In the month since the Haitian earthquake, the international community has responded remarkably well. To his credit, President Obama acted swiftly, immediately dispatching our military to launch rescue efforts and open channels for the relief supplies that would follow, and then recruiting former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to lead a fundraising effort for the island nation-one to which millions of Americans have responded generously. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, there comes the more arduous task of literally picking up the pieces of Haitian society. There are, of course, both moral and strategic reasons to undertake the effort. Common humanity compels us to help the stricken country and its people. Moreover, a totally collapsed state in the crossroads of the Americas is a danger to the entire hemisphere. The question is how to effectively carry out this monumental task. The answer might require revisiting cherished notions of sovereignty.
The awful truth is that Haitians have never quite managed to build a functional state-just the façade of one, presided over by two emperors, one king, two collective leaderships, and, depending on how one counts them, fifty-eight presidents, operating under no fewer than twenty-three different written constitutions. In their wake, these heads of a phantom state have left the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, one that is 98 percent deforested and where only half of the people can read and write. While one can debate the causes of and responsibility for this national pathology, the fact is that it is the reality of the situation, even more so after January 12. Before the catastrophe, the country lacked the basic framework necessary to even begin climbing the ladder of development. And such institutions that might have helped were knocked down by the 7.0 tremor, burying in their rubble some of the few widely respected figures in the nation, including Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince and Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Mustering more resources may sound attractive as a course of action-Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has already called for a "Marshall Plan" for Haiti-but pre-earthquake Haiti had plenty of aid and attention. In the last two decades, the country had been the recipient of no less than $5 billion in foreign assistance. A donor conference last year raised another $402 million in aid (a sum equal to half a year's pay for the country's entire workforce) and President Clinton, appointed last May as the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, was busy attracting even more money. Before disaster struck, there were no fewer than 10,000 nongovernmental organizations providing various services to Haitians-that is, one NGO for every 900 men, women, and children, the highest concentration of aid groups in the world.
Given that the government of President René Préval is certainly in no better position to lead a recovery effort than it was to govern the country before the quake deprived it of even a roof over its head-both the National Palace and the Legislative Palace were demolished in the quake-might it not be time to seriously consider whether the UN Trusteeship Council, dormant since 1994 (although, in typical Turtle Bay fashion, it has continued to elect officers), might be revived to undertake the administration and reconstruction of totally collapsed states like Haiti and perhaps Somalia? Or, as Senator Christopher Dodd put it bluntly, "Is it too wild a suggestion to be talking about at least temporarily some sort of receivership?"
While the UN and members of the international community have intervened in failed states repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, their actions have come under the cover of "peacekeeping," even where the actual activity undertaken has been "state-building." The former sets out to enforce and police formal peace. The latter aims to revitalize civil society, rebuild infrastructure, and restore institutions that have been destroyed-or to create these where they never existed. Whereas peacekeeping falls within the Security Council's legal authority under Chapter VI and VII of the UN Charter, that organ's institutional structure simply isn't equipped to deal effectively with the types of issues that arise in state-building and governance. Moreover, its restrictive membership and dominance by the veto-wielding permanent members undermine its legitimacy when they do not otherwise gridlock it.
The UN Charter does prohibit putting member states into trusteeship, but it also requires that members be "peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations." Clearly a collapsed state is, by definition, incapable of meeting this test and hence can be suspended from the UN. The point is that the legal obstacles are not that considerable, even if the political objections are more substantive.
As for the objection that placing Haiti into trusteeship would undermine a democratically elected government, one might respond that there is not much of a government to begin with-and, in any event, the term of the governing Chamber of Deputies expires next month and there is no chance that elections can be held. The fact that the current batch of parliamentarians is lobbying to have their terms (and salaries) extended two years demonstrates that they have essentially tossed their own bona fides out the window. Furthermore, if Haitian government officials and police were susceptible to corruption by drug money before the earthquake-the country is the leading Caribbean transshipment point for cocaine entering the United States, with drug trafficking constituting a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise in a less than $7 billion economy-imagine what the situation is like now. (Currently two former chiefs of the Haitian National Police, a former head of presidential security, and a former president of the Senate, just to name a few, are doing hard time following narco-trafficking and money-laundering convictions in U.S. federal courts.)
An updated trusteeship arrangement-whereby the UN assumes the governance of a territory like Haiti with a view towards establishing the minimal conditions required for the nascent state to be viable-offers some distinct advantages. First, it enables whatever country or international organization is given the responsibility of presiding over the state-building effort the ability to plan for the long term, rather than the renewable six-month mandates which have left MINUSTAH and other "peacekeeping" missions since the 1990s perennially uncertain about their futures. Second, it allows the time and space to establish a functioning economy that affords at least some measure of opportunity to a significant enough proportion of the population, as well as to construct the fundamental institutions of a modern state-a functioning judicial system, an effective police force and secure property rights. Third, it delays elections, which have can have an incredibly destabilizing effect when they come in the wake of massive upheaval, until passions have cooled, contenders have been acclimated to the new dispensation, and the nation's institutions are strong enough to peacefully resolve any eventual disputes.
While international interventions should be undertaken only as a last resort in the most exceptional circumstances, once it is determined that they are warranted, then the approach should be the one most likely to achieve the desired end state while doing the least harm. Cases like Haiti present a unique challenge. For two centuries the Haitian state has largely been bereft of legitimacy in the eyes of most of its citizens. In the past decade and a half, the United Nations has deployed five separate missions to Haiti, each one fitted out with the full complement of conventional diplomatic and development tools. Yet not one has achieved its lofty goals, because none of them has had the time or the resources required to fully tackle the problem. What is needed is a new approach, one that moves beyond the juridical fiction of the country's sovereignty to addresses the actual underlying need to build the institutions and create the space wherein the Haitian people can truly take ownership of their destiny. If the international community fails to face up to this reality, it will condemn itself to returning to the benighted island time and time again to salve its conscience with handouts, while trying to safeguard its own security by keeping peace where there is none to be found.
J. Peter Pham is senior fellow and Africa Project director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.