Ben is too thoughtful and careful to fall for my cunning.

This morning I listened to Krista Tippet interview Richard Mouw on the APM radio show On Being.
A fierce proponent of what he calls "restoring political civility," Mouw said a number of things that struck me in the context of Haiti activism - especially a comment regarding the temptation to distort the truth about those we see as enemies. Although he spoke specifically of the need to bridge theological and religious divides with "gentleness and reverence," I believe that social activism that has any hope of changing what is most broken in our societies must be carried out in the same way. I do not believe that violence can effectively be countered with violence (even if that only takes the form of violent language). And, of course, the same goes for manipulating the truth in any way whatsoever.

Mouw says, "Every human being is a work of art... Even in expressing our disagreements (and this can be a very complicated thing), we're dealing with people who are precious works of divine art." And yes, that even extends to the soldiers that make up the Peacekeeping Mission.

Let's do just be clear, though. Rape, attempted rape and even simulated rape are NEVER, ever okay, nor is it okay that this Chapter VII Peacekeeping Mission (which authorizes the use of force) exists in violation of Haiti's constitution and operates in legal disregard of the nation's justice system. [Perhaps it should also be noted here that several weeks ago a community association in Port Salut wrote a press release charging that Uruguayan soldiers were exchanging food for sex with underage girls].

I guess what I am trying to say in such a long, roundabout way is that the way we respond to these incidents matters. The way we respond to the people we disagree with matters. And unless we're careful, those responses (a) are not likely to help us achieve the end goal that we seek (in this case, MINUSTAH's withdrawal) and (b) may not be so far removed from the systemic abuses of power that we are fighting against. 

Tomorrow morning there is supposed to be a protest in Port Salut, in which the residents of that community will ostensibly demonstrate against the presence of soldiers who are violating [instead of protecting] their children and will demand legal restitution from the UN. My hope is that the protest will be an example of how collective action can shed positive light on abuse (and I hope to be there myself).

[Note: As I was about to publish this post, I learned that the Uruguayan naval chief was fired and 5 soldiers have been detained. Score for the good guys! *wink, wink*]


Pooja Bhatia said...

Thanks for this post, Alexis. I love reading you, girl!

I haven't seen or heard most of the Haiti coverage/letters about the Port Salut "incident," but in the past have shared your frustration the so-called left adopting its standard, accusatory, "-ism" filled approach, while omitting any texture or acknowledgment that, mostly, it's the structures or institutions that suck. I agree that it's easy to dismiss a story that calls you a monster as coming from yet another wacko.

On the other hand-- I feel like those in power have no incentive to read or listen anyway! If the system is working for you-- you have the guns and impunity, or money and no accountability-- there's not much incentive to change it. I go back and forth over this, but mostly I doubt that change will come from those in power.

For the rest of the world, structures and institutions rarely make for compelling storytelling or soundbites. We have a deep psychological craving for heroes and villains, good and evil and, further, the triumph of the former over the latter. For me (and it sounds like, for you) the issue is a Status of Forces agreement that effectively shields Minustah from accountability, both for assaults and for simple negligence (as in cholera). Try explaining this to an American publisher! Vitriol gets more hits.

I sometimes wonder whether the best thing to do is to leverage that vitriol-- entice the audience with a good-and-evil story-- and then use it to explain the root causes. And hope that the reader doesn't disappear while you get there! Or take another tack: get inside the heads of those who perpetuated the harm. Now that would be an interesting story.

Sam and Anna Danforth said...

Thank you for writing this, Patz.


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