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Q&A: The problem with the international force set for Haiti

‘The countries that want this force are trying to give us cosmetic solutions only.’

This photo is taken inside a sports arena, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There are numerous people and tents as people fleeing gang violence take shelter there. This photo was taken on September 1, 2023. Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
People escaping gang violence shelter at a sports arena in Port-au-Prince, on 1 September 2023.

The recent UN General Assembly proved fertile ground for calls for the prompt deployment of an international security force to help rein in Haiti’s rampant gang violence to gain additional strength.

During the UNGA leaders’ addresses and side-events, Haiti’s de facto prime minister Ariel Henry and the US President Joe Biden called once again on the international community to urgently support a mission. The deployment of the force is pending the adoption of a Security Council resolution drafted by the US and Ecuador. The voting, originally scheduled for 15 September, is now expected to take place imminently.

To Pierre Espérance, however, this is not necessarily good news. Espérance, a sociologist and the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti (RNDDH), believes that having a multinational force intervene without solving Haiti´s structural problems first could be counterproductive and even cause more violence.

“It could be more dangerous than MINUSTAH,” he said referring to UN “stabilisation” mission deployed between 2004 and 2017 that left a legacy of allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence, and brought an outbreak of cholera that claimed some 10,000 Haitian lives.

“The problem is that foreigners, diplomatic missions, and international organisations don’t want to work with local actors, local organisations,” he said, during an in-depth interview on the deployment. “That’s why they spend a lot of money but get no results.”

Henry first asked for foreign help to restore security in Haiti in October 2022 and received immediate support from the UN and the United States, who worked tirelessly to bring others on board. However, no country showed interest in leading the force until August, when Kenya unexpectedly offered to take the forefront of the operation.

The proposal raised scepticism among Haitians because of the Kenyan police’s history of abuse, bad memories of past foreign interventions, and possible communication challenges in a country where French and Kreyol are the main languages. But the continuous violence, years without access to basic services, and hunger have taken a toll on Haitians. Polls show most of the population now wants a force to intervene.

Last week, more than 10,000 people were newly displaced as gang infighting flared once again, even as the Dominican Republic – which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti – closed its border over a canal dispute. Between 1 January and 15 August alone, more than 2,400 people were killed and nearly 1,000 kidnapped, according to the UN. The gangs, which already control most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, are continuing to expand to other areas of the country.

In this Q&A with The New Humanitarian, Espérance explains why he doesn’t think fighting gangs through security forces alone will work, what the risks are, and how Haiti’s allies, especially the United States, can help find safer, longer-term solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: A US-backed multinational force seems likely to be deployed to Haiti to help combat gang violence? Are you in favour of such a deployment?

Pierre Espérance: The problem we have today in Haiti has to do with the lack of governance, the impunity, the absence of rights, and the complicity of state authorities and of the police hierarchy with the gangs. There is no chance to tackle insecurity in Haiti without solving the political crisis first. If a force arrives before that, the force’s interlocutor will be state authorities conniving with gangs. So, we are not against a massive support for the Haitian National Police (PNH) in training, equipment, even with specialised units who can come to help fight gangs, but it must be part of a package. Instead of pushing for a force to intervene, Haiti’s friends should help our country negotiate a political agreement first – one with a roadmap for a state of rights, governance, and [the end of] impunity. Unfortunately, the countries that want this force are trying to give us cosmetic solutions only.

The New Humanitarian: What could be done while these potential negotiations are underway to reduce the levels of violence within reasonable time?

Espérance: Once the United Nations decides about this force, it will take 90 days before it is deployed. If Haiti’s friends want to, they can facilitate political negotiations leading to an agreement and have a functional government in two or three weeks. It’s much easier to put such a government in place than to send a force. In fact, it’s been almost a year since the UN [first backed that idea]. And once we have a government and a police force that are not accomplices of the bandits, the gangs won’t be as powerful. We will not unarm them in a week, but when they see that the authorities don’t connive with them anymore, they will retreat to their territory.

The New Humanitarian: A large part of the Haitian population is in favour of the immediate deployment of an international force, even without a political agreement. What would you tell them?

Espérance: It’s true, because it is a desperate population. There are so many crimes, so many attacks, so many massacres; so many people are displaced and forced to leave their homes. That is why I say I am not against a force, but it must be part of a more global plan based on governance. If not, we will have problems. Haiti, even with a new government that tries to reestablish the state of rights, will not have the capacity to guarantee security. The Haitian police do not have enough officers: There are only about 9,000 now, and they need to be vetted. So, the police will need massive support. That is when an international force will be useful.

The New Humanitarian: If a force was to arrive after a political agreement is reached, what role would it play? Should it be limited to protecting key infrastructure or operate on the front lines taking on the gangs?

Espérance: The first thing that must be done is to have the government provide services to Haitian people, because now the state is completely absent, and they are left to fend for themselves. That requires infiltrating the gangs who live in the community. The PNH can do that with help in intelligence. I believe that we cannot disembark in the different neighbourhoods and start to directly fight the gangs. It would lead to many collateral damages.

The New Humanitarian: There has been much scepticism about the fact that the force will be led by Kenya. Do you have concerns about it?

Espérance: Kenyans do not speak our languages, French or Kreyol. And the Kenyan police have the reputation of being human rights violators. That is why we are sceptical.

Beacons to avoid what happened with the MINUSTAH must be put in place. There must be a team to receive complaints in cases of blunders by the force. I have concerns, because when MINUSTAH came to Haiti, we had a transition government and then an elected government. Neither of them was on the side of the gangs; they fought them. Now, the situation is much worse and those in power today support the gangs. So instead of coming to fight the gangs, these people may end up coming to stop freedom of speech and association.

The New Humanitarian: With a political agreement, would it be possible to have legitimate elections in a reasonable time?

Espérance: I don’t think so. We don’t have a functioning electoral system. And once security improves, putting in place the provisional electoral council and organising elections will take at least 18 months.

The New Humanitarian: The Miami Herald reported that the countries involved in this mission, either with equipment, money or on the ground, would also include Italy, Spain, Mongolia, Senegal, Belize, Suriname, Guatemala, and Peru. What do you think about their support?

Espérance: There are countries like Kenya, Jamaica, and Peru that can’t even solve the issues they have in their own countries but are ready to come here and solve Haiti’s problems. It’s absurd. In many cases, the situation of these countries must be taken into consideration, and we must assess the reason for their interest, see if it is merely to make money.

The New Humanitarian: Do you believe that violence could rise if there is no political agreement?

Espérance: Yes, because the gangsterisation of the country is linked to the PetroCaribe scandal (the embezzlement of $2 billion in aid from Venezuela by multiple Haitian governments that led to political unrest in 2018). That is when the team of Jovenel Moïse (the president assassinated in July 2021), instead of mobilising the state’s institutions and justice to go after those who stole the funds, started arming gangs and going after residents of low-income neighbourhoods to stop them from protesting. So, if a force arrives without a political agreement that fosters governance and a state of rights, it will be to protect the status quo, to protect the interests of those who gangsterised the country, and the population will continue being a victim.

The New Humanitarian: One of the hopes is that a multinational mission would help open humanitarian space for aid to reach more Haitians. Do you think that can happen in the short term?

Espérance: Everyone speaks of humanitarian space. Internal displacement, attacks in vulnerable neighbourhoods, the power of the gangs: Even without a force, the authorities in power and the police could stop it by asking the gangs to stay in their own territory. So yes, it can improve the humanitarian situation, because the government controls the gangs and since they perceive the force as a support to the team in power, they will ask gangs to let the population circulate. But it won’t be a long-term help.

Once the electoral process starts, those gangs will be very active and control it. They will be the ones choosing the president, the senators, congressmen, judges, and mayors. They will win the elections, even though casting your ballot is supposed to be a democratic exercise that allows people to choose freely. I don’t see a force and the current government organising elections without having chaos afterwards.

The New Humanitarian: Do you see a real possibility of having a political agreement before the force potentially lands in Haiti?

Espérance: The negotiations would involve political actors such as the Montana Accord group (a Haitian civil society-formed and opposition-backed group that presented a document known as the “Montana Accord” in August 2021) and others, as well as civil society groups… I am not a member of the Montana [Group], but I know that they are people who want better for Haiti, who are willing to move forward. Unfortunately, Ariel Henry’s government doesn't want to make any concessions because they are comfortable with the unconditional support of the United States, Canada, and the United Nations. It wouldn’t be hard to reach an agreement if those countries asked Ariel Henry to really negotiate and find common ground. That is why we ask them to look at what the situation was in Haiti before Jovenel Moïse’s assassination and what it is now. It’s much worse. We need the United States, but instead of supporting a government involved in the violation of human rights, we ask them to listen to the Haitian people and look at the chaotic situation of the country, and to accompany us in facilitating negotiations that lead to a roadmap for ensuring governance, state of rights, and fighting impunity and corruption.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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