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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Haiti can’t right itself without restoring security — and a working government

    Since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July 2021, Haiti has seen a total breakdown in security and political systems.

    Barbecue, the leader of the "G9 and Family" gang, stands with his gang after speaking to journalists in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Haiti's latest violence began with a direct challenge from Barbecue, a former elite police officer, who said he would target government ministers to prevent the prime minister's return and force his resignation. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

    Haiti’s security services are no match for the gangs currently controlling 80% of the capital city. The country has no elected leaders, and its unpopular acting prime minister just agreed to resign when gangs shut down the international airport, preventing his return to the country. Haiti’s insecurity is connected to a long-standing political crisis, as many powerful political actors have been implicated in criminal networks rather than trying to dismantle them.

    National Police stand guard outside the empty National Penitentiary after a small fire inside in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Haiti, Thursday, March 14, 2024. This is the same facility that armed gangs stormed late March 2 and hundreds of inmates escaped. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

    International partners are working with Haitian political and civil society and business groups to piece together an acceptable transitional government, but consensus has been slow, and how it will regain control remains an open question.

    A man climbs the fence of an office of Haiti's power company set on fire during a protest to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

    There are no quick fixes, but some paths to peace are more promising than others. If Haiti and its international partners can learn from past mistakes, Haiti’s inevitably long road ahead could provide a sustainable foundation for a better future. That’s a big “if,” though.

    Haiti faces two distinct but related crises: widespread insecurity and a broken political system. For that reason, the deterioration in Haiti often brings comparisons to Somalia. As a U.S. diplomat who served in the latter, I can offer this lesson: Security gains will remain fleeting in the absence of inclusive, effective governance.

    After 15 years of a regional peacekeeping mission and close security cooperation with the United States and several other countries, the Somali state remains weak and untrusted, government services are still negligible and terrorist attacks continue. If Haiti wants a better outcome, it must take its political dysfunction as seriously as its insecurity.

    Like Somalia, Haiti can’t address its security problems without foreign aid. Haiti’s police force is weak, insufficient to take on the gangs, and also marred by criminality and corruption. Haiti’s national army is barely operational, disbanded in 1995 after facilitating multiple coups, and only reinstated in 2017 following the exit of a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

    But Haiti’s history of foreign intervention does not instill confidence. Since the Haitian Revolution in 1791, Haiti has been invaded several times, including by the United States in the early 20th century. Foreign interventions since the 1990s have been less nefarious, aiming to restore democracy and provide humanitarian aid. But they still haven’t been particularly successful, and often they’ve arguably caused more harm than good.

    This past makes it critical today that some passably credible Haitian authority be in place to sign off on the presence of a foreign force.

    Opposition to such a force has already brought together dozens of disparate gangs that had previously been fighting each other. If the Haitian public views a foreign force as illegitimate, that could strengthen the gangs’ position, just as they are vying for political legitimacy. (Although, “Trust us, we’ll protect you from … us” isn’t particularly convincing.)

    This brings us to the sticky question of what political authority will come to the rescue. All parties and partners agree it must be a Haitian-led effort. But, when criminality and corruption are intertwined with the most powerful players in the country, where do you go for credible Haitian representation?

    The Caribbean Community, also known as CARICOM, has taken the lead in negotiating the answer, in consultation with Haitian actors and a few other countries, including the United States. Its solution, announced earlier this month, was informed by proposals submitted by Haitian groups, including a fairly robust civil society coalition. It calls for a Transitional Presidential Council with seven voting and two nonvoting members to appoint a new interim prime minister who will preside over the arrival of international security assistance and organize elections.

    The approach appears inclusive, representing not only civil society but also political parties and the business community. The gangs are perhaps the only notable group left out. Only one of the invited parties has opted out and rejected the proposal so far.

    The hard part begins once that government is in place, though. Its legitimacy will be judged not only by who it appears to represent but also by its performance. Specifically, it will be judged by whether or not it can return security to the country. Elections are nice, but they probably aren’t as important to the people of Haiti today as their families’ safety. Ultimately, it will be judged on whether it can provide the essential services that Haitians today lack.

    The government will have its work cut out for it and will need the support of a wide range of partners to set it up for success. That won’t come from a small band of Kenyan police — the only firm commitment to a multinational force for Haiti so far (and even Kenya has paused deployment in the absence of a sitting government).

    The success of addressing these dual crises each hinges on the other. If Haiti doesn’t have the support of a multinational force sufficient to take on the country’s brutal and well-armed gangs, the painstaking inclusive political exercise will be for naught too.

    Elizabeth Shackelford is the Magro Family Distinguished Visitor in International Affairs at Dartmouth College and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”

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