Haiti: The urgent need to break out of the endless cycle of insecurity and instability
By Colette Lespinasse, COEH facilitator
31 August 2023
The situation in Haiti is becoming increasingly chaotic, with the rise of armed groups terrorising the population. Since the assassination of President Moise in 2021, these gangs have multiplied, extending their control over the capital and certain regions. Violence, murder and rape are on the increase, causing massive displacement, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare and education. Humanitarian organisations and the United Nations are alarmed by this escalation in violence. The Haitian state is in a state of collapse, incapable of protecting its population. There is an urgent need for the international community, in particular the countries and institutions that make up the Core Group, like the European Union, which are playing an important role in this crisis, to critically re-examine the current approach and finally support the Haitian civil society players in their efforts to find a lasting Haitian solution to this interminable crisis.
Haitians are suffering from an increasingly chaotic situation with no apparent prospect of a future. In recent months, this chaos has been characterised by the unrestrained deployment of armed groups, who everyday control larger areas of the capital and certain provincial regions, particularly Artibonite, the country’s main breadbasket. These bandits, who act with complete impunity, drive people from their homes, kill, injure, burn, pillage and rape.
“Between April 2022 and April 2023, around 16 massacres and armed attacks took place in various neighbourhoods, towns and cities, including Cité-Soleil, Bel Air, Solino, Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, Butte-Boyer, Santo, Tabarre, Pernier, Fermathe, Thomassin, Laboule, Meyotte, Malik, Source Matelas, Canaan, Pétion Ville, Debussy, Liancourt, Verrettes, Croix de Bouquets, Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite and L’Estère”, according to a report published by the Fondation Je Klere (FJKL) in May 2023. The latest massacres were perpetrated in the vast working-class district of Carrefour-Feuilles (south-east) in the capital on 13 August and in Canaan/Lilavois, on the northern outskirts, on Saturday 26 August 2023. It must be said that August has been a particularly bloody month, with people being killed every day. No area has been spared, neither the so-called residential areas nor the working-class neighbourhoods.
Humanitarian and human rights organisations are still counting the damage caused by these gangs. In May 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of the endless escalation of the cycle of violence in Haiti”. In April alone, more than 600 people were killed in a new wave of extreme violence that struck several districts of the capital”, according to information gathered by the Human Rights Department of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH).” This follows the murder of at least 846 people in the first three months of 2023, in addition to 393 people injured and 395 abducted during the same period”, wrote the UN Human Rights Office. According to this UN body, “this represented a 28% increase in violence compared to the previous quarter”.
At the same time, kidnappings continued unabated, with high ransoms demanded, torture and extended periods of captivity. Due to the increase in gang violence and the weakness of the police, “vigilante brigades” have sprung up and mass lynchings against gang members and common criminals have also increased in the capital. The brigades are taking their cue from a fanciful and much-criticised statement by the Minister of Justice, Emmelie Prophète, who called on the population to defend itself, while conceding that there are “lost territories” in the country. On Saturday 26 August, several hundred churchgoers, led by Pastor Marco, decided to go to Canaan to confront one of the most powerful gangs in the area. The faithful were met with live ammunition and the adventure ended in a massacre in which several of the pastor’s followers died, dozens were injured, and many were taken captive. Canaan is a vast shantytown built after the earthquake of 12 January 2010 on the northern outskirts of the capital and is now an impassable danger zone.
This situation of terror is forcing many families to abandon their homes. According to figures published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 160,000 people were displaced in the capital in March 2023. In the meantime, with new massacres and bandit attacks in new areas of the capital and communes in the Artibonite department between April and August, these figures have risen sharply.
What has become of the Haitian state?
What is most surprising is the indifference or passivity shown by the public authorities, who are responsible for protecting the population. Several people have accused Prime Minister Henry of colluding with the bandits. In a report published on 18 August 2023, the National Human Rights Defence Network (RNDDH) denounced the escalation of violence in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area and in the Artibonite department, with the complicity of police and government authorities.
However, when it comes to putting down demonstrations or protests of any kind, the police are always very present, as was the case when they used tear gas and live ammunition to dislodge displaced persons who had fled from the terror of armed groups and taken refuge in front of the American Embassy.
More and more people are questioning the existence of the Haitian state. They are asking what is the point of this government, placed in power by BINUH and the Core Group, which is accountable to no one? The few humanitarian actions to help the displaced have been carried out by humanitarian organisations, not by the government.
How does the population live in such a context?
The already precarious living conditions of the Haitian population have worsened. From one day to the next, families are losing everything they have accumulated over decades. Many jobs have been lost in both the formal and informal sectors, leaving a large proportion of the population unemployed. In the department of Artibonite, the country’s breadbasket, many farmers have deserted their land to escape the fury of the gangs and can no longer work it. Those who remain are held to ransom by the bandits, who force them to pay compensation to be able to work their land.
Despite everything, provincial towns such as Cap-Haitien and the entire northern region, and Les Cayes, Jérémie and Jacmel in the south, are trying to keep their activities alive, and the populations of these areas are striving to go about their business freely. However, given that all public administration and the main infrastructure have long been centralised in Port-au-Prince, the provinces are still seriously affected by the paralysis in the capital. They have nevertheless celebrated their patron saint festivals, which have attracted large numbers of people from Port-au-Prince and even from the diaspora, despite the blocking of the country’s main roads in both the north and south.
The countryside and provincial towns not yet under gang control remain places of refuge. But when large groups arrive at farming families empty-handed, it puts a lot of pressure on the meagre resources of this section of the population, which is already struggling to survive and can no longer sell its produce on the markets because of road blockages and the ransoms demanded by the gangs to move from one place to another. In this context, it is worth noting the courage of the women traders and some of the lorry drivers who brave all sorts of dangers to continue supplying the capital, thereby avoiding shortages. This work is often done at the risk of their lives, and their profit margins are considerably reduced because of the additional transport costs and ransoms they have to pay.
All the protection indicators are in the red in Haiti. Food insecurity has reached 4.9 million inhabitants. Cholera, which resurfaced at the end of 2022, is more or less under control, although outbreaks do occur from time to time in certain regions. Access to healthcare and education is becoming increasingly difficult, due to a lack of resources or the absence of qualified human resources to provide services.
In areas occupied by armed groups, children no longer go to school or teachers work under surveillance when the premises are not simply requisitioned by the thugs. Official exams were nevertheless held in July, and the Ministry of Education has announced that classes will reopen on 11 September. But we already know that many children will not be able to go to school, either because they were displaced, or because their parents can no longer afford to pay the back-to-school fees.
Migration remains the only way out. Thousands of Haitians are fleeing the country. The majority are crossing the border into the Dominican Republic (DR) and are often deported. Between 20,000 and 25,000 expulsions from the DR have been recorded every month since the beginning of the year. Others try to reach the Florida coast on flimsy boats. To stem the flow of Haitians seeking asylum at the US border with Mexico, in January 2023 US President Joe Biden adopted the Humanitarian Parole programme, which allows Haitian citizens to travel to the United States if they find a supporter willing to take them in. Between January and June 2023, 560,000 people applied for this programme, and 63,000 have already received a positive reply authorising them to travel to the United States. Gradually, the country is emptying itself of its executives and young people, eager to learn and share their knowledge. This new exodus of Haitians is having an impact on the operation of public and private institutions, which are seeing their best-prepared and most experienced executives leave.
How can we understand this chaos?
The Haitian state has completely collapsed, and everyone admits it. Groups linked to mafia sectors have taken advantage of this to take control of whole swathes of what remains of the State. The arming of armed groups who manage to find highly sophisticated weapons and ammunition would appear to be the work of these mafiosi who want to keep the country as it is for their own needs.
This state, as it exists today, was set up under the American occupation (between 1915 and 1934) and is now definitively obsolete. A few bits and pieces remain or are pretending to exist, because the framework of institutions, laws, functions, and staff who receive their salaries as best they can exist. But there is less and less service and protection for the population.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry is accountable to no one, at least not to Haitian stakeholders, and does as he pleases with the country’s resources. Parliament has collapsed, the judicial system is dysfunctional. The police do not respond to calls from citizens for help, who ask them to intervene, and the justice system does not crack down on gangs. An embryonic remobilised army, headed by a general and a minister of defence, is made up of a thousand idle men and women who are paid to do nothing. The citizens are abandoned to their fate. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has neither a programme nor a mandate, goes to numerous international conferences to expose the weakness of the state he leads and to ask for support, without being able to say what he is doing at home to take matters into his own hands. On two (2) occasions, he signed agreements with a group of political parties and groups gathered around him and promised to carry out a series of reforms. But on each occasion, these commitments were not followed up.
For its part, the opposition is calling for a return to an order similar to the 1987 Constitution, which provides for a two-headed Executive: a President and a Prime Minister. It does not accept that the Prime Minister should assume all the powers, including those of the President, doing as he pleases at this crucial moment in our lives as a people. More than two years after the assassination of the equally much-maligned President Moise, no consensus has yet emerged among the Haitian players on the direction to take the country. The Haitian courts have yet to rule on what happened to him.
According to observers, behind this interminable crisis lies the challenge of reconstituting and rebuilding the Haitian state, especially its security forces. The countries that have always dominated Haitian politics are doing everything they can to impose their policies on this new state. They are organising meetings here and there and telling Mr Ariel Henry, whom they support unreservedly, what to do. For example, on the eve of the meeting between Haitian political players to be held in Jamaica, at the initiative of Caricom, the head of BINUH, Ms Salvador, organised a press conference to demand the direction in which the talks should be held. For its part, the United States has been very active in identifying and finding a country willing to lead a multinational force in Haiti.
How can Haiti get out of this quagmire?
The situation in Haiti has been the subject of much discussion at international level, and somewhat less so at national level. Haitians, aware of what is at stake, are demanding that they regain their sovereignty, even if they admit that they will need the support of an understanding and supportive international community for certain operations.
The opposition, which includes the signatories of the Montana Accord (a grouping of civil society organisations and political parties), believes it is necessary to take advantage of this exceptional situation to lay the foundations for a new state that will serve its people and replace the current one, which has completely collapsed. To achieve this, it demands the recovery of the Haitian people’s sequestered sovereignty and their right to shape their own destiny. According to the opposition, this recovery of sovereignty cannot be achieved with Ariel Henry in power, but only with a transitional government supported by a large majority of Haitian society. The opposition is taking part in discussions with the international community to put forward its point of view, but it does not accept the intervention of a multinational force as proposed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Any support for strengthening the country’s security forces will only make sense if there is a transitional government in place that is able to assume the leadership of the Haitians over the international force, the opposition maintains.
But the international community, as it is currently composed and the balance of power that determines it, swears by the holding of elections and constitutional reform, even if it means establishing a minimum level of security with the presence of a multinational force to make this project possible. The United States and the UN Secretary General used their influence to find a country willing to take the lead of this force. In the end, the East African country of Kenya agreed, following the withdrawal of several other candidates, including Canada. This position is supported by the political parties and groups backing Mr Ariel Henry.
At no point was the issue of the reconstruction of the collapsed state or the need for lasting peace in Haiti raised. At the level of the UN Security Council, which has met on several occasions to discuss the case of Haiti, China and Russia have expressed a few minor reservations about the project, occasionally causing the machinery to grind to a halt.
It must be said that the probable arrival of this multinational force in the country does not meet with unanimous approval, and risks exacerbating the problems rather than resolving them. Haitians often refer to the failure of MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti), which has contributed to destabilising the country, weakening its institutions, and causing more problems for the population, including cholera.
At the same time, the United States, Canada, and the Dominican Republic imposed economic sanctions and entry bans on several political and economic players, including former prime ministers, a serving minister, former members of parliament and well-known businessmen.
As things stand, the crisis in Haiti is far from resolved. People are beginning to lose hope, while others want to look for solutions outside the existing institutions, which for their part show no willingness to protect the population. Despite everyone’s hopes, Haiti’s future looks bleak indeed. It is therefore urgent that the EU, as a member of the Core Group, take a critical look at the process currently under way and support Haitian civil society actors in their efforts to find a lasting Haitian solution to this never-ending crisis.
Haitians and true friends of Haiti are calling on the international community to take a firmer stance, including taking legal action against the members of this mafia-like network of arms dealers, drug traffickers, smugglers, etc. in the United States, Latin America and Haiti, who are fuelling the violence in Haiti. They are calling for Prime Minister Ariel Henry to be officially condemned for failing to provide assistance to his population in danger, tolerance and even complicity with armed groups.
Colette Lespinasse for COEH
31 August 2023