By Elizabeth D. Gibbons. Westport, Ct.: Praeger, 1999. ISBN: 0-275-96606-2 (cloth -- $49.95) and 0-275-96607-0 (paper -- $19.95)

Reviewed by Bob Corbett
February 1999

I recall vividly the early days of Aristide's exile and the coup d'etat. This discussion list was not yet in existence and living in St. Louis I had few people to talk with about the new sanctions which the UN was imposing on Haiti. I do recall some heated discussion with members of the Tenth Department living here, and we played out arguments which I would think will be familiar to many of you.

We were all supporters of Aristide, believing in the dream of coming democracy. We were in no way surprised by the coup d'etat, we even expected it. And we were enthusiastic about the beginning of sanctions, believing that these measures would bring the de facto government to its knees and Aristide would be back in the presidency in Haiti in no time.

Our first disillusionment came quickly and was not with the sanctions themselves, but with the fact that these were very leaky sanctions. It wasn't that the sanctions were failing, but they weren't being followed. A new meaning was given to the word "smuggling." I had always understood that word to mean someone or group "sneaking" things into a country illegally. In Haiti, especially in Leogane and Petit Goave, ships pulled up to the piers and unloaded in broad daylight for all to see including the authorities. No duties were paid and embargoed goods were the cargo. Yet the UN did nothing and the Haitian authorities collected no duties. This was "smuggling?" I'd never heard the word so used.

Soon our discussions began to drift into disagreements. It became clear that the UN, seemingly led by the U.S., was not very interested in reinstating Aristide, and the outcry from Haitian circles that the embargo was being violated everywhere was not heeded. At the same time it became clear that the embargo was having a weird effect -- it wasn't the de facto government which was suffering, rather it was the mass of common people, the very base of Aristide's support system. Our earlier sense of agreement fell apart (which I've always suspected was a conscious plot on the part of the U.S. to bring Aristide to heel) and there were those in the Tenth department who continued to believe in the sanctions while others of us came to believe that the sanctions, at least as they were being lived out in Haiti, were probably worse than direct military action to restore Aristide.

The messages from Haiti were unclear. We were assured, at times, that the masses of people continued to support the sanctions even if they were suffering terribly from them. However, when pushed for sources these "assurances" seemed to come not from the masses of common Haitian peasants (how does one ever gather such data in Haiti?) but from various leaders -- union leaders, party leaders of pro-Aristide political parties and so on.

The endgame came quickly. On our fairly unified view, the UN (dictated to by the U.S. after Aristide had learned how to behave) finally put some serious sanctions in place that hit the right people, and tightened up all sanctions. However, ironically, they then didn't even wait for those new serious sanctions to have their full impact, but went ahead with a military solution.

In our distant and relatively uninformed view the key to it all was Aristide. As long as he was the Aristide of 1990 and 1991 he was unacceptable to the U.S. As soon as his days in Georgetown taught him the proper lessons, then the UN (acting for the U.S.) put Aristide back into power.

By the time Aristide was back in power I was on line with this list and in touch with some of you and the discussions moved to a more sophisticated level. But, the sanctions issue was mainly over, and the new discussions were of the post-coup Aristide who was back in the presidency.

Personally I was never satisfied with our naïve view of the regime of sanctions, and I was extremely interested in the issue. My own concern was with democratic participation. We've talked about this on this list a good deal concerning other issues (the Disney campaign comes to mind). I've always been suspicious of claims that outside actions "represent" the will of the masses of Haitians when there do not seem to be any mechanisms in place to uncover that alleged will.

Finally comes a book that deals with the sanctions in great detail, with lots of hard data and the concrete experiences of one living the entire experience from a position of responsibility within Haiti. It is such a richer picture that the naïve one I painted at the outset, and since I think my naïve picture is a fairly typical one of the period, that many of you will find Gibbons analysis to be enlightening and challenging.

Elizabeth Gibbons arrived in Haiti in 1992 as representative to Haiti for the UN in charge of UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund). She stayed in this position until 1996, seeing most of the period of the de facto government and a portion of the follow up years. Her fascinating analysis is from the perspective of United Nations activity and the welfare of children whom UNICEF wanted to help (and to some extent Haitian adults as well). Gibbons found a fundamental contradiction she had to wrestle with:

Thus two different UN mandates demanded contradictory behaviors. Gibbons was in an especially difficult position since, as her book makes clear, her heart was more sympathetic to the universal human rights, especially of the children, yet her superiors in the UN were more focused on the sanctions which they hoped would restore democracy to Haiti. Thus the very tools they saw as necessary to restore democracy, the sanctions, violated the fundamental human right of children and adults.

Gibbons first sets out to demonstrate that serious harm was caused to ordinary Haitian people by the sanctions. She cites such examples as:

  1. The lack of gasoline made it much more difficult for people to be transported to hospital and medical care. In critical times a tiny change often has drastic consequences.
  2. The water supply was decreased by lack of fuel to run pumps.
  3. Sanitation systems broke down and health related problems rose.

She also cites the interesting case of the November 1993 study commissioned by the Harvard University School of Public Health, and referred to as "The Harvard Study." This study claimed, in part, that "…that [the] sanctions were among the complex set of facto's contributing to a rise in child mortality…" (Gibbons, p. 59.) There was a pubic outcry after the study, but, ironically, most of it was against the study and not against the sanctions. The pro-Aristide political lobby in the U.S. had decided the sanctions were an important part of their plan and criticism of it could not be acceptable. There were attempts to discredit the study and challenge its methodology. Gibbons is clearly on the side of the study, but she does not give any detailed response to the criticisms but somewhat lamely relies on the credibility of the researchers themselves.

One of the strongest pieces of evidence she cites for her thesis of the violation of children's human rights was regarding the measles epidemic from July 1991 to November 1993. Gibbons says:

"UNICEF (which provided 90 percent of Haiti's vaccines against all childhood diseases except polio) accepted the collective decision against a measles campaign [Corbett notes -- this decision was based on supporting the sanctions, not on medical grounds and made by the UN, not UNICEF]. But could the organization simply stop all support to partners combating the epidemic while the country waited for the "return to democracy"? Morally, such a choice would not be coherent with respect for a child's right to life. On the other hand, providing large quantities of vaccines and other support to health institutions risked giving the impression that UNICEF supported the de facto government. We at UNICEF believed ourselves to be in an impossible political and moral situation and agonized over how we could answer to all masters." Gibbons, p. 63.

The outcome was that UNICEF played a semi-clandestine role and helped the situation somewhat, but Gibbons allows that hundreds, if not thousands of children died who need not have died were there to have been a national campaign of vaccinations.

The above quoted sentences point out the dilemma for Gibbons. It is primarily a moral dilemma. As in most serious moral dilemmas there are two evils which compete with each other. The difficulty is, which is the lesser evil. Here the moral systems are in conflict. The sanctions regime was part of a Utilitarian moral system: "Do that which is in the greater good of the greater number." If one took the long-term view the "short-term" suffering during the sanctions regime would be off-set by the long-term gains in the restoration of democracy (or at least of Aristide). On the other hand, the human rights conventions are part of a theory of justice which says: Each individual has these rights NO MATTER WHAT THE PRACTICAL OUTCOMES ARE. Gibbons is deeply attracted to the latter view, and given her role with UNICEF, especially committed to the rights of each individual child.

Objections might be raised on two grounds -- one would be Utilitarian: The sanctions are not effectively bringing down the de facto government, and, in comparison with the likelihood of the deaths of the children, the sanctions should be ignored.

There seems to be good grounds for such an objection, but that is not Gibbons' position. Rather, she holds that the basic human rights morality is a higher morality that the Utilitarian moral theory which supports the sanctions. Further, she is in the terribly difficult position as being a representative of an organization, the United Nations, which supports both positions at the same time, and in this contradictory situation is basically saying: Do what we tell you or you will not be our UNICEF representative in Haiti. Gibbons chooses a middle ground, and while obeying the UN mandate to follow the sanctions regime and ignore the measles epidemic, she and her colleagues found slippery technical and shady manners of meeting most of the letter of the sanctions law while doing what UNICEF could to help stem the death totals from measles.

What weighs heavily on Gibbons, however, is her Utilitarian analysis. The sanctions, on her view, simply did not do the job. She is not free to shift from the justice argument to the Utilitarian one, but is seems to gnaw at her that even on the grounds of the Utilitarians the issue should have been decided in favor of the children.

One of those "other" problems with the sanctions which Gibbons sites is one I've seen less written about than others. She charges that a great deal of aid was poured into Haiti during the de facto government's days and done via NGOs. What the impact of this was to further pull Haitian society away from its government and to put more power into the hands of the NGOs. In effect, by the time the sanctions were removed and Aristide back into power, a significant structural shift had been made away from the Haitian government and toward the NGOs, an impact that could not be easily related only to the de facto government, but has become a structural feature of Haitian life, reducing the sovereignty of the Haitian government, no matter who is in power.

Even before the sanctions it was easy to see this tension. NGOs and religious organizations provide a vast system of schools, clinics and social services. In most nations these services are part of the national and local governments and thus tied to the state's sovereignty over its own ways to be. The external control over these resources and programs in Haiti is always a force that is in competition with the government. If, as Gibbons claims, this direction of control was strongly enhanced by the sanctions of 1991-94, that would have to be a very strong impediment to the development of any serious notion of Haitian democracy.

A significant portion of Gibbons' anti-sanctions argument is tied to what actually happened in Haiti. But Gibbons has larger fish to fry as well. She is concerned that what she sees as the human rights debacle in Haiti -- the UN caused debacle, not the de facto regime's debacle -- is generalizable to virtually every use of sanctions as a tool. Almost always sanctions will bring about a fundamental conflict with UN doctrines on human rights, especially the social and economic rights, but often, as in Haiti, even with the right to life itself. We hear this criticism often these days in regard to the economic sanctions against Iraq. Gibbons is extremely skeptical that sanctions can ever really be a moral tool.

Yet Gibbons struggled with the hard moral issue of what to do when one is not fully in control, and she developed a strategy for survival as a person of conscience and morality (this book seems a part of that strategy). She realizes that her argument will not likely bring the end of sanctions, so she turns her attention to them to see if some sanctions are less likely to have these human rights violating consequences, and she recommends a number of policy changes for the use of sanctions. She makes such recommendations as:

  1. Target sanctions to trade goods used "exclusively by members of the target regime and their supporters in the political or business elite."
  2. "Permit exemptions for equipment, financial, and technical assistance that the UN or sanctioning powers can make available to private media."
  3. "Avoid imposing a multilateral trade embargo on any imported goods generally consumed by the population at large."
  4. "Broaden current exemptions for humanitarian assistance."
    Gibbons, p. 108-109.

But a primary recommendation for Gibbons is that sanctions be specifically targeted at the "real enemy," those who are the actors doing the activities that have brought on the sanctions. Thus such sanctions as those that occurred in Haiti in the very last days of the de facto government -- freezing the bank accounts of individuals, refusing visas to them for foreign travel and so on -- are the sanctions most likely to target the right people and spare the human rights of the common folks who are often not involved or powerful enough to participate much in the political sphere.

Gibbons book is a detailed and marvelous read of issues concerning the sanctions in Haiti and sanctions in general. There is a bit of strangeness in the perspective. Most discussion I had seen and participated in until now was on the issue of whether or not the sanctions were effective, or whether or not the price the Haitian masses paid was too strenuous. But Gibbons focuses on the contradictions in UN policy between the political goals of using sanctions to reinstate a democratic government in Haiti and return the legally elected president, and the contradictions to the UN's own human rights positions.

If one does not hold the same fundamental principles as Gibbons -- that the human rights considerations are morally superior when they conflict with otherwise JUST tools of sanctions, then one will have a difficulty in following all the twists and turns of Gibbons' moral philosophizing and agonizing.

Nonetheless, she brings a huge amount of data and powerful analysis to her position, and along the way, provides all the data one would need to write another whole book which ignored the human rights issues altogether, but still argued that on purely Utilitarian grounds the sanctions failed, especially in relation to the misery and long-term difficulties they introduced into Haitian society.

I was surprised that Gibbons so lightly touched on the view that a major problem with the success of the sanctions was that they were under-enforced, not that they caused these collateral damages. Further, while Gibbons does recognize the role of the U.S. in controlling the UN's sanctions, in the main she treats the UN as though it were an international body quite distinct from the U.S. and having its own full autonomy. My own views of this situation seem to be so strongly fixed that I found myself constantly typing U.S. to describe something Gibbons held, when I realized she meant UN. I had to do a lot of fixing that tying error, so deeply rooted is my understand of that relationship.

I highly recommend Gibbons book to all of you. If you read it most of you will find it a rich mine field of data concerning the years of the de facto government and a powerful argument against the sanctions. Others of you may well be drawn into her larger moral argument both about Haiti and the condemnation of sanctions in general. I also think that most readers will come away realizing that the children of Haiti were very fortunate that Elizabeth Gibbons and those like her were in Haiti in those years, struggling against not only the de facto government, but even against the UN and sanctions regime in helping the people of Haiti survive their difficult ordeal.

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