How Exactly Did The U.S. Come to Be In Charge of the Port-au-Prince Airport, Anyway?

Hundreds of media articles covering the ongoing events in Haiti report that the U.S. has “taken over”or is “running” the airport in Port-au-Prince. This has, predictably, already caused conflict with other States regarding the coordination of relief efforts, with France in particular criticizing U.S. administration of the airport.

What I cannot find, however, is any explanation of what the nature of the U.S. authority over the airport is and how it came to be. Did the Haitian government — which has taken no official action that I am aware of since the earthquake happened (and weren’t making that many before the earthquake either, for that matter) — come together long enough to authorize a U.S. administration of the airport? Is the U.S. simply in charge of the flight schedules, or is it literally in charge of the entire airport area?

I am beginning to suspect that the United States simply showed up first and announced it was in charge of the airport, and then because no one objected to this claim too loudly, it became a self-fulfilling declaration.

This article from the American Forces Press Service seems to suggest that is exactly what happened:

In his update, Elton underscored the speed with which Air Force personnel began operations after landing at the badly damaged airport around 7 p.m. on Jan. 13.

“Within 28 minutes of landing our first aircraft, we had special tactics combat control teams controlling the airspace around the airfield, and sequencing in the arriving aircraft that night,” he said.

That the United States simply seized control over the airport is not necessarily a bad thing, at all — someone needed to take point on the situation, and because the U.S. is the closest major power, it is the obvious choice — but it also raises a lot of thorny jurisdictional questions.

A quote from this article seems to suggest a possible legal source of authority, however:

Tucked between Port-au-Prince airport and the giant UN compound is a one-storey building with no security or reliable communications and only two small suites of grubby offices.

Before the earthquake hit, this was the headquarters of Haiti’s judicial police. It is now the seat of the Haitian Government and the office of President Préval, but it is seldom occupied, has no reception staff and people peer through the windows.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, insisted yesterday that [President] Préval remained in full charge of both Haiti and the aid effort that is still failing to reach those who need it most. Mr Préval himself declares that he is in charge of events and the UN says that it directs rescue teams and distributes aid according to information received from his administration.

The idea that President Préval is currently exercising any significant government control right now is not credible. However, from a legal standpoint, it is in the best interest of the U.S. and the UN insist that yes, Préval is in charge, and yes, he has authorized various foreign and international entities to exercise jurisdiction over parts of Haiti. It clears up a lot of very messy legal problems that would otherwise exist, even if, in reality, the authority for the intervention comes ex post from a man sitting in a shack who has absolutely zero real power to exercise any control over Haiti.

-Susan

Update: As soon as I put up this post, I stumbled across a better explanation how the U.S. presence is being justified under international law. Note that the following was issued just this weekend — a full four days after the U.S. took control over the airport.

A joint statement Saturday from the Haitian president and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to an expanded U.S. security role.

“President Préval, on behalf of the Government and people of Haiti, welcomes as essential the efforts in Haiti by the government and people of the United States to support the immediate recovery, stability and long-term rebuilding of Haiti and requests the United States to assist as needed in augmenting security in support of the government and people of Haiti and the United Nations, international partners and organizations on the ground,” the document reads.

How much do you want to bet that the statement in question was a legal formality, drafted by some State Department lawyers and handed over for Préval to rubber stamp? Shoot, I’d probably even take a bet that Préval never actually read the document.

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