UN chief: Haiti’s gang violence nears conflict, help needed

Apr 24, 2023, 7:11 PM

People grieve during the wake for three police officers who died in the line of duty, at Sur le Roc...

People grieve during the wake for three police officers who died in the line of duty, at Sur le Rocher Church in Delmas, Haiti, Friday, April 21, 2023. A gang ambushed and killed three police officers in Thomassin on Sunday, and one officer survived, according to authorities. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

(AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations chief urged the immediate deployment of an international armed force in Haiti to stem escalating gang violence and the country’s worst human rights crisis in decades, warning in a new report that insecurity in the capital “has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued an urgent appeal for a specialized armed force to stop the crisis in Latin America’s poorest country last October at the request of Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the country’s Council of Ministers.

But at a U.N. Security Council meeting in January neither the United States, which has been criticized for previous interventions in Haiti, nor Canada showed any interest in leading such a force, and there are no signs that opposition has changed. The international community has instead opted to impose sanctions and send military equipment and other resources.

Guterres reiterated in a report to the Security Council circulated Monday that deploying an international force remains “crucial” to help Haitian authorities curb the violence and rights abuses, restore the rule of law, and create conditions for the holding of national elections. The council is scheduled to discuss the report on Wednesday.

Haiti’s beleaguered National Police Force is facing increasing attacks resulting in growing rates of officers abandoning their posts, absent, retiring and more recently applying to humanitarian parole programs in the United States, the secretary-general said. The programs are open to Haitians seeking safe haven due to conditions in the country.

“Since the beginning of 2023, 22 police officers have been killed by gangs,” Guterres said. “These trends are expected to accelerate unless efforts are redoubled to urgently equip and train police, recruit new officers and improve working conditions to retain existing personnel.”

As of March 31, he said, the national police force stood at 14,772 officers but according to the police administration only about 13,200 personnel are available for active duties because of desertions, suspensions due to investigations, and other absences.

Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Haiti’s gangs have grown more powerful and violent. In December, the U.N. estimated that gangs controlled 60% of Haiti’s capital, but most people on the streets in Port-au-Prince say that number is closer to 100%.

“Rough estimates by the national police indicate that there are currently seven major gang coalitions and approximately 200 affiliated groups,” Guterres said. “Gangs ambushed and attacked national police infrastructure, causing serious damage to several police facilities and burning others to the ground.”

Compounding the gang warfare is the country’s political crisis: Haiti was stripped of all democratically elected institutions when the terms of the remaining 10 senators expired in early January.

Secretary-General Guterres said in the report that Haiti is facing escalating kidnappings and violent crimes committed by gangs competing to expand territorial control throughout the capital Port-au-Prince. He said the violence has spread to previously unaffected neighborhoods and several municipalities in the Artibonite region, which is north of the West region where Port-au-Prince is located.

He said that during the first quarter of 2023 reported homicides rose by 21% to 815 cases from 673 during the last quarter of 2022 while kidnappings increased by 63% to 637 during the same period from 391 in the last three months of 2022.

“The human rights situation of those living in gang-controlled areas remains appallingly poor,” he said, pointing to killings, attacks, sexual violence and snipers on rooftops frequently firing at people in their homes and on the streets. In their pursuit of more territory, he said, gangs also continued to use rape and other forms of sexual violence “to instill fear and assert control over communities” with women and girls disproportionately affected.

Calling the socio-economic outlook for Haiti “dire,” Guterres cited a World Bank forecast that the economy is expected to contract for the fifth year by 1.1% in 2022-2023. He also warned that food insecurity is at “an all-time high” with 4.9 million Haitians in serious and critical states of malnutrition, “which is four times more than in 2017.”

On the political front, the secretary-general said action to address gang violence must be accompanied by concrete steps to resolve the political crisis.

He expressed hope that the three-member High Transitional Council installed in February “will help to generate the consensus required to find a way out of the political crisis” though his report cites calls for broadening efforts to reach agreement on a road map to elections.

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UN chief: Haiti’s gang violence nears conflict, help needed