In the Miami Herald
By Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon
September 19, 2022
Haiti’s metastasizing gang violence and civil unrest have generated calls for international troops from many quarters, but for the most part not from Haitians themselves. Haitians insist — with history and local knowledge on their side — that another foreign military mission would be an expensive, brutal failure.
Instead of troops, they want the United States to simply stop propping up the corrupt, repressive Haitian government that is fueling the violence.
The calls for international troops come from the Washington Post, the Organization of American States (OAS), retired diplomats and foreign-policy experts. Their premise — that Haiti is a mess, suffering from a breakdown in governance, widespread gang violence and inhuman living conditions — is broadly shared in Haiti. But Haitians know that the proposed solution — international military intervention — will not address the root causes of the crisis and likely will make Haiti’s misery even worse.
Haiti’s gang violence is a symptom of the government’s inability to provide basic government services. Without schools and jobs for young people or an adequate police force, gangs are inevitable. But in the short term, gang violence has spiked under the ruling PHTK party, because it systematically diverted massive amounts of money from already inadequate public services to fund its unprecedented corruption, while it politicized the police. The PHTK even allied itself with gangs to suppress dissent.
The last foreign military intervention against gang violence in Haiti was an expensive, deadly failure. MINUSTAH, a U.N. peacekeeping mission, spent $9 billion from 2004 to 2017. 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. MINUSTAH commander Gen. Augusto Heleno later bragged about the extrajudicial executions, proclaiming, “We must kill the bandits.”
More U.N. executions of suspected gang members followed, which did reduce gang activity, temporarily. But the killings, the equally illegal arrests and subsequent cover-ups eroded the rule of law in Haiti. Before MINUSTAH left, what is now the PHTK party took power in 2011 — with support from the United Nations and the United States — and started dismantling Haiti’s democracy.
With few other opportunities for young men, and a decreased deterrence from law enforcement, gang activity predictably rebounded, eventually skyrocketing far beyond what anyone could have imagined when MINUSTAH started to “help” Haiti. By some estimates gangs now control more than 60% of the country. But the United Nations and the OAS have declined to meaningfully criticize the PHTK for corruption, repression or its support for gangs. One foreign official who tried, Ambassador Susan Page, was removed as head of the U.N. justice mission in Haiti in 2018 because PHTK President Jovenel Moïse protested her diplomatic calls for accountability for corruption and police violence.
When Haiti’s government proposed inviting foreign troops a year ago, a broad spectrum of Haitian society denounced it. Last month, the Groupe de Travail sur la Securite, a Haitian security-policy think-tank, rejected the recent calls for international military intervention “under the false pretext of helping us restore a climate of security.”
Haitians are now taking the streets throughout the country to protest gang violence, hunger, corruption and misrule. Some are attacking property, but the vast majority of protesters are peaceful. They are demanding that the PHTK resign to make way for fair elections. They are demanding that the international community, especially the United States, stop obstructing the restoration of democracy by propping up the PHTK.
Unfortunately, international experts dismiss their insistence on a Haitian-led solution as unrealistic. But the experts do not explain how an already disproved solution is more realistic, or why Haitians — who better understand the risks and have the right to make the call — should be ignored.
Mario Joseph is managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti. Brian Concannon is executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. Both are human-rights lawyers.