While international community is divided on Haiti military, support for an army grows
Miami Herald September 12, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — For more than two years the Biden administration has been pushing for a Haitian-led approach to solving Haiti’s spiraling gang violence and deepening humanitarian, social and political crisis.
But there is one solution that Washington is not prepared to support: Using the Haitian army.
A State Department spokesperson told the Miami Herald that while the United States remains deeply concerned by the ongoing lawlessness associated with armed gangs and supports a Haitian-led solution, “the U.S. government is statutorily prohibited from providing assistance to the Armed Forces of Haiti.”
“We believe Haiti’s security challenges are grave and continue to provide support to train, equip and advise the Haitian national police to make it an accountable, well-resourced, and capable law enforcement agency,” the spokesperson said, adding that regulations don’t allow the U.S. government “to export defense articles and defense services to Haiti except for support to Haiti’s Coast Guard and support for U.N. missions in Haiti.”
Haiti’s modern-day military, created by U.S. Marines after a 1915 American occupation, evolved into the army that became known as a perpetrator of coups and some of the worst human-rights abuses in the hemisphere.
The army ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991 and was disbanded after the U.S. helped restore him to power. President Michel Martelly, fulfilling a campaign promise, began the reinstatement of the military after his 2011 election. But instead of the 7,000 soldiers the army had when it was demobilized and disarmed, it numbered just a few hundred troops scattered at two bases, one in Léogâne and the other in Port-au-Prince.
Today, the military has about 1,500 soldiers. But they have no assault tanks, no armored vehicles, no combat helicopters or even high-powered rifles, and lack any ability to confront gangs. While Mexico currently provides military training, the institution continues to face resistance from others in the international community, especially from the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. position is so clear that Haiti, under pressure from the State Department, was forced two years ago to turn over weapons bought for the armed forces to the Haiti National Police despite buying the guns with its own government funds and getting approval beforehand from U.S. authorities. The 2,000 guns were purchased by then Defense Minister Jean Dorneval before the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
When the weapons arrived soon after the death of Moïse, they were transferred to the police over the objection of the defense ministry.
“Let’s be clear, we are in a country where today it is impossible for the police to resolve the security crisis,” said Dorneval, who had refused to sign the transfer order and learned from a newspaper story that the guns were given to the police. “The police are not trained for these kinds of interventions. Even if they have the will to take on the gangs, after they do and leave, what happens? The next day the gangs return.”
He added: “If an army does an operation, it will occupy the area, it just doesn’t leave. An army is indispensable to fighting and eradicating gangs in Haiti. It serves the territory and it serves the country.”
Two polls conducted within months of each other by the Port-au-Prince business alliance group AGERCA found that even as Haitians strongly favor the deployment of an international force to help their police fight gangs, they also believed that the Armed Forces of Haiti can help.
“A large majority of respondents (75%) believe that to restore the security in the country and to deter armed gangs, the [ Haiti National Police] would need the support from the Armed Forces of Haiti,” the latest poll, released in August, said.
Still, the country’s military has been on the sidelines, playing a limited role in anti-gang operations and providing protection to Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
“It pains us when we see what the population is enduring and you know there are things that can be done, but we don’t have the resources to do anything and we have no choice but to stand down,” said Jodel Lesage, the commander-in-chief of the force.
In March, as Haiti was being gripped by another wave of gang violence, Henry visited the army’s headquarters and told the force that he plans to mobilize them in the fight. He also made the rounds among foreign embassies, seeking support in his mission to activate the Haitian military. But instead of weapons or funding, he was met with a wall of silence, underscoring the continued unease among Haiti’s major financial donors to the idea of a larger role for the army.
“There was no transparency in their recruitment or in the way Jovenel remobilized the army, and the international community knows this and are uncomfortable with it,” said Pierre Esperance, a Haitian human-rights advocate. “We don’t know who these soldiers are. They were put there by parliamentarians and politicians and if they commit abuses we can’t judge them. The constitution says they have their own tribunal.”
Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister who served during the 2004-06 transitional government, said everyone can see that the Haitian police are struggling against the armed gangs.
“An army is the tool that’s needed, not the police, however well-intentioned,” said Gousse. “The international community knows this because they are thinking of sending military troops.”
In October, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres proposed that one or several countries send “a rapid action force” to help Haiti’s beleaguered police battle the heavily armed gangs. He has since said the country needs “a robust use of force” by police special force and military support units to restore security. Guterres’ support came at the behest of the government of Haiti, which had asked for a “specialized armed force” after a powerful coalition of gangs blocked the country’s main fuel terminal, Varreux. The nearly six-week blockade led to shortages of water amid a deadly cholera outbreak, and forced hospitals and businesses to close.
A year after the request, Haiti is still waiting for outside assistance. Last week, meetings were held at the U.N., where negotiations among the 15-member Security Council are ongoing over a multinational security support mission led by Kenya.
But even if a U.N. resolution were to pass, Haitians say a deployment still would not address the larger question about the country’s long-term stability.
“Whether you get an international force, which we need, you will still need a fusion between the army and the police in order to have a security force that can defend public safety,” said Jean-Michel Lapin, who served as Moïse’s third prime minister. “We have to look at this in terms of public security and national defenses.”
Haiti has seen a number of foreign military interventions since the 1990s, all triggered by political crises. The last one, in 2004, led to the establishment of a U.N. Stabilization Mission. Its peacekeeping mission ended 15 years later amid mounting political and security concerns and questions about whether the Haitian national police force would be sufficient enough to address the spreading gang violence.
In the four years since, the police have not only seen their ranks dwindle, but they increasingly find themselves out-numbered and outgunned by gangs whose kidnappings, killings and rapes have terrorized the population.
Nearly 200,000 Haitians have been displaced by the violence and nearly half of those are children, the U.N.’s leading child welfare agency said Monday.
Lesage, the army commander, said where the armed forces have been called upon, they have tried to assist. But it’s difficult when the troops lack equipment. He remains hopeful, however, citing a recent article in the country’s daily, Le Nouvelliste, quoting an unnamed source saying that Haiti will finally be allowed to purchase some equipment for the force.
Asked if this were the case, a State Department spokesperson said, “as a matter of policy and practice, the Department does not comment on or confirm potential defense trade licensing activity.”
Lapin says the U.S. and others that have long argued that Haiti faces no external threats and doesn’t need an army, fail to understand the problem in eradicating the gangs.
Still, Haiti’s armed forces have an image problem, one that foreign observers say they will need to address if they are to win larger support. In 2020 the police and the army faced off in a six-hour gun battle that left at least a soldier and a protester dead, and more than a dozen others wounded.
The tension between the two armed institutions is just one of the challenges. The other is money. Haiti today relies on the United States, Canada, France and others to fund its police, which remains seriously under-equipped and underpaid.
“They’ve made a choice, but Haiti needs support for the police and the military,” said Gérard Laborde, head of AGERCA, which conducted the polling. The soldiers “lack training and they lack equipment like guns, logistics and armored vehicles. If they had the equipment, there is a lot that they could do.”
Initially, the dissolution of Haiti’s armed forces was met with support. Under the nearly 30-year-long Duvalier dictatorship, the government used the military and paramilitary as tools of repression. By the time the army was disbanded, Haiti had undergone 34 military coups since its 1804 independence from France.
Attitudes changed as Haiti found itself increasingly battling armed gangs. While on the campaign trail in 2011, singer-turned-politician Martelly announced his plan to reinstate the armed forces if he became president. The army’s disbandment, he argued, wasn’t constitutional and its existence was a matter of sovereignty.
Six years later, Moïse, Martelly’s successor, installed six former soldiers, all in their 60s and tainted by allegations of human-rights abuses, to head the high command. Foreign diplomats representing Haiti’s traditional donors boycotted the ceremony.
Last month, a contingent of 100 soldiers from the Armed Forces of Haiti flew to Mexico for a three-week training as part of an initiative to form a special forces unit. The delegation also included a dozen police officers assigned to the specialized units of the Haiti National Police.
Mexico’s ambassador to Haiti, in a press briefing before the trip, said that the country has trained 570 soldiers since 2018.
Last December, following a fact-finding visit to Haiti on the heels of pressure for Canada to lead the intervention into Haiti, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, told CBC News that there is no reason why Haiti can’t have a strong army, similar to the one that exists next door in the Dominican Republic.
“Name me a country around the world that doesn’t have an army,” he told CBC News. “The main thing to recognize right now is that Haiti has a profound security problem.”
Still, while Rae appeared open to the idea of Haiti and Canada sitting down to discuss making the Haitian army work, there is no official Canadian effort.
One foreign diplomat, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to address the matter, said Haiti has to recognize that despite its best intentions, the army still has a reputation to overcome and needs to build confidence among donors, who currently are focused on providing funding to the Haitian police.
Lesage, the commander of the Haitian military forces, says those who raise the army’s troubled history of coups, corruption and human-rights abuses, are using it as “a pretext” and are unpatriotic and irresponsible.
The question of whether Haiti should have an army or not, he said, is not one for foreign diplomats to decide. It was decided over 200 years ago, Lesage said, with Haiti’s founding father and first leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
“As a matter of heritage... and a right of sovereignty,” he said, “we need to ensure that we always have an army.”
©2023 Miami Herald.
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