This is not the first time Inroads has addressed the critical situation in Haiti, and given the country’s continuing descent into absolute chaos and anarchy, it undoubtably will not be the last. In this update, written at a time when the world is focused on the Middle East and Ukraine, far, far away from this Caribbean nation, it is hard to direct attention to Haiti.
In early October, before Hamas’s horror, the United Nations Security Council found the time to vote 13-0 – with abstentions from Russia and China – to issue a one-year authorization for a non-UN, multinational security mission to be led by Kenya. The mission would guard critical infrastructure such as airports, ports, schools, hospitals and key traffic intersections and carry out “targeted operations” along with the Haitian national police.
The United States promised $200 million. Former Kenyan Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua told the New York Times that Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Spain and Senegal pledged to send personnel, and that other countries were expected to follow suit. On the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haitians celebrated the news.
As I write, delays and uncertainties still surround the mission, reflecting the legacy of past foreign interventions in Haiti. On November 16 Kenyan lawmakers voted to support the UN request to deploy hundreds of police officers to Haiti, but any action will await the verdict due on January 26 of a court hearing challenging the deployment’s legality.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been three major military interventions in Haiti. The most recent of those, a UN stabilization mission led by Brazilian troops from 2004 to 2017, temporarily quelled violence and political instability but was later marred by sexual assault allegations and the introduction of cholera into the country. However, soon after the mission’s withdrawal, instability began to rise once again, descending into effective anarchy when its last elected President, Jovenel Moïse, was murdered in 2019 and Ariel Henry became acting prime minister.
The hesitation to potentially prop up an unelected leader may explain why few Latin American countries immediately volunteered to send police forces to the country. Brazil at one point was sought out by the United States to lead the mission. However, having seen how quickly Haiti’s security situation deteriorated after it led the last one, Brazil demurred on leading another. Ultimately, Brazil did work to ensure that the UN resolution passed – urging Russia and China not to veto it.
Washington’s interest in stabilizing Haiti is in part related to the large numbers of Haitians who have been arriving in at U.S. borders in recent months. There is even more pressure, far more, at Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, which is confronted not only with border crossing but also with the infiltration of arms and drugs. It has become obvious that the situation is desperate and growing worse. And despite the cry from outsiders (including Canada) that there must be a “made in Haiti” solution, nothing will change without foreign intervention.
Nearly half the country’s population is experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity. Haitians are dying in unprecedented numbers. Gangs run large patches of the country, particularly Port-au-Prince. Many neighbourhoods have cleared out as people have fled widespread murders, kidnappings and extortion. Increasingly sophisticated and high-calibre firearms and ammunition are being trafficked into Haiti amid an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation. Haiti remains a transshipment country for drugs, primarily cocaine and cannabis, which mostly enter the country via boat or plane, arriving through public, private and informal ports as well as clandestine runways.
Haiti’s borders are essentially porous, and the challenges of patrolling 1,771 kilometres of coastline and a 392-kilometre land border with the Dominican Republic are overwhelming the capacities of Haiti’s national police, customs, border patrols and coast guard, which are severely understaffed and underresourced and increasingly targeted by gangs.
Still, according to University of Massachusetts political scientist Charli Carpenter,
Haiti’s current security crisis is precisely the kind of situation where a mission like the one envisioned can have an outsized value in promoting human security. The situation in Haiti is not one where a strong government is preying upon its civilians, requiring a coercive humanitarian war against a sovereign state without its consent. Instead, Haiti is more like a failed or failing state, where the sitting government has lost the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and armed actors and civilians have taken matters into their own hands. Foreign interventions of this type, coupled with peace missions thereafter, have often been successful …
The introduction of foreign troops will work best if they are sufficient in number, well-funded, operating with a mandate that fits the situation and supported with the political will for a clear exit plan and follow-on peace-building mission. Even if imperfect however, it’s important to keep in mind the counterfactual: what would happen if Haiti were simply left to dissolve into greater chaos.
What this could look like is spelled out by Frederick D. Barton, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations:
A modest deployment of 200 to 400 special operations forces to the Haitian countryside would help contain the gangs to the major cities, where the Haitian National Police can better concentrate on fighting them … In 1994, fifteen U.S. Special Forces units of a dozen soldiers each secured most of Haiti beyond Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien. Today’s gangs are more capable and better entrenched but still are no match for well-equipped Western troops.
Putting boots on the ground alone won’t work. We must also help Haitians secure their country. Fortunately, a substantial number are already involved in providing public safety. Beyond the 9,000 Haitian National Police who are still doing their jobs, tens of thousands of private security guards work for internationally supported nongovernmental organizations, and vigilante groups and community volunteers are already policing their towns.
Local pilot programs aimed at facilitating cooperation between the police and private actors already exist. These efforts need to be replicated in each of Haiti’s 10 administrative departments and in eight different police stations or safe areas of Port-au-Prince …
It is important that these kinds of efforts remain decentralized. Haiti’s political culture has been shaped by its colonial experience, with most political decisions flowing from the capital, enabling and entrenching corruption. By empowering communities and localizing law enforcement, these programs will push Haitian society to abandon old habits as it grapples with other long-overdue governance reforms. The corrupt old guard sitting in Port-au-Prince needs to be cut out.
Another warning comes from Alexander Causwell, analyst in strategic affairs at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute in Jamaica, in an article entitled “Haiti, the Zombie Republic.” Causwell envisions outside parties encouraging and aiding “a local faction with some modicum of credibility to establish control”:
As they begin to retake sections of the country, necessarily with foreign support, their efforts to permanently restore public order and services can then receive support from international NGOs, whose vigilance would also serve as a check on government excess. Whatever else occurs, rebuilding efforts must heed Machiavelli’s exhortation to distrust the “banished,” such as the Haitian expats who have embedded themselves in the DC foreign-policy Blob and elsewhere. These people hold deep grudges and strong opinions, but they lack a direct stake in the country’s future.
Aid workers estimate that large numbers of people have fled their homes to escape the violence. Nearly 200,000 people are displaced across the country, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In November 2022, the severity of the humanitarian and security crises in Haiti prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to urge states to stop deporting Haitians and offer them alternative avenues when refugee status is not an option. Since then deportations from “safer” countries have increased, with more than 128,000 removals of Haitians (not including deportations from the Dominican Republic) being carried out just by the Turks and Caicos (a nearby archipelago of only 45,000 people which had become a top destination for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake), the Bahamas, the United States and Cuba.
The problem is most acute on the border with the Dominican Republic, which has engaged in large-scale deportations of Haitians. Amid the dispute this September between the Dominican Republic and Haiti over the construction of an irrigation canal in the Masacre River, relations between the two countries hardened and the Dominican Republic closed all access to Haiti. In September alone, 66,768 Haitians either “voluntarily returned ” or were deported by Dominican authorities; in August it was 23,829. The previous year a total of more than 170.000 were deported.
The flow of refugees – and subsequent deportations – can only be stemmed by restoring stability to Haiti. Many of the proposals by the international community have relied on strengthening the Haitian police, in whom there is little confidence. Gangs have surged again, and they are believed to control about 80 per cent of the capital. Though Kenya’s security forces have served in troop deployments in Lebanon, Sierra Leone and South Sudan and as part of African Union peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is scepticism as to their ability to wrest control from the gangs and their own record of rights abuses and graft within Kenya. In Somalia to fight the al-Shabaab insurgency in 2018, they were widely judged to have performed reasonably well. But they did not overcome the jihadists, who cause mayhem in what is left of Somalia.
The Kenyans will be greatly handicapped in Haiti by their inability to speak either French or Kreyol, the languages of the country and the gangsters. None of the Caribbean countries that have offered police detachments speak French or Kreyol either. Nor has any francophone African country agreed to participate.
Everyone agrees that Canada would be a much better candidate to lead a multinational security mission in Haiti, given geography, language and history. But Canadians are not interested. In response to calls for Canada to act, Prime Minister Trudeau continues to insist that the Haitian government has not built sufficient consensus around international support for any intervention to be successful: “There is no solution to this situation from outside … we need to see more dialogue, more consensus-building within Haiti and around the Haitian people.”
And if pigs could fly …