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Haiti: a peaceful multinational approach, not a warlike force

Haiti needs “to get its political and governance act together”. That is among the important messages that UN Secretary General, António Guterres, delivered to the UN Security Council in a letter on August 14, 2023.

Guterres’ letter was a response to the Security Council’s request for proposals to tackle the security and humanitarian crises in Haiti.

While the Secretary General repeats his call made to the Security Council in July 2023 “to authorise the immediate deployment of a robust international security force” to help Haiti’s police fight criminal gangs, the significance of this latest letter is the importance of settling the vexed issue of the country’s governance.

Guterres emphasized that “Without a meaningful reform of the political system, Haiti will continue to face these cycles of crises and instability emanating from weak political representation and disenfranchisement, a political climate, and fragile and politicized state institutions”.

Failed and corrupt governance has been at the root of Haiti’s poverty, economic backwardness, and inadequate physical and social infrastructure.

From these circumstances gangs were formed, first as tools of rival politicians and business oligarchs, and then as a force to take advantage of a situation of totally collapsed governance structures and systems.

Haiti has no legislature; its Court system is utterly dysfunctional; and many of Haiti’s political parties and civil society organizations have declared no confidence in the self-appointed government of Haiti which has shown no inclination to establish a transitional government that genuinely shares power and represents a broad cross section of the society.

The situation in Haiti is dire, and the people of Haiti deserve to be liberated from the persistent deprivation and suffering that they are forced to endure. But the proposed “deployment of a specialized multinational force enabled by military assets, coordinated with the national police”, should be at the request of an agreed transitional government if it is to enjoy popular backing.

As the organisation, Human Rights Watch, observed: “The Haitian government has failed to protect people from the violence of these criminal groups, many of which have alleged ties with senior political officials, economic actors, and police officers.

International security support may be required, but it will most likely only be effective with a new transitional government and as part of a multi-faceted response with strong human rights safeguards”.

Such a transitional government is necessary, bearing in mind that many Haitian organizations believe that any successful external force would end up, intentionally or otherwise, maintaining the present unelected government of Dr. Ariel Henry.

If success means getting rid of gangs by “active use of force in targeted police operations against heavily armed gangs”, as Secretary General Guterres described it, then what is really meant is war against the gangs that are now entrenched throughout Haiti.

Such a war would not result in casualties only among gang leaders and members. It would also include fatalities among communities, which are used as protective shields in any resistance to “active use of force”. The deaths of combatants from any multinational force could also be considerable.

The governments of the Bahamas and Jamaica have understandably offered to join an external force. Both countries face challenges from Haitians seeking refuge, leading to substantial expenditures on border protection, repatriation efforts, and containment. This direct impact underscores their vested interest in Haiti’s stabilization.

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The governments of Canada and the United States, arguably having a similar vested interest, have yet to express intentions to contribute police or soldiers. Instead, they encourage countries in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean to do so, providing logistical support and finance for operations.

Apart from The Bahamas and Jamaica, no government has made a formal decision to commit troops. Even Kenya is awaiting a study before declaring its position.

To some extent, reluctance stems from the fact that this would not be a “peace keeping force”, operating with a mandate from the UN Security Council. Instead, it would be force made up from willing countries, undertaking the “recapture of areas under gang control”.

Such a mission is easier said than done.   The gangs were already well armed, violent and accustomed to confrontation and killing before the much-publicized discussions concerning the deployment of a multinational force.

Some of the gangs are linked to organised criminal enterprises and they would have been fortified with more powerful weaponry than they already possessed.

Guterres pointed out to the Security Council that the “gangs have become more structured, federated and autonomous [-] consolidating control over the population”.

The gangs also have a vested interest in preserving themselves and the criminal activity from which they derive money and power; they will not slink away with their tails between their legs. They will fight viciously.

The argument has been advanced that, integral to stability in Haiti, are general elections at which voters will elect the president of the country and representatives to the legislature and municipalities.

The argument continues that to mount such elections requires Haiti to be secure. Therefore, getting rid of the gangs and establishing a functional police force are compulsory.

But even if a multinational force was constructed and it entered Haiti at the request of the unelected Prime Minister, Dr Ariel Henry, eliminating gangs after a bloody confrontation, the fundamental issue of Haiti’s governance would remain.

Elections, organised only by Dr Henry’s government, would not satisfy any – other than his own political party – that such elections would be organized, administered and conducted to produce free and fair results, particularly if they come after a period of violent conflict.

The existing disaffection and hostility would explode into protests and demonstrations. Given all this, Haiti might now best be served by a multinational team of negotiators and facilitators made up of persons from countries with leverage and others that enjoy goodwill of Haitian players.

Such a team could work with the various parties in Haiti to establish a transitional government that would have the authority to interface with, and make credible requests of, the international community, including for clearly defined police assistance.

The team might also begin to explore with the main gang leaders the terms of dismantling their organisations and laying down their weapons with the aim of preventing widespread violence and bloodshed.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own