Haiti: The Danger of Foreign Military Intervention

By Scott Freeman*

A police precinct in Cite Soleil, where gang violence and protests have surged in recent months / James Emery / Flickr / Creative Commons License

Though Haiti’s security, economic, and political crises have thrust the country into the most dire situation in recent memory, the Prime Minister’s call for foreign military intervention, if the UN complies, will continue a cycle of failed international meddling. The UN is discussing proposals backed by the United States and Mexico that would impose financial sanctions and an arms embargo on criminal actors in Haiti and authorize “a non-UN international security assistance mission to help improve the security situation and enable the flow of desperately needed humanitarian aid.” The mission would be led by an unspecified “partner country” with experience in Haiti.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, serving as head of government with international support since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, pleaded for assistance amid a precipitous rise in gang power in Haiti and unwavering calls for his resignation.

  • Gangs control much of the country, in particular Port-au-Prince, and affect everything from the safety of children attending school to the movement of food. Several weeks ago, they seized the terminal where fuel enters the country, paralyzing transportation, the functioning of hospitals, and other essential services. Working towards both political and criminal ends, gangs came to power as political tools, used notably by the ruling PHTK party to squash opposition. Now they operate throughout the country. Human rights groups estimate that 90 gangs operate in the capital and have killed hundreds of citizens and terrified tens of thousands of others. UN specialized agencies reported last week that 4.7 million Haitians (about 40 percent of the national population) face acute hunger, including 19,000 who are in “Phase Five” famine conditions for the first time.

However, Henry’s call for an international security presence is deeply problematic.

  • Named Prime Minister two days before Moïse’s assassination, Henry lacks a popular and constitutional mandate. Moïse blocked elections for mayors and national legislators and gutted the judiciary, consolidating power in his own hands. Henry is now the de facto leader of a country void of democratic checks and balances. During his year in power, Henry has done almost nothing to address the issue of gang violence. Protests have been occurring in the street regularly calling for his departure. The peyi lok (country lockdown) protests that started in late September ramped up in response to Henry’s removal of fuel subsidies – levying essentially a regressive tax perceived by Haitians across the country as a direct assault on the poor.
  • Despite consistent and popular calls for his removal, the United States, Canada, and other countries’ support for Henry and the PHTK has endured, choosing “stability” over calls for a transitional government and democratic elections. Washington has largely ignored the Montana Accord, the product of a broad coalition of some 70 civil society actors across religious and political divides who proposed two years of coalition government followed by free and fair elections. In Washington, support for Henry has been challenged by 13 members of the Democratic Party in the Senate and House who wrote a letter to President Biden that points out Henry’s disinterest in democracy and stability, and urged the Administration to change its strategy, heed the Montana Accord, and move away from support for Henry.

Protesters have forcefully rejected Henry’s call – bolstered by UN Secretary-General Guterres – for a foreign security force “to stand with us and help us fight this humanitarian crisis.” The request has met stiff resistance in Haiti by groups that portray it as a blatant effort to keep himself and the PHTK in power. Others call the invitation to foreign troops treason and argue a foreign force would repeat the mistakes of the previous UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH, 2004‑17), which introduced cholera into the country, committed widespread acts of sexual assault and violence, and was widely seen as an occupier. A statue in southwest Haiti, for example, was erected to depict Haiti’s triumph over both cholera and the UN force.

  • The strong rejection of this option from civil society groups like the Montana Accord and advocacy groups like Nou Pap Domi (We Won’t Sleep) bodes poorly for international actors that might think that yet another military deployment in Haiti would lead to a different result than the past catastrophic operations. As long as the “core group” of the international community keeps its thumb on the scale and gives free reign to leaders like Henry and predecessors who lack democratic legitimacy, democratic change will not occur. Truly breaking the cycle of interventions and the longstanding support of kleptocratic regimes would mean supporting the work of groups like the Montana Accord – which the United States and others have rejected. Henry’s request for a foreign military presence is therefore not a solution, but instead sows the seeds of another set of problems.

* Scott Freeman is an anthropologist and professor in the School of International Service.

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