Every Monday morning, I meet with my intake staff at our human rights organization in Port-au-Prince, and they report new requests from people who ask us for everything. People whose homes were burned by gang members ask for money to rent a new place; people whose loved ones were killed in gang massacres ask for help to pay for a burial. People who are dying of hunger and have nothing to give their children ask us for money to buy food.
This is the stupefying need we have confronted in the past few years, as the institutions of the Haitian state collapsed. Often, people lodge complaints about arson, rapes, and killings with our organization rather than the police, aware that the police and judiciary are generally unwilling to make arrests, prosecute crimes, or punish perpetrators—we, at least, will publish a report.
When the state has ceased to function, many organizations like ours scramble to fill a range of gaps.
But what we really need is a government.
Last week, Ariel Henry, the acting prime minister of Haiti, told the United Nations General Assembly that he had made progress in governing the country, and just needed more international support for such programs as equipping the police and assisting customs officers in order to set the stage for elections.
In fact, his governance has been an unmitigated disaster, as I told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee last week in testimony about the desperate situation in Haiti.
In more than a year of Henry’s rule, armed gangs benefitting from the protection of the state have become more brazen and more brutal, most recently blocking the main fuel terminal in the capital of Port-au-Prince, which resulted in a cutoff of gas supplies to hospitals and to generators that power cell phone towers. Water trucks lack the fuel to deliver potable water even to neighborhoods where people can afford to buy it. Henry’s leadership has brought a collapsed economy, daily terrors and privations, and in recent weeks, a new level of crisis and demonstrations in the streets.
This is a moment when Haiti must decide critical questions: What kind of international support is needed to restore basic security? How can Haiti effectively mount elections that will inspire trust and participation? How should the country regulate gas prices?
But Henry is not the person to decide these questions. The problem is that he lacks legitimacy and popular support, and therefore, so do his decisions, and people will rebel against them – as is evident now, after he announced an increase in fuel prices, causing Haitians across the country to protest in the streets, demanding his resignation. Only a government that represents Haitians can make those difficult decisions.
Haiti must return to democratic order, but elections are impossible now, without security and public trust. The officials currently positioned to manage the elections in municipalities across the country were themselves not elected, but appointed unconstitutionally by President Jovenel Moïse before he was assassinated in July 2021. Results of any election in these circumstances would be illegitimate and contested, repeating a cycle that has long paralyzed Haiti.
All of the Haitians who testified with me before Congress said the same thing: The U.S. should stop propping up an illegitimate government preying upon the Haitian people and support the establishment of a representative transitional government. Only a transitional government with broad support will have the legitimacy to stabilize the country and eventually mount participatory elections that can install more effective leaders.
We are entering a new, more dire phase of this protracted emergency. Before, people were dying in gang massacres and ransom kidnappings gone wrong. Now, people are also dying because they lack potable water, food, and urgent medical care — cholera is resurgent. It is increasingly obvious that changing the way Haiti is governed is a matter of life and death.
Since elections are not currently possible, the U.S. should support a solution that at the very least prevents the concentration of power in the hands of one person, and rather, aligns with the Haitian Constitution, which stipulates the existence of three branches of government to ensure checks and balances. Civil society organizations have elaborated a process for creating a transitional government with a prime minister and a president, a type of legislature, and a strengthened judiciary.
The United States can take other action, too. My organization, the Réseau National de Défense de Droits Humains (RNDDH, the National Human Rights Defense Network) has documented the arrival of illicit weapons in Haitian ports, mostly coming from the United States and often released without customs checks. (We have also documented how armed gangs, particularly those of the G-9 alliance, have used police materiel and equipment during massacres, including uniforms and armored police vehicles, as well as heavy machinery, such as bulldozers.) The United States should continue to work to stop the illicit arms flow from the United States to Haiti.
I last testified to a congressional committee in March 2021, before Moïse’s assassination, when things were already very bad.The legislature had been dissolved and Moïse was ruling by decree.
Now Haitians have reached a breaking point. People are fed up with living without representation, recourse, or rights — including the right to basic necessities like potable water, food, and medical care.
Like many Haitians, for periods over the past several weeks, I have avoided leaving my house because of riots in the streets — riots that are the consequence of the contempt the authorities have shown for citizens struggling to survive in inhuman conditions.
There is a better way: To offer an outlet for people’s political expression, and a government that will take responsibility for their needs.