There is a debate raging about military intervention in Haiti. The international community seems poised to send military and/or police units to the country following de facto head of state Ariel Henry’s request for special forces to help deal with armed groups that have taken over large sections of Port-au-Prince. The United Nations held a special session on Haiti on Monday, Oct. 17. A U.S. resolution on deploying a “rapid action force” was discussed alongside a separate resolution on sanctioning individuals who support armed groups in the country. The composition of an international force is still under discussion; as currently formulated, it would not be a U.N. mission.
The G9 gang confederation, an alliance of powerful gangs in Port-au-Prince, has blocked gas reserves at the Varreux terminal in the capital for over five weeks, creating havoc and hunger throughout the country. With the re-emergence of cholera, the situation is now much more dire. Medical personnel are not able to move freely because of insecurity, hospital supply chains are in tatters, and there is not enough fuel to run generators needed for basic operations. Potable water is in short supply. All of this makes any cholera containment strategy difficult to realize.
As desperate as the situation has become, an armed intervention is not likely to solve Haiti’s security problems. If the gangs stand down in the face of foreign troops, there may be some temporary relief. U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller, former SOUTHCOM chief, seems to think this is likely, and pointed to the gang truce established when a small contingent of U.S. forces opened a humanitarian corridor through the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant to get assistance to the Grand Sud, Haiti’s southern region, following the August 2021 earthquake. While the move made temporary delivery of assistance possible, it had no long-term impact on security. Martissant remains impassable to this day.
On the other hand, if the gangs, like the one controlling the Varreux terminal, for example, do not stand down, an armed intervention means massive bloodshed. The gangs are heavily armed and have been fighting street battles in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods regularly for four years. If they decide to engage, they will be doing so on terrain they know, and while they almost certainly will be outgunned in the long run, they can inflict tremendous damage on intervening forces and civilians.
When the U.N. last occupied Haiti (2004-2017), human rights violations were widespread. Human rights lawyers Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon described some of the abuses in an op-ed for the Miami Herald in September of this year:
Under pressure from U.S. officials, the U.N. soldiers aggressively — and illegally — pursued suspected gang members. In one July 2005 attack, “peacekeepers” sprayed more than 22,000 bullets, 78 grenades and five mortars into the thin-walled and densely packed houses of the Cité Soleil neighborhood. The United Nations claimed that all these bullets killed six gang members. But hospitals and journalists reported that the bullets also killed at least a dozen people who were not gang members, including women and children.
Such violence is the blunt reality of military interventions. The potential is absolute devastation for the communities impacted. Benoît Vasseur, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Haiti, told The Guardian last week, “Our immediate reaction [to the news of an intervention], as a medical organisation, is that this means more bullets, more injuries and more patients…We are afraid there will be a lot of bloodshed.”
Weighing against these possible consequences and the historic reality of how badly past interventions have failed Haiti, it is important to remember that there are other things that the international community – and especially the United States, which dominates Haiti-related affairs – can do.
First, the United States can step back from its unquestioning support for the de facto government of Ariel Henry. As long as the U.S. 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 stops sitting on the scale, even as it claims it supports Haitian self-determination.
Second, an agreement on governance has to be implemented. While insecurity could be a major obstacle, the agreement on governance has to come first, and insecurity can then be addressed through the mechanisms established. If that wasn’t the case, the millions poured into the Haitian National Police over the past years of increasingly undemocratic governance would be succeeding at stemming the violence. The international community can help with the democratic transition, but under the direction of a Haitian-led transitional authority, not in place of one. So far, the international community has effectively marginalized serious local efforts to establish a legitimate democratic government with its support for Henry. That makes it part of the problem.
Third, use appropriate legal instruments like the U.S. Magnitsky Act, to impose sanctions on high-profile individuals involved in corruption and human rights abuses, especially including government officials and members of the oligarchy who support and facilitate gang violence in Haiti. These cannot be symbolic gestures that change nothing. The leader of Varreux-blocking G9, a former police officer who orchestrated civilian massacres with apparent government collusion, has been sanctioned for almost two years with no impact. Yet, that is who the U.N. is highlighting as a target for its new proposed sanctions.
Fourth, support accountability for the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. It is worth recalling that many of those implicated in the assassination claimed to work for or have the support of various U.S. government agencies, and Henry, whom the U.S. government effectively installed as head of state, has not substantially responded to evidence he may have been involved, and is reported to have obstructed the investigation. The U.S. government must be far more transparent about the investigation and support efforts to identify, arrest, and judge the intellectual and material authors of this crime. Congress mandated that the U.S. Department of State report on the assassination investigation, yet that report is now four months late and the Biden administration continues to prop up Henry without responding to the serious allegations against him.
Fifth, the United States must do more to rein in illegal gun sales to Haiti. Gun sales to Haiti from the United States 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.
Sixth, the United States must stop all deportations and expulsions of Haitian migrants, most of whom would qualify as refugees or have the right to access asylum proceedings, were it not for Title 42 enforcement. Similarly, the United States should end the forced repatriations of Haitians interdicted at sea. Given the aforementioned security and public health crisis, forced resettlement back to Haiti is a violation of international obligations of non-refoulement, and clearly immoral.
All of these recommendations have been on the table for at least 18 months, and some extend back years. The international community has not listened. It is only now that the situation has reached the current level of desperation that the international community is willing to act. Unfortunately, if military intervention is the path chosen, it will not necessarily provide security in the short term and, absent adoption of the points listed here, will almost certainly have no impact on the longer-term security situation. Indeed, it may well do greater harm if history is any guide. The United States and other international actors seem more concerned with maintaining the current de facto regime – which they installed and prop up – in power than in allowing Haitians to lead the way out of the current crisis. This must end.