Exclusive: Confidential U.N. document spells out thinking on foreign troops for Haiti

By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald, July 5, 2023

The international armed force the United Nations is seeking to help Haiti dismantle the threat to its stability and secure the country for elections could consist of a mix of military and police units, but must have the muscle, assets and intelligence capabilities necessary to fight heavily armed kidnapping gangs.

But most importantly, such a force would not be a substitute for the Haiti National Police, according to a confidential U.N. document obtained by the Miami Herald and circulating among some member states.

“An international force must not substitute for, but complement, the HNP, and provide it with adequate capabilities, weapons, equipment and specialized expertise,” the document states. “High coordination and division of labor between the force and the HNP will be critical.”

The document, labeled “Enhanced Security Support to Haiti, Non-paper,” has been circulating among member nations since last month. It offers various options for countries to consider as they weigh the request from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Haiti’s government and the Biden administration to lead the security mission to Haiti. The U.S., which doesn’t want to lead a deployment of troops into Haiti, supports the mission and has drafted a resolution before the U.N. Security Council, which has yet to take up the matter.

The seven-page document, which stresses that it’s not for planning purposes, provides insight into the thinking at U.N. headquarters, where nations that could provide troops and police have been seeking greater clarity on what a security mission to Haiti would look like. Guterres first wrote to the Security Council on Oct. 8, 2022, requesting the quick deployment of a rapid-action armed force.

Guterres’ October letter came in response to a call for help from Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who warned of “the risk of a major humanitarian crisis.” At the time, a powerful gang federation had seized control of the country’s main seaport and fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince, forcing hospitals, schools and businesses to shutter amid a worsening cholera epidemic.

Though the fuel terminal is no longer under gang control, the situation in Haiti remains volatile. The U.N. document makes it clear that as gang takeover of schools, rapes of women and children and overall brutality escalate, the police cannot address the crisis on their own. The ill-equipped and under-resourced force is not only a target of the gangs, but “deaths, dismissals and a surge in resignations” have left it with barely 3,500 officers on duty at any given time throughout the country, the document states.

The police “needs help with domestic gangs, international police experts in fighting organized crime, armed gangs, financial crimes, kidnapping, and how to conduct urban operations,” William O’Neill, the U.N.’s newly appointed human rights expert on Haiti, said during a press conference Tuesday in New York.

O’Neill, who recently spent 10 days touring Haiti’s overcrowded prisons and looking at the effects of the gang violence on its 12 million residents, was involved in the creation of the current police force back in 1995 during the first U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti. He said the people he spoke to on his recent visit, including police officers, “overwhelmingly want some outside help.”

“What I did hear is that ‘We want somebody to help get the gangs off our necks so we can breathe again,’ ” said O’Neill, who has been briefing member countries ahead of Thursday’s Security Council meeting on Haiti.

But the people he spoke to were also clear that “they don’t want another, large peacekeeping mission with 12,000 troops,” the U.S. lawyer said. “They do want expertise focused on the gang violence, which is kind of a specialized expertise that would help support, reinforce, the Haitian national police. It would still be a Haitian-led effort but not a Haitian-only.”

Until now, the U.N. secretary-general, who in recent days has been calling for “a robust international force” for Haiti, has not offered much in terms of details about how such a force would operate or what its focus would be. Publicly, he has said only that it would not be an occupying force and would be composed of armed personnel provided by one or several nations, with one country providing leadership to planning, command and operations.

The paper, responding to queries by member countries thinking about offering uniformed personnel, seeks to lay out the parameters, rules of engagement and use of force, in hopes of getting more countries to come aboard. At the same time, it makes clear that Haiti is a difficult terrain and any mishap “would be prone to backlash.”

It acknowledges both the reluctance by nations to step up as well as the opposition to any foreign forces going into Haiti.

“Several Member States have raised concern about the likelihood that such a force may not be warmly received by the public,” given Haiti’s long history of foreign troops on its territory. The concerns include public sentiment over sovereignty and perceptions of occupation, the document says.

Acknowledging that “it’s difficult to comprehensively assess domestic public opinion,” the document stresses that “a public information and communication strategy would be essential to convey clear messaging on the objective of the non-U.N. force and its obligation to adhere to human-rights standards.”

The paper also stresses that “while the political transition and the fight against gangs should remain separate, the two are inextricably linked.”

For nine months now, the issue of a multinational armed force deployment to Haiti has been mired in a stalemate as the security situation, in Guterres’ words, becomes “appalling and humanitarian needs soar.” Jamaica and some African countries have volunteered to help, but the U.N. and U.S. are looking for a country large enough to take leadership of such a mission.

One country both hoped would step up is Canada. Instead, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has focused on giving additional funding to the Haitian police and issuing financial sanctions against more than two dozen members of the country’s business and political elite, including a former president and two prime ministers, accused of having ties to gangs, which they deny.

But while the sanctions have created fear and may well be the impetus behind ongoing “peace talks” between a protracted conflict involving two politically-connected, warring gang coalitions —G9 and Family” and “G-Pèp” —that have left hundreds dead since last year, they still have not completely ceased the destabilizing violence or kidnappings.

“I have never seen the situation as bad as it is now. Gangs control over 50% of the capital. They rule ruthlessly, kidnapping, extorting and terrorizing the population,” O’Neill said. “Many areas of the capital city are off limits to the Haitian national police.... The impact of economic, social and cultural rights is devastating. ...The basic activities of daily life can entail great risks.”

Expressing his frustration over the lack of volunteers to lead a force, Guterres told journalists earlier this week, while preparing to meet with Caribbean leaders in Trinidad and Tobago, that “it’s time for all those that have the capacity to create the basic conditions for this force to exist, to volunteer themselves to participate.”

“The most important problem is that we need to have countries that have the robust kind of police force, and the robust kind of equipment and logistics support to be able to also volunteer themselves,” he said on Monday. “I’ve seen African countries volunteering. I’ve seen countries in the Caribbean volunteer, but most of them have limited capacity.”

The new document is based on past U.N. interventions in Haiti, the world agency’s experiences in other countries and the U.N.’s own complexities, according to a source familiar with it.

For instance, most of the African nations that have volunteered to help would contribute police officers, but experts on the gang problems say Haiti needs military assets to engage in urban guerrilla warfare. This includes helicopters and airplanes, as well as a hospital to take care of the wounded.

Military muscle is what Brazil, for instance, brought to the peacekeeping mission that was deployed to Haiti in 2004 to stabilize the nation and help police combat gangs after the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced into exile amid a bloody coup. After a Jordanian police unit was ambushed in 2005, Brazilian soldiers were quickly deployed and eventually took back control from gangs of Cité Soleil and other slums near the capital.

Currently the situation is far worse and far more complex, experts say, with concerns that any foreign troop deployment would prop up Haiti’s caretaker government that came to power after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse two years ago on Friday.

The discussion document doesn’t say how much the mission would cost, and adds that an exit strategy would be based on conditions in Haiti. The parameters include the Haitian national police having the capacity to maintain free movement along the country’s national roads and supply routes, “a substantial and sustained” decrease in gang violence, Haiti’s ability to hold criminal groups accountable and “security conditions conducive to the organization of elections.”

The paper is also heavily focused on the training of Haitian police, something that the U.N. peacekeeping mission failed to accomplish before shutting down in 2017. It is also clear that the proposed operation would be nowhere the size of the previous peacekeeping effort, which lasted for 13 years and cost more than $7 billion.

Though there is talk of the possibility of a new U.N. peacekeeping mission, Guterres, the United States and Henry would all like to avoid it. However, if the situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate and no country volunteers, they may be left with no other choice.

Supporters of U.N. peacekeeping missions argue that they are not meant to solve countries’ problems, but are meant to provide the space, and stability so that the government can make the necessary reforms and pass laws to shore up stability.

The deployment of troops and police to Haiti would be authorized by the Security Council, the document notes, but unlike a peacekeeping force, would have “a light footprint, with low visibility but high mobility and readiness to conduct proactive policing jointly with the HNP to deter gang violence and either, jointly with the HNP or unilaterally, to conduct anti-gang operations.”

In the document, U.N. headquarters stresses that “reducing the level of armed gang violence is a necessary and urgent enabler of the political process, and the smooth preparations for elections, and hinges on the deployment of an international specialized non-U.N. force repeatedly requested by the Haitian Government since October 2022. “

Guterres himself made the same point this week when addressing Caribbean leaders, who as of now do not support a deployment of foreign troops, though some have expressed a willingness to participate.

“Let’s be clear: There can be no lasting security without strengthened democratic institutions— and there can be no strong democratic institutions without a drastic improvement in the security situation,” he said.


Posted July 9, 2023