Haiti: will another international intervention help?
Amid extensive gang crime, widespread shortages of food, fuel and other essentials and deep public disaffection, Haiti’s current leader Ariel Henry has made a request for the international community to send armed support to help restore order. Many Haitian citizens are however protesting against this, stung by the experience of numerous past acts of self-interested foreign intervention that haven’t made their lives any better, and have often made them worse. There remains an ongoing need for long-term international support for Haiti – but it must be guided by local civil society voices to ensure it helps develop the ability of Haitians to take control and find their own solutions.
The message was loud and clear: ‘Down with Ariel Henry, down with the foreign occupation’. On 10 October, thousands marched under this banner on the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and other cities in reaction to a recent government call for foreign intervention.
A multifaceted crisis
Henry, who emerged as Haiti’s temporary leader following the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, addressed the nation to justify his decision after criminal groups took over a key fuel terminal in protest at petrol prices.
On 11 September, Henry announced the government could no longer afford fuel subsidies. His decision triggered a wave of riots and looting of warehouses filled with food aid. Gangs retaliated by seizing control of the fuel depot. Among their demands were the removal of Henry and several government ministers.
The blockade of the Varreux depot brought the country to a standstill, further worsening a crisis marked by insecurity, inflation and water, food and fuel shortages. It even meant hospitals and water treatment companies couldn’t operate – amid an outbreak of cholera.
This came on top of a situation already aggravated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, since 20 per cent of Haiti’s food supply comes from imports. Some 4.7 million Haitians – almost half the population – suffer from acute hunger.
In recent years armed gangs have flourished. The assassination of Moïse created a political vacuum. In the absence of adequate security forces and an executive and judicial system capable of enforcing the law, around 200 criminal groups have taken control of large parts of Port-au-Prince and major transport routes. The gangs, better equipped than the police, are engaged in a systematic campaign of kidnapping for ransom: in the first six months of 2022 alone, 680 people were kidnapped, 934 were killed and 684 injured by gangs, according to the United Nations (UN) mission.
In early July, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported at least 52 women and girls, some as young as 10, had been subjected to collective rapes during several weeks of gang clashes in Port-au-Prince. In September alone, at least 20,000 Haitians were reported to have been displaced from their homes as a result of the violence. Children are being recruited by gangs.
People have responded by protesting at the multiple elements of the crisis they’re enduring, including crime, the denial of basic rights, poverty and shortages of essentials, and calling for change of leadership. Recent weeks have seen repeat protests. On 3 October, for example, thousands marched against the government, with the police responding with teargas.
Understandably, many have also decided they have no choice but to flee, driven by the dire situation to take highly dangerous migration routes. In recent years, many Haitians have died sailing across the Caribbean to reach the USA. In July, 17 people drowned when a boat carrying dozens of migrants capsized near the coast of the Bahamas. A similar tragedy happened near Puerto Rico’s shores two months earlier, when 11 people lost their lives.
UN agencies have called on receiving countries to refrain from expelling Haitians and properly assess asylum claims, but the USA, the country to which most Haitians seek to flee, uses a policy of mass deportations and rigid border control. Since the pandemic, it has used its Title 42 law – under the Health Service Act – to block migrants at its Mexican border on disease control grounds. Last year, it forced over 19,000 Haitians to return. The USA may support intervention on the grounds of the security situation – but it continues to send people back there.
Government calls for intervention
On 9 October Henry formally requested that the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, approve an immediate deployment of specialist armed forces. Henry said the call came in response to the security turmoil caused by armed gangs.
In a display of support, Canada and the USA have provided local police with armoured vehicles. Guterres has requested an armed operation to secure a humanitarian corridor and resume the distribution of fuel, water and food. But there’s some division on whether an armed intervention is the right way to go.
On 17 October, the Mexican and US governments presented a resolution to the UN Security Council proposing a ‘non-UN mission led by a partner country’ to restore order. But Helen La Lime, head of the UN Integrated Office in Haiti, has expressed support for a local-led solution. In her view, an armed intervention will not be sufficient to address the multiple layers of the country’s current crisis.
To outsiders, Henry’s decision to seek international help may seem understandable, given the scale of the problems. But Haitians remember their country’s long and troubled history of foreign intervention and don’t see how this is going to solve their problems.
A history of failed interventions
Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. The first Latin American country to cast off the colonial yoke, it became the world’s first Black-led republic, founded by liberated slaves. But it literally paid a heavy price for freedom: France demanded massive punitive compensation, including for the loss of slaves, saddling the country with huge debts it took 122 years to pay off. This had devastating impacts on the young independent state, leaving it with a legacy of poverty and underdevelopment to this day.
The USA, with its slave-based economy, withheld diplomatic recognition for decades, seeking to isolate Haiti internationally. Then in 1915, when President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated, US armed forces began a brutal occupation that lasted for 19 years. This was preceded by a US takeover of the National Bank of Haiti. During the occupation, US officials amended Haiti’s constitution to take control of its treasury and customs agency – further ensuring that resources flowed out of Haiti rather than contributing to its development. The armed deployment saw two decades of racial discrimination and repression.
The pattern has continued of the US government seeing Haiti through the lens of its self-interest. The despotic and corrupt rule of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ were tolerated by the US government because Haiti positioned itself as a bulwark against the spread of communism from Cuba.
Interference was sustained under the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. He was deposed just months after taking office in 1991, with forces that received funding from the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency reportedly involved.
The USA supported his return in 1994, after an UN-backed military operation carried out by US and allied forces. Aristide won the presidency again in 2001, but a violent insurgency that begun that same year forced him to flee in 2004. In 2022, France’s former ambassador to Haiti said that the coup had been orchestrated by France and the USA, in part in response to Aristide’s demands that France pay reparations for the money it had extracted from Haiti.
Even after the devastating earthquake of 2010, in which an estimated 220,000 people died, political interference continued. In the delayed presidential election – with the first round held in November 2010 and run-off in March 2011 – former US President Bill Clinton, then the UN’s Special Envoy to Haiti, and then-US Secretary-General Hillary Clinton, both actively supported the candidacy of Michel Martelly. The USA was among the states pushing for elections, even though many people were disenfranchised, having lost their homes and all their documents in the earthquake.
Despite initially placing third, Martelly was promoted to the run-off following a controversial vote review by the Organization of American States (OAS), winning the second round. His administration was marked by rampant corruption and abuse of power, but the US government continued to support him and his chosen successor, Moïse, who served as president from 2017 until his assassination in 2021.
The history of UN intervention is also an unhappy one. The first UN forces arrived in 1994, and then the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) came to the country following the second coup against Aristide in 2004. It stayed until 2017, when a smaller force, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, took its place. This in turn was replaced by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti. In July, the UN Security Council extended its mandate for another year, increasing its staffing.
MINUSTAH had been in the country for three years when it was accused of involvement in a major sexual abuse scandal. Peacekeepers, including a contingent from Sri Lanka, were accused of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of the local population, including children. Many young girls became pregnant as a result and were abandoned.
When it became clear the UN had brought cholera to Haiti, people took to the streets in several days of anti-UN protests. The UN was accused of trying to cover up its culpability and then dragging its heels. Eventually, in 2016 then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a public apology to Haitians and announced the establishment of a US$400 million trust fund to help victims. But the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility for the epidemic, and hardly any of the money pledged has been raised or spent. And now cholera has returned.
Haitians have cause to be suspicious of international civil society organisations (CSOs) too. The huge aid effort that mobilised following the 2010 earthquake did little to nothing to help develop local resilience and the capacity of communities to respond to crises. In 2018 the government banned Oxfam from operating in the country following allegations of sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti. The organisation had dismissed the staff involved in 2011 but then was accused of covering up its investigation.
Other international CSOs have also been accused of misconduct. It’s little wonder many Haitians are suspicious of outside intervention.
Voices from the frontline
Monique Clesca is a journalist, democracy advocate and member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
The Montana Group formed in early 2021 out of the realisation that civil society must get involved because political actors could not find a solution to Haiti’s problems. A forum of civil society then put together a commission that worked for six months creating dialogue and trying to build consensus by speaking to all political actors, as well as to civil society organisations. As a result of all this input, we came up with a draft agreement that was finalised and signed by almost a thousand organisations and citizens: the Montana Accord.
We put together a two-part plan: a governance plan and a social justice and humanitarian roadmap, which was signed as part of the agreement. To get consensus with wider participation, we proposed the creation of a checks and balances body that would carry out the role of the legislative branch and also an interim judiciary during the transition. Once Haiti can have transparent elections, there would be a proper elected legislative body and the government could go through the constitutional process to name the high-level judiciary body, the Supreme Court. That is the governance that we’ve envisioned for the transition, one that is closer to the spirit of the Haitian Constitution.
The main challenge to holding elections right away is the massive insecurity. Gangs are terrorising the population. Kidnappings are rampant, people are being assassinated. People can’t go out of their homes: they can’t go to the bank, to the stores, to the hospital. Children can’t go to school: classes were supposed to start in September, then in October and now the government is silent on when they will start.
There is also the dire humanitarian situation. And there is political polarisation and massive mistrust.
Because of the political pressure and gang activity, citizen mobilisations have been up and down, but since late August there have been massive demonstrations calling for Henry’s resignation. People have also marched against rising fuel prices, shortages and corruption. They have also clearly rejected any foreign military intervention.
Henry has no legitimacy to call for any military intervention. The international community can help, but it is not up to them to decide whether to intervene or not. We first need to have a two-year political transition with a credible government. We have ideas, but at this point, we need to see a transition.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Monique. Read the full interview here.
Civil society must be part of the conversation
Meanwhile, domestic politics remain as messy and riven by self-interest as ever. Elections are overdue and many believe Henry lacks legitimacy.
In early 2020, Moïse began governing Haiti by decree. He suspended elections and planned a referendum to revise the constitution, which would have expanded presidential power and limited the role of parliament – and likely given him scope to run for further terms. The proposed referendum has been repeatedly delayed since Moïse’s assassination.
As for the investigation of his killing, there have been numerous lines of inquiry and some trials, but the masterminds continue to evade justice. Henry is among those alleged to be implicated in the assassination. He had been named as Haiti’s next prime minister at the time of the killing but hadn’t been sworn in. The situation was complicated because parliament was in abeyance due to failures to hold legislative elections. Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph originally stepped in as acting president, but this role was disputed by both Henry and Senate leader Joseph Lambert.
Henry took over the leadership of Haiti following the intervention of the so-called ‘Core Group’ of diplomats from Brazil, France, Germany, Spain and the USA, along with the European Union and OAS. He’s remained in the role since, beyond the official end of his term in February, and will do so until elections are held. He’s the de facto leader no Haitians voted for – but who foreign states chose.
Outside powers, including the UN and USA, are keen to see a roadmap to elections. In many contexts, this would be a call enthusiastically backed by civil society. But many civil society activists are questioning the pressure and calling for caution. In their view, rushing the elections amid many challenges – including voter registration, independence of electoral bodies and the obvious security concerns – would jeopardise the prospects of a much-needed democratic transition.
Civil society must get involved because political actors cannot find a solution to our problems.
To help develop consensus, civil society is urging a participatory and inclusive approach to restoring democratic rights. After President Moïse’s assassination, the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis – formed by around 365 Haitian organisations, including church groups, law groups and trade unions – signed an open letter urging Haiti’s international partners to consider local civil society as a key stakeholder in solving the crisis.
The group presented the Montana Accord, a call for transitional governance that could lead to transparent, free and fair elections. Civil society involved with the call believe only locally based processes to develop broad political consensus can restore security, justice and social stability.
Press release( translated in english)from the Monitoring Bureau and other bodies of the agreement of 30th august 2021 agreement, so called the Montana accord #Haiti #haitian #Pouyontranzisyonkoupefache #longliveahaitianledsolution #longliveasovereignhaiti pic.twitter.com/zti9Rp750j— Bureau de Suivi de l'Accord de Montana (@BSA_Montana3008) September 26, 2022
Henry’s so far doesn’t seem to be listening. Instead, he may be hoping to benefit from political division to stay in power – likely presenting himself as the stability candidate to win international support. Haiti’s international partners may be pointing in the same direction, willing to prop up whoever currently wields some power as a desirable alternative to anarchy – including through military support.
Perhaps some hope – cautiously, given its history in the country – comes from a recent US government decision to include Haiti as a priority country under the Global Fragility Act. This represents an attempt to promote long-term stability by addressing the vulnerabilities that cause violence. Rather than mainly proposing armed intervention, the Act aims to prevent conflict by focusing on governance.
The Act states that the US government should work with a variety of local partners – including civil society – to allow diverse voices to shape solutions. On its own, it isn’t enough – but it could be a start, because it signals what should be established as a key principle: there’s no way forward without Haiti’s civil society.
OUR CALLS OF ACTION
International partners should commit to working with local civil society to develop a practical and inclusive roadmap for democratic transition.
International support to Haiti must be targeted to ensure that urgent humanitarian needs are addressed, while also restoring the rule of law, access to justice and security.
Governments receiving migrants and refugees from Haiti should commit to ending deportations and instead work to accommodate and support Haitians.
Cover photo by Reuters/Ricardo Arduengo via Gallo Images