In October 2023 the United Nations Security Council voted to send security forces to Haiti to help to stabilize the island nation and restore law and order. The UN press release cites high levels of criminal activity and human rights abuses, along with a request by the Haitian government for foreign assistance. At the urging of the United States, Kenyan President William Ruto has agreed to send 1,000 security forces to lead the mission, with additional volunteer support coming from Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors, including Jamaica, Belize, the Bahamas, and the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
The request by Haiti for assistance came from Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the unelected and deeply unpopular placeholder selected by a clutch of foreign officials known as the Core Group—an informal body that regularly intervenes in Haiti’s internal affairs. The Core Group includes diplomats from Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as the EU, the UN, and the Organization of American States, with the United States in the driving seat. To make matters worse, Henry is implicated in the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. When a Haitian prosecutor attempted to bring murder charges against Henry, with the backing of the country’s justice minister, Henry fired them both. Yet the United States and the Core Group continue to support him.
While the security mission is publicly presented as a peacekeeping and humanitarian effort, with Washington contributing up to $200 million, there are three underlying priorities that receive little press coverage: 1) stemming the flow of Haitian migrants coming to the United States, evidenced in part by the Royal Canadian Navy vessels that deployed to the Haitian coast ostensibly to conduct surveillance; 2) protecting key political and business figures in the country; and 3) safeguarding US, Canadian, and other multinational assets there. In the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (2004-2017), for example, the bases were strategically placed close to the multinational investments.
As for the planned mission, there are several matters of concern, beginning with a language barrier. While Haitians speak French, Creole, and to a lesser extent Spanish, the native languages in Kenya are Swahili and English. This places sharp limits on the kind of training that the Kenyan security forces will provide to the Haitian National Police, the intelligence they will be able to gather and share, and the type of operations that they can jointly perform. Whatever the communication issues and established preconditions of the mission, one must ask who will exercise control—in the streets in the heat of the moment—particularly when strategy and tactics are in dispute.
Further, the Kenyan and volunteer forces will be vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Haitian gangs. Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 security forces to the country, as mentioned, with perhaps several hundred more forces coming from neighboring Caribbean countries. These forces will face resistance in far greater numbers. A 2023 ACAPS report estimated that 200-300 gangs operate in Haiti, their membership thought to range from 20,000 to 30,000. Approximately half of them are based in and around the capital city of Port Au Prince, all well supplied with mostly US weapons.
These resistance groups are widely identified as gangs, but the term is simplistic and too often used to stigmatize and justify a policy. No doubt some are drug and gun runners, a serious problem in Haiti, but others are paramilitary groups that work for both private business and the political class. The most notorious early example of this is President Francois Duvalier (1907-1971) and his Tonton Macoutes militia, which he established in 1959 to protect him from being overthrown. Still other groups are citizen-led vigilantes and a select few identify as revolutionaries seeking to wrest control of the country from foreign meddlers and an illegitimate leader. Collectively these resistance groups know the terrain and they have more at stake than the intervening foreign forces.
In light of these conditions, Kenyan lawyer and former presidential candidate Ekuru Aukot filed a petition in October 2023 against the deployment of Kenyan forces to Haiti, arguing that the mission violates his country’s constitution. Aukot’s lawsuit also argues that Kenya needs the designated forces at home, that it has pressing security issues of its own. Kenyan High Court Judge Chacha Mwita is expected to issue a ruling on the matter this Friday, January 26. There are indications, though, that the mission may go forward regardless of the ruling.
Haitian American lawyer Ezili Danto and the Miami-based Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network filed a separate complaint in Port Au Prince in November 2023, arguing that Henry does not have the constitutional authority, to say nothing of the public acceptance, to request a military intervention and that the operation would violate the country’s sovereignty. Given the subordinate state of the Haitian judiciary, the impact of this complaint remains uncertain.
From the first months of the Biden administration, members of Congress were urging the president to rethink US policy toward Haiti. In April 2021 a group of nearly 70 members of the House of Representatives expressed their concerns in a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The letter plainly stated that Washington needs to listen closely to Haitian civil society and its grassroots organizations, and that it should refrain from taking sides in internal political disputes. Most importantly, the letter stresses that the Haitian people must “determine the legitimacy of their leaders,” not the US or any other foreign government.
At the time, Congress members were responding to the growing protests in Haiti, the result of Moise’s effort to extend his term in office for an additional year. Controversy consumed much of Moise’s presidency, set off by his attempt in 2018 to eliminate government subsidies for fuel, an International Monetary Fund initiative. A corruption scandal followed in 2019 concerning PetroCaribe, an alliance with Venezuela that allowed Haiti to buy its oil and defer a portion of the cost. At least $2 billion of the deferred money, earmarked for domestic social programs, was misappropriated or embezzled.
These and other controversial actions prompted some 300 civil society organizations of every variety to unite and form a 12-member panel, the “Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis in Haiti.” After several months of negotiations, the Commission arrived at an agreement in August 2021, the so-called Montana Accord, named after the hotel in Port Au Prince where it was hammered out.
The Accord highlights basic rights and democratic principles, referencing earlier documents with similar aspirations, and presents a detailed overview of a transition plan out of the crisis, ultimately leading to free and fair elections. The document gained traction with the endorsement of some 70 political organizations and social groups collectively known as the Protocole d’Entente Nationale.
But the Biden administration failed to offer an endorsement of the Montana Accord, suggesting instead that its authors form a consensus with the current government. To this end, members of the Accord met with Henry numerous times yet repeatedly failed to make any headway—he had no intention of stepping down or entering into a power-sharing agreement. As if by default, Washington opted to throw its support behind Henry and honor his request for international assistance.
Some Haiti watchers argue that foreign forces are the only way to tamp down the rampant violence in the country. Others suggest that the gangs and private militia will simply reemerge when conditions permit, due to their paymasters in the business and political class—not an implausible outcome. Whatever the end result of the intervention, should it go forward, it must lay the groundwork for an inclusive political solution to be counted as a success. With Henry as head of state, propped up by foreign interlopers, the fight for Haitian sovereignty continues.
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