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No matter how well-intentioned, armed mission in Haiti is a mistake

No matter how well-intentioned, armed mission in Haiti is a mistake

Civil leaders are worried the new Kenya-led force will mostly serve to prop up an illegitimate government.

Analysis | North America

The U.N. Security Council authorized a multinational mission to Haiti on Monday in an attempt to combat the disorder and violence that have flourished since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse more than two years ago.

The proposed Kenyan-led mission is expected to focus on safeguarding key infrastructure and supporting Haitian police, but there are grave doubts among human rights activists and Haitian civil society leaders about launching yet another outside intervention to address Haiti’s problems.

There has been no compelling case made in favor of a new intervention in Haiti, but the Security Council has nonetheless chosen to bless this half-baked plan.

The Biden administration has been searching for a government willing to take the lead in Haiti, and earlier this year it found one in Kenya. The U.S. has ignored the objections of Haitian civil society leaders that the de facto Haitian government under Ariel Henry is unelected and illegitimate and that an outside intervention will just prop up Henry’s rule without significantly improving security.

As Alexandra Fillipova, an attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told The New York Times, “This will prop up a corrupt, illegitimate repressive government, which is responsible for creating and perpetuating the crisis.”

The de facto government has no mandate from, and does not speak for, the people of Haiti. That should have made the Security Council even warier of approving Henry’s request for international intervention, but instead it overwhelmingly voted for the mission with only Russia and China abstaining. Working with the de facto government under Henry may seem like a practical necessity, but in practice it damages America’s reputation and contributes to Haiti’s instability.

Siding with Henry may seem like the safer option right now but relying on the staying power of an illegitimate ruler is usually a bad bet.

Being publicly aligned with Henry not only continues to bring discredit on the U.S., but it will also affect how people in Haiti perceive the international mission. If an outside intervention is going to have a chance of succeeding, it has to be accepted and welcomed as legitimate. What are the chances this will happen if it is seen as a means for Henry to keep himself in power?

It might be possible to set aside these serious concerns if the proposed intervention seemed likely to improve security at an acceptable cost, but there is little reason to think this will happen. The New York Times previously reported on the many reasons why the Kenyan-led mission seems ill-suited to Haiti’s crisis and unlikely to succeed. In addition to the language barrier (Kenyan forces don’t speak French or Kreyol), Kenyan police have their own troubling record of human rights abuses at home, including allegations of torture. A police force that doesn’t know the terrain will be ill-equipped to take on well-armed gangs in any case. It is also doubtful that the governments contributing to the mission are prepared to shoulder the burden of a long-term commitment.

While the U.S. will not be participating directly in the mission with its own forces, it has pledged to provide logistical and financial support for the mission. If the Kenyan-led mission fails or runs into significant opposition, there will be a temptation for the U.S. to move from a supporting role to direct involvement, and that would be an even bigger mistake. If the forthcoming intervention in Haiti goes badly, the U.S. must resist the inevitable demands to step in.

It is telling that no other governments wanted the responsibility for leading a mission in Haiti because previous U.S. and U.N. interventions have had such a poor track record. The U.N. mission in Haiti from 2004 to 2017 was marred by serious abuses, including sexual assault, and the accidental introduction and spread of cholera. To the extent that U.N. forces took the fight to the gangs, they were also responsible for causing many civilian casualties.

The domineering U.S. role in Haitian affairs dates back centuries, and Washington’s backing for authoritarian Haitian leaders has been one of the recurring mistakes in U.S. policy. The U.S. backed Moïse before his assassination, and even now the U.S. supports Henry despite his deep unpopularity and lack of legitimacy. One of the principal demands from Haitian civil society groups and institutions is that the U.S. cease supporting Henry, but Washington remains on the side of the political status quo.

The U.S. push for a multinational force repeats past errors and threatens to reinforce the very structures that have brought Haiti to its current state. The Biden administration will own the consequences of its decision to support this mission.

According to the Times report, two Haitian-American groups wrote to oppose the Kenyan-led mission, saying that the intervention will “exacerbate [Haiti’s] current political crisis to a catastrophic one.” The National Haitian-American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON) and Family Action Network Movement (FANM) wrote to the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week urging the administration to end its support for the Kenyan-led mission, saying that “It will further entrench the regime, deepening Haiti’s political crisis while generating significant civilian casualties and migration pressure.”

It is possible that these predictions could be wrong, but it seems reckless to discount the warnings of organizations that likely understand the conditions in the country better than U.S. policymakers.

Haiti has been treated as a ward of major powers and international institutions for decades, and outsiders have utterly failed the Haitian people. It is foolish to think that another international mission with even less support and fewer resources than previous efforts will lead to better outcomes. The burden is on advocates of intervention to make the case for their preferred policy, and for the last two years no one has been able to explain how another international force in Haiti would be anything more than a temporary remedy.

The U.S. and the U.N. should be prepared to assist Haiti with humanitarian and economic aid to help the country recover, but they also need to support the creation of a transitional government that is not tainted by the corruption and abuses of the current leadership.

There needs to be a Haitian-led solution that respects Haiti’s sovereignty and independence, and that cannot happen if outside governments are sending police and troops into their country every few years. No matter how well-intentioned the Kenyan-led mission may be, it is a mistake.

Photo Credit: People fleeing gang violence take shelter at a sports arena, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti September 1, 2023. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol
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