United Nations paints a worsening situation in Haiti

Over the past three months Haiti has seen some of its worst gang-related violence in decades, affecting the functioning of the judiciary, impeding the government, challenging the United Nations efforts to fight illicit trafficking and keeping children from going to school, UN Secretary- General António Guterres said in his latest report on the deteriorating situation.

Even neighborhoods of the capital that were once considered to be relatively safe have now fallen victim to the tightening grip of warring gangs. Just last week, residents of Petionville found themselves trapped in their homes as a gang ambush to the east left three police officers dead, another missing and a fourth injured, as a rise in kidnappings at the southern edge left people scared to go out.

Guterres’ three-month update of the situation in Haiti paints a deteriorating situation. Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ronaldo Costa Filho, told members of the Security Council on Tuesday: “The current political stalemate, and humanitarian and security crisis reinforce each other.”

“There has been little progress on the security situation in Haiti,” he said. “It remains as challenging and worrisome as before. Gangs continue to control and paralyze a large part of Port-au-Prince, significantly worsening the dire, multidimensional crisis in which the country remains plunged.”

During Tuesday’s update on the situation in Haiti, diplomats continued their call for an end to the stalemate and “a more inclusive dialogue” while also endorsing a new but controversial political accord signed on Dec. 21, 2021, as “a step forward” towards elections.

Still, Albania’s representative did not mince words, saying that building democracy requires citizen involvement, strong institutions, legitimacy and continued political dialogue — all of which are currently missing in Haiti.

“Amidst such an acute crisis, Haiti cannot afford an irresponsible political class, which continues to put their narrow interests before the common public good,” said Ambassador Ferit Hoxha. “Haiti needs responsible political dialogue, unity of purpose and honest commitment, not a cacophony of divergences when the country is burning. Otherwise, the only working coalition in the country will be that of the gangs.”

In his report, the secretary general acknowledged that the elections calendar remains uncertain, despite a promise by interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry to have a new elected government installed by February 2024.

Guterres noted that despite efforts by the interim government and the UN to stave off a worsening crisis and tackle many of the issues, including an ongoing cholera outbreak, their work has been impeded by the worsening gang violence and kidnappings. Both have increased for a fourth consecutive year, his special representative to Haiti, Helen La Lime, told the council in opening remarks.

Both noted that over the last three months the political landscape in Haiti was shaped by three events: the establishment of a UN sanctions regime to implement travel bans, asset freezes and a targeted arms embargo against individuals engaging, directly or indirectly, with armed groups and criminal networks; the imposition of bilateral sanctions by the US and Canada against several high-profile Haitian individuals, including a former president, two former prime ministers and two members of the current government; and the request by the Haitian government and the secretary general for the deployment of an international specialized armed force to assist the Haiti National Police.

Direct talks held in early October between Henry and a prominent member of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, otherwise known as the Montana Accord, “ultimately did not make tangible headway,” Guterres’ report said. However, new consultations between the government and other members of a civil society group and the business community yielded a document, the National Consensus for an Inclusive Transition and Transparent Elections.

Although signed by some groups, the document remains the target of criticism, with some political groups saying it has no validity and is there to shore up the little power Henry has.

On Tuesday, the United States welcomed the agreement, as Haiti’s representative called it “a major accomplishment,” with no reference to the hurdles the government continues to face in making it palatable to all.

“The adoption of the December 21 accord is an opportunity for Haitians to get back to restoring their country’s stability and improving governance,” said Robert Wood, the US’s alternative representative at the UN mission. “It is vital that the political agreement and its implementation remain inclusive, and we value the role civil society and the private sector have played in helping bring disparate parties together.”

In a separate statement, the 15-member Caribbean Community known as Caricom urged “all stakeholders” in Haiti to come together in their search for a consensus agreement.

“The Community remains willing and ready to assist in achieving this goal and in that regard had begun sounding Haitian stakeholders over the past few weeks about their willingness to attend a meeting in a CARICOM country,” the regional grouping said.

The UN secretary general’s reporting period was also marked by a siege of the country’s main fuel terminal, Varreux, which exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country and led to the call for a specialized international force to assist the Haitian police. Such a force is still needed, Guterres said, despite the end of a two-month gang siege.

The National Port Authority and other commercial ports, for example, “remain under constant gang attacks.”

“Road transportation remains at risk, with cargo shipping containers and goods being regularly hijacked and stolen,” the report said. “Police continued to struggle to maintain patrols around the ports, while gangs retained control of most of the main transport thoroughfares linking Port-au-Prince with the northern and southern departments.”

This has also delayed implementation of UN efforts to assist Haitian authorities in fighting the illicit trafficking through a border management program being launched by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

“It is vital that major roads and key facilities remain unobstructed to enable the State to function and protect the people of Haiti so that they may safely go about their daily lives,” Guterres said, reiterating his call for the deployment of international forces to help the Haitian national police.

A total of 2,183 murders were reported last year, a 35.2% increase compared with 2021. The majority, nearly 82%, were in the West regional department that includes the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, where a former presidential candidate, Eric Jean Baptiste and the National Police Academy director, Harington Riguad, were among the victims late last year.

Kidnappings also saw a 104.7% increase, with 1,359 reported victims. More than double the number recorded last year, it averages out to roughly four abductions a day — and shows no sign of slowing down.

“Despite their determined efforts to curb crime and fight gangs, the overstretched, understaffed and under resourced police force has not been able, on its own, to deter the alarming rise in gang violence,” Guterres said in his report.

Haitians were reminded of the limitations as council members met in New York. As diplomats voiced their concerns about the “chilling” reality, several media groups in Haiti reported that local historian and former government official Pierre Buteau had been abducted from his home early Tuesday morning.

Guterres noted that gang-related violence continues to undermine society, including the functioning of the judicial system, affecting efforts to address the high rate of prolonged pretrial detention, among other activities.

The country’s main courthouse, the Court of First Instance of Port-au-Prince, attacked by gangs in mid-June, was still not under Haitian authorities’ control by the end of the year, the UN said. Another facility, the Court of First Instance of Croix-des-Bouquets, which was also attacked and set on fire by gang members, is still being temporarily housed in several government buildings in the neighboring city of Tabarre.

The UN reported that gangs continue to use sexual violence as a weapon to inflict terror and to punish and humiliate local populations. Their ultimate goal is to extend their control.

During gang clashes in Croix-des-Bouquets in October, at least 40 women were raped by heavily armed gang members.

“The women were deliberately targeted because they lived in an area controlled by a rival gang. Women and girls also continued to be highly exposed to rape while traveling along roads controlled by gangs,” the UN said.

That gang violence has also spilled out into other areas. Remittances are down most likely because people fled the country, the cost of living is up due to the inability of goods to get through blocked roads, and many children still cannot attend school because of the violence in their communities.

“The situation remains grave,” Guterres said.

The secretary general noted that the average cost of a food basket, which consists of common foods the population eats such as rice and beans, has increased to nearly 63%, leading to a rise in hunger among almost half of the people in the population of nearly 12 million.

“The unpredictable security situation has hampered agricultural activities, prevented the supplying of markets and slowed down ongoing investment, especially in small-scale trade, the main source of income for a large part of the population,” he said. “People’s livelihoods continue to erode, and humanitarian partners face great difficulty in gaining access to the most vulnerable populations.”

The number of people in an emergency situation, meaning deep hunger, rose by more than 35.5%, with one in 20 residents in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil living in famine-like conditions. These trends are likely to continue if the level of humanitarian assistance does not increase, the secretary general said, noting that the hunger crisis is now compounded by the expanding cholera epidemic.

The UN and international and national humanitarian partners are facing increasing difficulties in reaching beneficiaries throughout the country to provide water, food and healthcare because major roads remain blocked by gangs, the secretary general said. For example, National Road 2, linking the capital to the earthquake-recovering southern peninsula, has been blocked by gangs since June 2021, cutting off at least 3 million people from Port-au-Prince, the country’s economic center.

“The blockade undermines freedom of movement and further contributes to inflation and jeopardizes livelihoods. More recently, the northern departments have also become increasingly isolated from the capital,” Guterres wrote.

That has made getting fuel to the areas difficult. For instance, along the road connecting Ouanaminthe in the northeast to Cap-Haïtien in the north, fuel is sold only in gallons on the roadside, if it is available at all. The city of Cap-Haïtien, which just hosted a major international jazz festival that relocated from the capital because of the violence, has been in a total blackout for over a year, residents said.

“Amid the ongoing cholera outbreak, the lack of fuel has further undermined access to health services owing to restrictions on movement and to the impact of fluctuations in the supply of water and electricity on the functioning of medical facilities,” the UN report said.

The turf battles between heavily armed gangs, while not occurring everywhere, are nevertheless having an impact on the human-rights situation, especially in the metropolitan area of ​​Port-au-Prince and in the Artibonite and North departments, the report details.

“Gangs are increasingly targeting local populations, deliberately killing, injuring and committing acts of sexual violence during coordinated armed attacks to expand their territorial control.”

This story was originally published January 24, 2023 9:41 AM.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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