The crisis of insecurity in Port au Prince is severe. In July alone nearly 500 people were killed when rival gangs warred in Cite Soleil. Armed groups control transportation routes into and out of the capital, and use this position to extort travelers and businesses, engage in kidnappings, and use extreme violence against those challenging their position.
Against the backdrop of this increasingly desperate situation, the calls for an external force to come in and clean up the gangs seems appealing to many. Louis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, has argued for the return of a United Nations' peacekeeping mission (the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti, or MINUSTAH, occupied the country from 2004 until 2017). The Washington Post has been calling for a return of troops in Haiti for some time, and doubled down on the call in an editorial last week. Pam White, former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, was more direct, “Figure out how to get some well trained and equipped troops in Haiti – yesterday.”
Calls for foreign intervention are predicated on the belief that the security situation is dire, and that Haitians are too divided to come to an agreement on the fundamental questions regarding transition from the Henry regime currently in place to a new set of governing institutions. Serious questions of how elections are organized and by whom remain sticking points, for example. In this context, a chorus of voices calling for the international community to intervene and fix things is gaining traction.
We disagree. The Quixote Center opposes any kind of foreign military intervention in Haiti.
Over the last two years Haitian civil society organizations have been engaged in extensive dialogue about governance. The Commission in Search of a Haitian Solution to the Crisis grew out of this process.
At the time the Commission launched its work in January of 2021, Jovenel Moïse was still president and ruling by decree. The international community, led by the United States government, continued to throw its weight behind Moïse, despite the deteriorating security situation, the Moïse government's evident complicity in much of the violence, and his regime's setting aside of constitutional rule.
It is the international community's utter neglect of democratic principles in propping up Moïse that led to the current crisis. In contrast, the Commission's work has succeeded in furthering a civil society dialogue that cuts across historic ideological divides. Thus, the very thing Almagro and others suggest can't happen without international intervention, is happening now, and has been happening for at least 18 months!
Haiti does not need a UN force to invade to create the space for dialogue. What is needed is for the international community to back off its unquestioning support for Henry so that the current government will engage honestly in the already existing dialogue.
In addition, we note that Haiti's last experience with military intervention, under MINUSTAH, was a disaster. People are widely familiar with the UN force's introduction of cholera in 2010, and the widespread sexual violence and exploitation that occurred as the result of the occupation.
Often forgotten today, however, is that MINUSTAH forces engaged in other gross human rights violations. For example, over the course of 18 months, UN soldiers launched attacks on Port-au-Prince's poorest neighborhoods, including a series of massive assaults on Cite Soleil in which dozens of civilians were killed. UN soldiers fired indiscriminately from helicopters, killing sleeping children and their parents as bullets ripped through sheet metal serving as roofs and walls. The assaults on Cite Soleil were not about eradicating gangs, but eradicating a specific leader, Dread Wilme, who opposed the UN occupation. He was killed. The gangs remained.
As was later disclosed via Wikileaks, with US embassy knowledge and support, private business leaders provided arms to police and rival gang leaders to provide “security” for their operations and to control neighborhoods like Cite Soleil and Bel Air. In other words, the occupation only deepened the crisis of insecurity by further entrenching collaboration between economic and political elites, the police, and armed groups. MINUSTAH's raids into these communities were, thus, not providing security for Haitians, but backing an economic class seeking to retain their dominant role in Haitian politics. There is no reason to believe a new UN military intervention would act any different.
So, what can the international community do?
First, the United States can step back from its unquestioning support for the de facto government of Ariel Henry. As long as the US State Department backs Henry, they are making a mockery of any claim to neutrality. A Haitian led solution is the only way that stability returns. And, the only way this can happen is if the United States changes course.
Second, an agreement on governance has to be implemented, and insecurity could be a major obstacle. But the agreement on governance has to come first, then insecurity can be addressed through the mechanisms established. The international community can help, but under the direction of a Haitian-led transitional authority, not in place of one.
Thirdly, long-term insecurity must be addressed as a structural problem. Gangs are a symptom of multiple, cross cutting crises: Rapid urbanization, under-resourcing of public services including public education, and a lack of employment opportunities, leading to long-term extreme poverty. People join gangs (or emigrate) when they see no other opportunity to improve their lives.
The international community has contributed greatly to these problems through years of mandated structural adjustment policies that have gutted the public sector in Haiti in exchange for debt servicing agreements. The international community should cancel much of Haiti's international debt, which has mostly been accrued under illegitimate governments.
International NGOs have also contributed through implementing poverty relief programs that provide charitable assistance but do not create living wage jobs or provide access to high-paying markets for Haiti's natural resources and agricultural products.
Fourth, where the gangs operate, listen to the peace-makers. People in troubled communities like Cite Soleil, Martissant, and elsewhere want peace. They know the history of their communities. They know gang members and they understand what drives the problem. They know what has worked in their communities and what has not. Listen to them! This is a mandate that applies to non-governmental organizations. NGOs too often place themselves between the people of Haiti and those with power; NGOs act as filters when they should be amplifiers. They too, need to respect Haitian led solutions.
Fifth, the United States and regional governments need to do more to reign in illegal gun sales to Haiti. Gun sales to Haiti are supposed to be highly restricted and monitored already, but the system is clearly broken. The United States must evaluate, fix and enforce this system alongside officials from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Finally, on August 8, 2022, Luis Almagro issued a statement in which he said, “[t]he last 20 years of the international community's presence in Haiti has amounted to one of the worst and clearest failures implemented and executed within the framework of any international cooperation.” We agree. However, in the same statement Almagro later insisted that the international community had an indispensable role to play, and as noted, a few days later he was actually suggesting the return of a UN peace-keeping mission.
Recognizing the failures of past interventions, while promoting future ones, makes no sense. The international community must get on another track in Haiti; one that respects the initiative of Haitian civil society who are right now trying to build a more democratic future. If the situation in Haiti is extreme, then perhaps it requires drastic measures, and let's face it, non-intervention is the only thing that hasn't been tried. Maybe now is the time.