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Haiti Can’t Survive Without the Kenyan-Led Global Security Force

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The humanitarian conditions in Haiti are “cataclysmic,” the UN’s human rights commissioner said recently. A new transitional presidential council and an interim prime minister have just been installed, but a third essential element for political stability, an international security force to root out the deadly gangs, has yet to arrive. UNOCHA/GILES CLARKE

It’s no secret that gang violence and political instability are threatening the last vestiges of normalcy in many parts of Haiti and feeding a security and humanitarian crisis. Now, Finance Minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, sworn in on April 25 as the interim prime minister to lead the Transitional Presidential Council, faces the job of restoring order and salvaging the country’s democratic institutions. He also requires another crucial element to steer Haiti from ruin.

William O’Neill, a United Nations expert on human rights in Haiti, told PassBlue that the presidential council will need the UN Security Council-backed Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission to square off against the gangs, who have taken over large portions of the capital of Port-au-Prince and forced tens of thousands people to flee to the countryside and beyond.

When asked if the new council could bring calm to Haiti, O’Neill responded: “It cannot without the multinational support mission. No, not at all. That’s why you need the international force.”

Yet there was no word on the first day of the new council of immediate plans for the MSS, O’Neill said. In one positive sign, however, the United States Air Force landed two C-130 planes last week at Haiti’s international airport to augment the security personnel at the US embassy, according to the Southern Command.

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The gang violence has halted government activities in Haiti’s major institutions, which are now under gang control. It started with attacks in Port-au-Prince and then the city’s international airport. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, described the humanitarian situation in Haiti as “cataclysmic.”

Gang members are using rape as a tool of suppression and torture, terrorizing the population day after day. “The gangs’ access to weapons, which all come from the United States, is pretty heavy,” O’Neill said.

He was reappointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council on April 4 to another year-long term as the independent expert on Haiti and appears to be taking the lead at the UN to try to rescue the country. An American lawyer who specializes in humanitarian, human rights and refugee law, O’Neill has been a senior adviser to the UN in Kosovo, Rwanda and previously in Haiti, where he helped to establish its national police force in 1995.

Haiti’s violence escalated in February, after gang members seized not only the capital but also carried out coordinated attacks elsewhere in the country, including breaking thousands of prisoners out of jail. Former Prime Minister Ariel Henry was prevented from returning to the country on his way back from Kenya, where he went to sign a reciprocity agreement to hasten the deployment of the support mission led by the East African country. Ariel resigned on April 25 and power passed to the transitional council.

The UN Security Council last October approved Kenya to lead the joint security force in Haiti to help the national police dislodge the gangs. A Kenyan court initially blocked the mission, ruling that the government failed to seek parliamentary approval. William Ruto, Kenya’s president, said all conditions set by the court have been fulfilled, following the reciprocity agreement signed by his government and Haiti earlier this year.

Kenya offered to lead the mission, and other countries — Benin, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Chad and Jamaica — are pledging to contribute troops. O’Neill told PassBlue that Italy and Spain have agreed to provide technical experts to support the mission. (The Italian mission to the UN confirmed that the Carabinieri are not expected to go to Haiti but will train the Kenyan police participating in the mission, most likely at the Center of Excellence for Stability Police Units in Vicenza.)  

The UN said $18 million is deposited in the support mission trust fund, which was financed by Canada, France and the US, who contributed $8.7, $3.2 and $6 million, respectively.

When PassBlue asked the UN about the target amount for the trust fund, the UN referred the question to the US and Kenya. (Kenya’s government didn’t respond.) A US State Department spokesperson didn’t answer the question but said that the “base construction, and the MSS deployment will be underway soon.”

A researcher on Haiti tweeted that the US and Kenya plan to have “the first troops” in the Caribbean nation by May 23, before Ruto’s state visit to Washington.

The Kenyan deployment was originally put on hold after gangs seized the capital and blocked Henry’s return. The Kenyan government then said it would wait for a new government to be installed before proceeding. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for the swift deployment of the support mission now that an interim government has been sworn in.

O’Neill urged the Security Council to implement the arms embargo authorized in October 2023 and called on the US to restrict arms flow into the country, since most of the guns fueling the violence are smuggled from the US.

Washington could block the arms flow, O’Neill contends.

“[The United States] know the ships they’re on,” he said. “We’ve been begging the US government to stop them. And then you have the sanctions. If you put these people on the sanctions list, the money dries up. Nobody wants to be on the sanctions list. If they are sanctioned, they don’t have access to US financial markets; that’s a huge deal.”

In the PassBlue interview, O’Neill, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., talked about the hopes for a de-escalation in violence in Haiti now that the transitional council is in place, an acting prime minister has been installed and the support mission may be on its way. The interview, conducted by Zoom in late April, has been condensed and edited for clarity. — DAMILOLA BANJO

Bill O’Neill, the UN’s independent human rights specialist on Haiti, speaking at the Human Rights Council, April 2024. His one-year term was renewed on April 4. Since he’s been in the job, he said, “Haiti’s gotten much worse, every passing day is worse than the one before.” 

PassBlue: Tell us about your role as the UN human rights expert in Haiti.

O’Neill: It’s just about a year since I started, and Haiti’s gotten much worse, every passing day is worse than the one before. The report of killings, kidnappings and sexual violence can’t be measured, there are so many cases. Two million people are on the edge of famine, according to the World Food Program. Medical care is almost inaccessible in the capital because the gangs have destroyed or occupied the majority of hospitals and medical clinics and clean water is short. They’re now cholera cases. So by any measure, it’s catastrophic.

The maritime ports are controlled by the gangs. There are hundreds of containers there with much-needed food and medical supplies from groups like Unicef, the World Food Program and the Red Cross that are stuck because the gangs won’t let them out. The UN human rights team in Port-au-Prince has stopped trying to count the amount of sexual violence. I’ve been able to interview some survivors with horrifying stories of gang rapes in front of family members and torture, all by gangs, this is all gangs. And then threats on human rights.

People I know have gone into hiding because the gangs are threatening them. The [international] humanitarian appeal for Haiti is only at 7 percent because Ukraine and Gaza suck up all the oxygen. So that’s got to be addressed. How do you deal with these kids that have joined gangs because there’s nothing else? There’s no school, there’s no jobs, there’s no future. So we have to start giving them jobs and schools.

PassBlue: I want to follow up about the sexual violence being targeted toward, of course, women. What sort of stories are you hearing? What’s the category of women who tell you the stories?

O’Neill: It’s also some young boys and old men, but it’s overwhelmingly women who are the victims. And it’s all gangs. The gang is showing their power that is meant to terrify. They will often rape women in an area to show they’re now in charge. It’s happening to young and old. It’s all horrifying stories. Haitians don’t have huge stockpiles of food at home, they have to go out and get food at some point, or get little bags of water that have been purified if they can find it. So at some point, you have to leave your house, but it’s taking your life into your hands when you do.

PassBlue: In July, you said Haiti needed 1,000 to 2,000 international police trained to deal with the gangs. You’ve since re-evaluated the number to 5,000. Has anything changed since March, when you upgraded the number?

O’Neill: The gangs’ access to weapons, which all come from the United States, is pretty heavy. The depletion of the Haitian National Police since I was there in July has been enormous. Some had been killed in action. Some have just abandoned their posts because it is a dangerous job. Some have also taken advantage of [President] Biden’s humanitarian parole program. I don’t blame them. The Biden government enacted the program for people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti. That meant a lot of Haiti’s middle- and upper-middle-class took advantage to get out. So did a lot of Haitian national police leave as well as teachers, physicians, nurses, technicians, small-business owners. The country is bleeding its middle class.

PassBlue: What will it take to get the Haitian national police back to the vision in 1995, when you helped to establish it?

O’Neill: A lot of time, money and effort. The department has been depleted, wounded, underfunded and underequipped for many years. So you’re down to, maybe on a good day, 9,000 Haitian National Police for the whole country. That’s 9,000 for 12 million people. To build the police back up is why the international force is necessary, to deal with the immediate problem of dismantling the gangs. That won’t take long and not take more than 4,000 to 5,000 internationals. The gangs are not ideological, they don’t stand for anything. They’re not trying to take over the government. They’re pure criminal networks: gangs, drugs, trafficking people and weapons, stolen goods. Most of them are teenagers who were forced to join or had no other option in their slums. They’re not going to commit suicide for the gang leader if well-armed Kenyan police come up against them. They’re going to drop their gun and run.

The long job is rebuilding the Haitian National Police. The training, recruitment, equipment, deployment and monitoring will take a long time and money. They have to be paid. They need vehicles, they need uniforms, they need weapons, they need everything. So you’re talking a decade or so, at least.

PassBlue: There have been several problems with the Kenyan-led multinational mission, which promised to send a security force last fall. But then a Kenyan court ruled that the plans of the William Ruto government to deploy a force were unconstitutional because there was no reciprocal agreement between the two countries. Which country is most primed to lead this mission if Kenya’s mission never shows up?

O’Neill: I hope that doesn’t happen. The Kenyans are still very committed. They’re ready to go. They’ve been trained and vetted their backpacks, they just need a plane and a place to land. The gangs control the airports. The gangs will shoot down any plane trying to land, so they need a place to land where they won’t get shot and can set up a base. The Italian and Spanish will also be providing technical teams. The Spanish are going to be sending intelligence experts who have lots of experience; some of them worked in intelligence on the Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). Haiti’s gangs are like kindergarten compared to ETA. The Italians have a lot of experience with mafia and organized crime, and they will train their Kenyan colleagues on how to deal with organized criminal networks who have ties with Colombian and Mexican crime. It is not just guns coming in from the United States, it is also drugs from Haiti.

PassBlue: Besides the main Haitian airport, the gangs have taken over such strategic places as waterways. The first objective, you said, will be to dislodge the gangs from all these places. How will this happen?

O’Neill: I imagine you start by cutting off their arms flow and bullets, then they lose everything, they have no power. If you cut off their money, where they can’t pay their members, the members will leave. The gangs aren’t there because of an ideological affinity. They’re there because they get a hot meal every day and $10 a week and have a gun. There’s no other option. So if they stop getting a hot meal and getting paid, they’ll drop the gun and go. But that’s the job of police professionals; I’ll leave it to them to figure it out. They have a concept of operations. The US worked closely with the Kenyan police in Nairobi and they had experts who know about the gangs, who know their strength.

PassBlue: One reason for the recent escalation of gang violence is the failure of Prime Minister Henry to organize a democratic election. The new council has been given two years to hold elections for a new president. Doesn’t that put the council right back into the old situation?

O’Neill: First of all, don’t believe anything Barbecue says, it’s just blah, blah. [Jimmy (Barbecue) Chérizier, one of the country’s most notorious gang leaders, was a former elite police officer.] They don’t care about that. They only care about money, power and domination. The big question is if you could have elections in Haiti in under 18 months or so, given the devastation and destruction. I think the one of the reasons they’re in the mess now is because they rushed elections after the 2010 earthquake. It was a huge mistake. I think the big point is, don’t rush elections because you’ll end up with elections that aren’t legitimate. It’s a complicated issue. Everyone is just trying to wrap their heads around it.

PassBlue: So is the transitional council the solution for governance? Can it silence the guns?

O’Neill: It cannot without the multinational support mission (MSS). No, not at all. That’s why you need the international force. And you need an arms embargo that is enforced, which the Security Council authorized last October. Almost all the guns come from Miami, and they know the ships they’re on. We’ve been begging the US government to stop them. Then you have the sanctions. If you put these people on the sanctions list, the money dries up. Nobody wants to be on the sanctions list. If they are sanctioned, they don’t have access to US financial markets; that’s a huge deal.

PassBlue: Given the current dangers and lack of central government, should the US be deporting people to Haiti now? 

O’Neill: I don’t understand how they’re doing this. Where are they supposed to go? This is a country where two million people are on the edge of famine, and embassies are evacuating most of their personnel. I just think it’s just totally unacceptable. It’s unconscionable to be sending people back. And I hope it’s the last one. It makes no sense to send people back to something as horrible as Haiti right now.

This article was updated to reflect new information on Italy’s technical role with Kenya in the security mission.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Haiti's survival?

Damilola Banjo

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Haiti Can’t Survive Without the Kenyan-Led Global Security Force
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Elder Bevern Yoruba
Elder Bevern Yoruba
2 months ago

Haiti can’t survive with the colonial nations, USA, France, Canada, and Germany interfering with Haiti. Rid Haiti of the colonizers, revert the Haitian Constitution back to the original Constitution and watch Haiti grow strong. We know why Woodrow Wilson changed another nation’s constitution. So let’s begin there.

Newsletter
2 months ago

Keep talking bs about Haiti. Making people believe the US, the UN and the entire international community are the saviors for the Haitian people. Who doesn’t know about your agenda to steal the resources of the country of Haiti. Pushing propaganda out there to make people believe you are legit to send foreign troops there. Haiti will be a cemetery anyway. It’s been 200+ years nihil Novi subsole.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago

Let us be clear: an international Security Force is not the answer to the situation in Haiti because the world has witnessed too many of these forces coming to Haiti since 1992 and resulting in the worsening of the situation. Only the Haitian oligarchy has benefited from these UN missions as they have the hotels for accommodation of the personnel of these missions and the monopoly of the commerce and industry. It is important to underline that this so-called interim government is recognised by no one in Haiti, thus it lacks legitimacy and legality and it will be very difficult for it to function and show that it can do the work.
From my perspective there is a need 1) to ask the US to stop arm transactions with Haiti, 2) to stop sending Haitians back to Haiti as they will only face there insecurity, hunger, depravation, disease and death, 3) the Haitian oligarchy has to be dismantled, 4) there is a need for a national dialogue which is inclusive and representative to develop a Haitian roadmap to address the Haitian issues and 5) this inclusive dialogue process should be accompanied by the flow development programs including cash transfer, social reinsertion programs for the displaced, creation of local employment programs including rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure including roads, schools, hospitals and health infrastructure, airports, seaport, government buildings, economic development initiatives in agriculture, etc..etc.. and the disarmament of gangs and their social reinsertion programs.
An International Security Force will result only in more bloodshed and it will never be the answer. The money allocated to support the International Security Force will be better spent on compact development programs to solve immediate and long term issues and stimulate economic development in Haiti.

PassBlue
Admin
PassBlue
2 months ago

To be clear: this force is not a UN entity. Kenya has agreed to lead it. The UN only handles the trust fund for the mission. The Security Council endorsed the mission. –Editors

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago
Reply to  PassBlue

I appreciate the editors’ note, but changing the name of the mission will not make any difference as it is endorsed by the UN Security Council and the trust fund will be manged by the UN. Have lived in Haiti for 5 years working for the UN, I will ask all of us to take my 5 points into consideration, because an International Security Force will result in more bloodshed, we do not want to see more Haitians suffering and dying. Haitians need an inter-Haitians dialogue for peace and more socio-economic development perspectives not a FORCE.

Gabriel Dambreville
Gabriel Dambreville
2 months ago

Haiti will survive without the international forces please tell the American colonialism to stop sending arms and ammunition to the country so remember the gangs are belong to the corp group, the French, the Canada, the United States of America and I believe the whole world is understanding the chaos that is existed in Haiti now it’s the work of American foreign policy towards the Haitian people plain and simple 🇭🇹🇺🇸

Haitian
Haitian
2 months ago
Reply to  PassBlue

Haiti does not need international intervention, we need the oligarchs to get out of the country and politicians and the haitian government need to be held accountable for misuse of funds.

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