Haiti crisis crossing lines at UN bodies

Haitian delegation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva ahead of presenting a resolution on 4 April 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

After having received little response from the international community to earlier requests for military intervention to fight gang violence, Haiti shifted its pursuit for assistance to the UN Human Rights Council.

As the United Nations human rights body wound up its nearly six-week-long session, a unique proposal presented by Haiti – after being amended – was approved by member states.

The Caribbean nation requested not only that a human rights expert be appointed to review the situation in the country but also “international coordinated and targeted action” from UN member states to deal with a dire humanitarian situation worsened by gang violence.

The original proposal called for an “international military intervention”, but the phrasing was removed in the final draft. The resolution was adopted by consensus on Tuesday evening.

Taking the floor, Haiti’s ambassador painted a dramatic picture of gang violence in the country and its barbarity. “Today, life has come to a halt in Haiti, people no longer live. It’s the terror of the gangs that dominate,” ambassador Justin Viard said before reiterating the request for “international action.”

Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights, an organisation advising human rights defenders and promoting rights and accountability, explained: “The Council is not mandated by the UN Charter to authorise any form of military intervention or use of force.” “That is obviously reserved for the Security Council, generally speaking. It would be beyond the scope and power of the Council,” he added.

Switzerland, which joined the consensus, said ahead of its adoption that the Council was not the right forum for requests for military intervention. In a short email statement to Geneva Solutions, its foreign affairs ministry wrote it was comfortable with the revision of the text. “The title of the draft resolution presented by Haiti has been modified accordingly. The request for military intervention is no longer inscribed in the draft.”

‘Explosive’ situation

The resolution highlights the central role gangs have played in Haiti in general disregard for human rights – including the rights to life, education, work, health, housing, water and food – by exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.  It also blames the power of armed gangs on sexual violence, sexually transmissible diseases, kidnappings, torture, assassinations and internal displacement.

Read more: Gang violence testing humanitarian response in Haiti

“The text of the proposal reflects what civil society representatives want,” Gédéon Jean, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights Analysis and Research (CARDH) in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, told Geneva Solutions. A survey in January reported that 70 per cent of people questioned were favourable to an intervention. CARDH is made up of academics, economists and legal experts that condemn rights abuses as well as promote human rights in the country.

Jean said that since the assassination in 2021 of President Jovenel Moïse and the “dysfunctional” government that subsequently emerged, there have been limits to the state’s ability to protect its population from gang violence. “We have a bargain-basement, under-equipped police. The police doesn’t have drones, it doesn’t have helicopters, nor does it have munition. It’s a police that has issues with its own identity,” he said.

It is estimated that Haiti has only 9,500 police for a population of 11 million inhabitants. Heightened insecurity in the country, particularly in popular neighbourhoods around the capital where gangs control over 60 per cent of the territory, has led to a spike in the number of people who have fled the country.

In October, Prime Minister Ariel Henry first requested “immediate deployment of a specialised armed force” from the international community, but the response by countries has been limited. At a Security Council meeting in December, UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed said such a force was urgently needed, given the “serious alarm” the deepening crisis had triggered.

Only the Bahamas has said it would send troops or police if requested, while the United States has baulked at offering anything more than armoured vehicles. Canada, which recently announced $100 million in technical and financial support to Haiti’s police, has said it would not commit troops until Haitians have agreed to a political consensus. Ottawa has supported sanctions on the country’s political and business elites, seen as supporting gangs. El Salvador, which has imprisoned tens of thousands of gang members and many others unwittingly caught in the government’s dragnet, has offered to “share a successful plan” with a “sister country”.

Some representatives of western delegations in the Council shied away from discussing the language change in the resolution regarding military intervention.

“We have a situation that is really explosive. That is the reality,” Jean explained.

He said that while the UN Security Council was the proper institution empowered to deploy military forces upon members’ requests, “it is possible that the government may wish to use the Human Rights Council to sensitise other countries to the situation in Haiti”.

Amid the ongoing focus of western countries on the war in Ukraine, and the US’s reluctance to engage forces internationally since their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jean conceded that it would be “very complicated” within that context to organise an intervening force.

While some experts have argued that such a force would mainly serve to legitimise the government, which many claim lacks competence and may rely on criminal associations, previous UN military missions have not been without controversy.

The last of these, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), which left the country in 2017 after helping to build a police force in the country, has been connected to the origins of the cholera outbreak that killed more than 9,000 people, and widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of Haitian girls and women, leaving many of them impregnated. Over the past three decades, Haiti has hosted eight UN military missions.

UN rights expert to be appointed

Regarding other critical components of the resolution, Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the decision to appoint a UN expert to Haiti. “The expert will have an important role to play in shining a spotlight on the cascading human rights dimensions of the current crisis gripping the country,” the organisation’s Geneva office said in a statement.

The mandate of the last independent expert on Haiti, Gustavo Gallón, ended in 2017.

HRW added that it hoped the expert's nomination would also be followed by “concrete steps by authorities to defend human rights and provide basic services to the population”.

Michèle Taylor, the US ambassador to the Council, told Geneva Solutions: “We strongly support the designation of a human rights expert to monitor the human rights situation in the country and to provide advice and technical assistance to the Haitian government, human rights institutions, and civil society organisations.”

The resolution comes just over a month after a visit to Haiti by Volker Türk, UN high commissioner for human rights, when he urged Haitian authorities to address the “grave security situation”.

He requested that the international community “urgently consider the deployment of a time-bound specialised support force under conditions that conform to international human rights laws and norms, with a comprehensive and comprehensive and precise action plan”.

The resolution also calls on Türk to pursue discussions to open a local office in Haiti, as requested by the government during his visit in February.