This time Haiti really is on the brink. The US and UN must act to restore order

However painful previous interventions have been, Haitians cannot be abandoned to the rule of criminal gangs.

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A massive jailbreak of more than 4,700 prisoners on 3 March 2024 saw chaos grip Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and much of the rest of the country. The shocking event, organized by powerful criminal gangs, follows a horrifying uptick of violence since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on 7 July 2021. 

There are many reasons for Haiti’s lamentable condition, including the legacy of almost 30 years of brutal rule by the Duvalier family, and the 28 years of fraught elections, aborted governments, coups and coup attempts that followed. 

Long-stalled, half-hearted attempts to rally a new multinational security force and shore up Haiti’s failed state have received inadequate international support.

59 per cent of the country’s 11 million people live in poverty, aggravated by environmental collapse, extreme weather and natural disasters. Haiti’s proximity to drug producing countries to its south and the drug-consuming US to its north, feeds criminal activity. 

What is clear is that the international community has failed Haiti. Throughout the cycle of interrupted governments, contested election results and rising violence, the response has always been to try to get the country to the next elections, in the hope that alone would miraculously cure the plagues of insecurity and institutional collapse. 

Long-stalled, half-hearted attempts to rally a new multinational security force and shore up Haiti’s failed state have received inadequate international support. Now the country is without a president or parliament, the gangs rampant. How does this end?

The legacy of gang violence

The connection between crime, gangs and political power in Haiti extends back at least to 1964, when Papa Doc Duvalier formed a feared, personal militia to enforce his rule. Elections after 1988 did little to restore order, as different political factions formed their own connections with local illicit groups.

According to one report 60 per cent of Haiti’s rural population depends on gangs for the delivery of aid.  

Since the 7 July 2021 murder of former President Jovenel Moïse, in which gunmen stormed the presidential palace, insecurity has spiked and gang control of the country has expanded. According to the UN, 8,712 Haitians were either victims of murder, kidnapping or injury by criminal gangs in 2023, twice the number from the previous year. 

More than 3,300 of Haiti’s national police force have deserted, leaving only 9,000 officers to protect a country of 11.4 million people in which criminal gangs control 80 per cent of Port au Prince and access routes outside the city, which they use to capture much-needed humanitarian relief. According to one report 60 per cent of Haiti’s rural population depends on gangs for the delivery of aid.  

Intervention

Since the end of Baby Doc Duvalier’s rule there have been multiple unilateral and multilateral efforts to stabilize the country. None have ended well.

In 1994, a US military force, acting under UN authorisation, forced the resignation of the military government that had deposed elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A year later, US troops were relieved by a multilateral UN and Organization of American States (OAS) peacekeeping force. 

There followed a massive international effort to convert the former armed forces into a professional national police force, and build an effective, functioning state apparatus and electoral system.

Popular protests forced the re-elected Aristide to flee again in 2004, leading to another US intervention, later replaced by another UN force led by Brazil. A cholera outbreak during the 2010s was traced back to Nepalese UN peacekeepers, whose latrines had leaked into local residents’ water supplies – leading to the deaths of 12,000 Haitians.

The mission ended in 2017, after a massive earthquake in 2010 killed 220,000 Haitians and 96 UN peacekeepers. 

Failing support for a new mission

Current plans to insert yet another UN multilateral force, led by 1,000 Kenyan police officers, are undermanned and under-supported. 

The US has only coughed up $200 million to support the mission. Canada has also promised to add more, but the planned force will still be underfunded and outgunned. 

It’s perhaps understandable that Haiti’s neighbours balk at committing more funds to stabilizing the country: 30 years of multilateral and donor life support has repeatedly failed. Tens of millions poured into building election infrastructure could never curb the excesses of personalistic political projects, corruption and criminality in the country. 

Without coordinated international action, there is a real risk that Haiti may fall completely under the control of criminal gangs.

The government of acting President Ariel Henry is also in doubt, after he failed to step down as promised on 7 February to make way for an interim government. Elections haven’t been held since 2015, and parliament was dissolved after its mandate ended.
But the reluctance and inactivity of Haiti’s neighbours is also cruelly short sighted and an irresponsible refusal to own past failures. 

Without coordinated international action, there is a real risk that Haiti may fall completely under the control of criminal gangs. When the jailbreak happened, President Henry was in Kenya seeking formal approval for the commitment of UN troops. His return to Haiti was thwarted when gangs stormed the airport to prevent his return.  

So who will fill this power vacuum? A US-aided return of the deeply unpopular Henry is unlikely and would likely sustain the upheaval. Some form of compromise interim government needs to be established. 

But it will have to be done quickly: gangs are moving to consolidate their control over the population and infrastructure including the airport, fuel depots and police stations. It is only a matter of time until they attempt to seize government facilities. 

Identifying and putting in place an interim leader and cabinet will require several things in quick succession if not in parallel. The first is a level of consensus among key political actors, free of illicit ties and connections to the gangs. 

Given the gravity of the situation, the UN Security Council needs to meet immediately. 

The second is a commitment for the government to quickly agree to a coordinated national and international effort to re-establish security. This will require a commitment of more equipment and funding than pledged so far.  

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It will also demand more troops than those still being pledged by Kenya, West Africa and the Caribbean. It will require US, Canada, EU and other forces to be in Haiti under a coordinating multilateral force.  

Acting quickly and getting broad-based support for this new ramped up and dangerous mission will mean strong diplomatic and organizational support from the UN Security Council. Given the gravity of the situation, the Council needs to meet immediately. 

Organizing an effective interim government and security force will require refusing the temptation to make concessions – out of a misguided pragmatic realism – to the illicit groups currently running amok in Haiti. 

It will be difficult but any deal, even if implicit, will undermine the credibility and impartiality of international resolve to turn Haiti around from a criminal and failed state.  

But most of all it will take the international community playing the long game – and not simply hoping to limp to the next election.