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What Haiti Needs Is Human Rights Support — Not More Military Interventions

Armed interventions don’t change the reality that many people in Haiti need to join gangs to meet their basic needs.

People protest during a demonstration against Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the United Nations amid a health and security crisis in Port-au-Prince on October 21, 2022.

The past few days have seen unprecedented violence and an escalated humanitarian crisis in Haiti that has reached unimaginable proportions. De facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was traveling this past weekend, is unable to return to Haiti as gang leaders threaten to create even more chaos if he returns. Meanwhile according to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, the U.S. has asked Henry to “move forward on a political process that will lead to the establishment of a presidential transitional council that will lead to elections.”

Amid Henry’s absence, the de facto Haitian government, led by de facto Finance Minister Patrick Boisvert, declared a state of emergency this past weekend following gang leaders’ attack on Haiti’s National Penitentiary, as well as on another prison in Croix-des-Bouquets, a town near Port-au-Prince. These attacks liberated approximately 4,000 prisoners, including gang leaders.

One of the most famous and powerful gang leaders from the group of gangs known as G9 and Family, Jimmy Chérizier a former police officer (also called “Barbecue”), has stated that he will do whatever it takes to overthrow the government. He has asked Haitians to “mobilize against the government” and wants Henry to resign. Cherizier told the Associated Press: “I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight.… I’m a threat to the system.”

There are over 200 gangs in Haiti. The gang situation in Haiti is complex and has a long history that goes as far back as the early 2000s under the leadership of then President Aristide with the Chimè. It did not just start under Ariel Henry, but it has definitely escalated. In a country where more than 60 percent of people are under 25 with a high unemployment rate and easy access to guns, it is a prime place to have a federation of gangs. At times some of these gang members have provided basic service and protection in some neighborhoods. The failure of the government has contributed to the increase of gangs. The gangs finance themselves by kidnappings and extortion.

Whereas before the gangs were fighting with one another, in the last few weeks they have come together to form their own “government.” According to photojournalist Giles Clark, who interviewed Cherizier recently, “the gangs have formed themselves into a union of power.” He further notes that “They want to be at the seat of political power.… There is an alliance and there is going to be a union of the larger gangs.… He is a Robin Hood type who is building schools and wants libraries.”

Last week, the gangs shot at planes at the airport, forcing the airport to shut down and canceling flights. Prime Minister Henry, who was traveling, has not been able to return to Haiti. Instead, his private plane made an unexpected landing in Puerto Rico.

Gangs in Haiti have more resources in terms of weapons, human power and supplies than the Haitian police and government put together. According to a UN report, there are very sophisticated and high powered weapons such as AK-47s, AR-15s and Galils (Israeli-made assault rifles) that are going to Haiti from the U.S., especially Florida.

The gangs have also used kidnapping money and ransom as well as the smuggling of firearms to help them become more powerful. According to a United Nations report released in September 2023, at that time about 800 officers had left the police force as a result of resignations, fatalities and dismissals. Other officers have also left Haiti via the Biden Humanitarian Parole Program, which is a program that provides “a safe and orderly pathways to the United States.” Anyone who is financially capable can apply for anyone else without any family ties.

The last public elections in Haiti took place in 2017. The supposedly ongoing investigation regarding the assassination of former Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 has not revealed any tangible results. Despite the outcry of Haitians in Haiti and in the diaspora, the international community has supported de facto Prime Minister Henry, who assumed power after Moïse’s death.

Since that time, the situation in Haiti has only grown more dire. In October 2022, as the country was being taken over by gangs, Henry asked the international community for support, in the face of the reality that the gangs were better armed than the Haitian National Police force. No one responded. Some countries have reportedly questioned the legitimacy of Henry’s government.

In October 2023, the UN Security Council approved a resolution that was drafted by the United States and Ecuador authorizing a multinational security support mission, which will support the Haitian National Police in dealing with the gang violence and establish security in order to be able to hold elections. The resolution is meant to help “protect state institutions and critical infrastructure [as well as] launch a counter-offensive against gangs.” Kenya volunteered to lead that mission. Given Kenya’s humanitarian record — a record filled with abuses and human rights violations such as forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings — many Haitians, Kenyans, and others have raised concerns, and the courts in Kenya delayed the deployment.

Given the UN’s history of international interventions in Haiti and the multiple occupations that have resulted in a cholera epidemic and unpunished sexual abuse, Haitians both in Haiti and the diaspora have decried the specter of this new occupation.

The Caribbean Community and Common Market, or CARICOM, a group made up of 20 member countries in the region, including Haiti, met in late February and expressed serious concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Haiti and urged a path forward that includes having elections by August 2025. They urged the various parties to “make the necessary concessions to arrive at a resolution of the political impasse [and] urged that each Stakeholder must recognize that they will not obtain all that they want, but Haiti must obtain what it needs.”

Last week, Henry and Kenyan President William Ruto signed a bilateral agreement that will allow Kenya to send 1,000 police officers to Haiti to “lead a multinational mission that will help restore law and order.” Other countries, including Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad and the Bahamas, have promised to send forces to support the Kenyan-led mission.

Countries like the U.S., Canada and France, as well as the UN — entities that have contributed to destabilizing Haiti over the course of its history — have a moral imperative vis-à-vis Haiti that requires a different kind of involvement from just turning the crisis over to Kenyan armed forces and acting as if the U.S., Canada and France are no longer implicated. Jake Johnston, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism and the Battle to Control Haiti, points out: “The US is not going to say publicly that they are asking Henry to resign. No surprise they are denying the reports. But what they are saying they are asking Henry to do is likely to result in his resignation, because nobody is making a political deal that keeps him in power.”

There need to be specific goals and rules of engagement governing any form of international involvement in Haiti’s stabilization. Leaders in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora should also be involved in this mission.

Because there are so many gangs, a realistic approach to the situation must involve thinking through how people who are currently affiliated with gangs will get tools and resources to become productive members of society. For instance, how will they get access to education and gainful employment that will help keep them away from returning to the gang life? What mechanism will be in place? The majority of Haitians in Haiti do not trust foreigners, even if they are Black like them. Many people still view Kenya as a representative of the UN and carrying out its mission. People are tired of interventions.

Whether or not international efforts to support Haiti’s stabilization succeed will in part depend on whether these efforts involve strategies to integrate everyday people, find a compromise among the various political parties to be able to share power and help Haitians (and especially the youth) see a future in Haiti.

A key part of what Haiti needs right now is a mechanism for a clear and transparent path to a transition that will lead to fair elections. The elections should include Haitian leaders in Haiti and in the diaspora.

There is also a need for transparency, rules of engagement and a way to prosecute human rights violations, as well as a need for healing. The recent surge of gang violence points to the fact that when the rule of law fails, another system of “order” will enter to fill the gap.

There must therefore be a long-term solution that includes dealing with the causes and conditions of the gangs. Haiti is a country in which more than half of the population is under 25 years old. Haitian youth require sustainable educational paths, access to health care and the hope of a better future. Haitians in Haiti — and especially young people — need to be able to imagine a future where they can go to school and have their basic needs met without having to be part of a gang.

Fundamental issues associated with social justice and inequity must be resolved. Military interventions such as the Kenyan mission are unlikely to end the violence.

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