The United Nations Mission in Haiti: A Study in Preserving Democracy

By Sarah Turkaly Post date: Feb 03, 2016


The United Nations Mission in Haiti (UNMIH) was established in 1993 as a reaction to the overthrow of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The mission entered Haiti in 1995 and lasted for one year. Another United Nations sponsored mission replaced UNMIH immediately after the end of its mandate.
UNMIH’s mission was considered a success, however not all of its goals were satisfied. Its accomplishments included sustaining the secure and stable environment established during the multinational phase, protecting international personnel and key installations, creating a separate police force, and assisting the legitimate constitutional authorities of Haiti in establishing an environment conducive to the organization of free and fair legislative elections to be called by those authorities.
However, it did not achieve the goal of modernizing Haiti’s armed forces as President Aristide disbanded the Haitian military after his reinstatement, and they were never reestablished due to deep-seated mistrust by the majority of Haitians.
Lessons Learned:
  • Active conversation and participation by President Aristide and Lieutenant-General Cédras (who orchestrated the coup) was crucial in paving the way for a successful and clear UN mission.
  • Use of Military Information Support Teams for “psychological operations” allowed the UN to directly focus on its security and development efforts while staying away from more direct democracy and rights based conversation. In this way the UN was allowed to stay more neutral in the situation.
  • Citizens expected much faster economic improvement than was realistic. As a result, the UN had to add development efforts to its mission in order to ensure stability and improved way of life for the population of Haiti. Better educational efforts by the UN could have resulted in less disappointment and unrest amongst the Haitian people


The government of Haiti has experienced many tumultuous transitions since its establishment as an independent country in 1804. The story of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide certainly follows this trend. In 1990, Aristide became the nation’s first freely and democratically elected President
following decades of brutal dictatorships. As a champion for the poor, and educated on liberation theology, Aristide made sweeping reforms that angered Haiti’s elite. Aristide was overthrown in a military coup lead by Lieutenant-General Cédras in the fall of 1991, and went into exile as a result1.
The response from the international community was immediate, particularly from the United States. The OAS cut off aid except for that covering humanitarian purposes, and the United Nations Security Council condemned the coup in its illegality and its threat to the constitutionally elected government. Embargoes were put into place by multilateral organizations, and various temporary heads of state rotated through Haiti’s government. In 1993, an agreement paved the way for a UN mission, but the situation was not deemed secure enough for UN entrance at that point2.
In 1994 the United States enacted Operation Uphold Democracy where peacekeeping forces occupied the country with the goals of reinstating the democratically elected government and creating a secure environment for Haiti’s citizens. Operation Uphold Democracy was a result of an agreement between President Aristide and Lieutenant-General Cédras, known as the Governor’s Island Agreement, facilitating forward movement for the country’s government. The U.S. mission succeeded in its goal of restoring President Aristide to power, and arranging for new elections3. The situation was then deemed stable enough for the UN to enter. At this point, the mission transferred to the United Nations in the spring of 1995 under the name of United Nations Mission in Haiti, or UNMIH. It was up to the United Nations mission to ensure stability for democratically elected government in Haiti into the future4. Since democracy had been in place but had been disrupted, the mission was more focused on democracy- preservation than pure democratization.

Context & problem

The United Nations Mission in Haiti was a direct outcome of the Governor’s Island Agreement.
Its mission was defined as follows5:
  • Sustain the secure and stable environment established during the multinational phase
  • Protect international personnel and key installations
  • Modernize the Haitian armed forces
  • Create a separate police force
  • Assist the legitimate constitutional authorities of Haiti in establishing an environment conducive to the organization of free and fair legislative elections to be called by those authorities
The mission was complicated by lack of basic services and infrastructure within the country, and a military that did not want to give up its power. It was aided by the cooperation of then- President Aristide and the international community. The original mandate allowed for five months, but after a few months of successful efforts, the UN Security Council extended the mandate for an additional seven months. UNMIH was active on the ground in Haiti from March 1995 through June 1996.


There were a variety of actors involved in UNMIH from both Haiti itself and the greater international community. The following actors were the most impactful to the mandate of the UN’s mission.
Haitian Actors:
  • President Aristide – First democratically elected President, but was overthrown in a military coup. Part of the original agreement (the Governor’s Island Agreement) that enabled the mission to exist. Supported the mission throughout and was returned safely to Haiti as a result.
  • Lieutenant-General Cédras – Also part of the Governor’s Island Agreement. Originally overthrew Aristide, but after conversation with Aristide and others accepted an international mission and future dialogue. Took an early retirement as part of the agreement.
Multilateral Organization Actors:
  • Special Envoy of the Secretary-General, Dante Caputo – Affiliated with OAS and the UN. Originally from Argentina, Caputo worked with the Governor’s Island Agreement and coordinated various missions. Resigned in 1994 after a peaceful situation had been established in Haiti.
  • Special Representatives of the Secretary-General and Chiefs of Mission
  • Dante Caputo – See above.
  • Lakhdar Brahimi – Took over after Caputo’s resignation. Relinquished his post in 1996 when UNMIH ended.
  • Enrique ter Horst – Succeeded Brahimi, originally from Venezuela.
  • Force Commanders
  • Major-General Joseph Kinzer – Commander of the military component of UNMIH. From the United States.
  • Brigadier-General J.R.P. Daigle – Succeeded Kinzer as the Commander of the mission of Kinzer’s tour of duty ended. From Canada.
  • World Food Programme (WFP)
  • United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
  • Pan American/World Health Organizations (PANO and WHO)
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
The above eight agencies supported humanitarian efforts in Haiti throughout the various occupations of the 90’s. They largely worked under the United Nations/Organization of American States umbrella. Funding was difficult to secure, so the organizations reached into their own reserves to fund humanitarian aid for the most part.
Contributors of Military and Police Personnel:
Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Canada, Djibouti, France, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Jordan, Mali, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Suriname, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and United States

Goals & outcomes

The following are the mission’s objectives and an outline of the extent to which they were satisfied7:
  1. Sustain the secure and stable environment established during the multinational phase During the UN’s Mission in Haiti, the environment established previously was maintained. The mission continued the environment established to promote free and fair elections, and provided support to Haitian actors concerned with arranging primaries and elections.
  2. Protect international personnel and key installations UNMIH provided security to humanitarian convoys, airports, seaports, storage locations, and conducted patrols across the country to promote increased safety and security. Additionally, the mission participated in many working groups in partnership with citizens of Haiti and other countries to address government handling of disarmament, human rights, prison, and urban disorder.
  3. Modernize the Haitian armed forces After his reinstatement, President Aristide dismissed the Haitian Army. As a result, there was no force to be modernized and the UN mission focused largely on creating and guiding a new Haitian police force to maintain justice and security.
  4. Create a separate police force The mission assisted in the creation and implementation of the Haitian National Police. They trained and monitored thousands of new police members who were deployed around the country.
  5. Assist the legitimate constitutional authorities of Haiti in establishing an environment conducive to the organization of free and fair legislative elections to be called by those authorities
In addition to their help in organizing and monitoring elections, UNMIH participated in many capacity building projects to aid the nation’s stability in general. Some of these projects included water, sanitation, electricity, and road improvement. Buildings were repaired and engineers repaired a large bridge that was destroyed by a hurricane during occupation.


Lessons learned & innovative actions

The United Nations Mission in Haiti was exceptional as a democracy-preserving effort in many ways. First, the collaboration amongst opposition groups and the United Nations and other multilateral organizations was unique. The mastermind of the coup, the ousted President, and these large organizations communicated their desires and conditions in effective ways without leading to further violence for the most part. Aristide and Cédras committed to a week of talks that resulted in the Governor’s Island Agreement that outlined the return of the President and the entrance of UN forces to stabilize the country. In this way, the democracy efforts of the United Nations were more about mediation than impeding upon the norms of a sovereign state. Of course, this was made simpler because of President Aristide’s popularity in Haiti.
Secondly, the mission made use of Military Information Support Teams (MIST)2. The teams were responsible for spreading information related to good governance and democracy as the United Nations does not take part in “psychological operations” of this sort. The MIST Task Force distributed flyers, radio announcements and more to facilitate knowledge and conversation of the situation unfolding. The lack of association with the United Nations mission allowed for further success of its mission by leaving the information that may be more controversial to an unaffiliated group.
However, not all went exactly as planned throughout UNMIH, and some of the lessons learned can be applied to future democratization efforts. The mission concluded without really addressing the issue of a military in Haiti. It created an able police force to keep order, but neglected to consider the consequences of not having a state sponsored military. Of course, due to Haiti’s recent and past history there is much mistrust of the military there. Dictatorships and many coups have not given citizens much cause to desire a military. However, a military that is balanced in power and ability can be crucial for any country in case of a natural disaster or other tragic event. The United Nations, with its bastion of military resources, could have promoted good military practice within the country. However, since the mission had a close relationship with President Aristide it may have not deemed military efforts worth debating with him. No formal Haitian military exists to this day.
Finally, there were issues of the economy. Citizens expected the economy to take a turn for the better after President Aristide’s reinstatement5. However, reality did not match high expectations quickly enough and government blame increased steadily. As a result, UNMIH established priority sectors to focus on in terms of development. These sectors were then focused on as part of achieving UNMIH’s mission goals of stability and an environment promoting free and fair elections. UNMIH participated in projects ranging from bridge repair to road development in order to meet the needs of the people, maintain order, and prevent from unrest that might further threaten a democratically elected government.
After its mandate ended in June 1996, the Security Council established the United Nations Support Mission in Haiti (UNSMIH) to continue support of the country’s government8. The island nation has been almost continuously occupied by some United Nations mission ever since.
1 "Jean-Bertrand Aristide." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9 Oct.
2 Kinzer, Joseph W., and Alexander E.R. Woodcock, PhD. The United Nations Mission in Haiti: In the Service of Peace. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
3 "Operation Uphold Democracy." Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
4 "Haiti - Mandate." UN News Center. United Nations. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
5 "Haiti - Background (Full Text)." UN News Center. United Nations. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
6 "Haiti - Facts and Figures." UN News Center. United Nations. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
7 "The United Nations Mission in Haiti." Haiti - UNMIH. United Nations, Sept. 1996. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
8 "Establishment of UNSMIH." Haiti Background. United Nations. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.