U.S. shifts to support peacekeeping mission in Haiti after push for intervention falters

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The Biden administration is shifting its strategy on Haiti away from a proposal for a multilateral armed force that would have had the power to combat gangs in the streets of Port-au-Prince to a push at the United Nations for a more traditional peacekeeping mission, three sources familiar with the matter told McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

The United States had hoped to avoid sending another peacekeeping mission to Haiti, which has hosted eight in the last 30 years. But its initial plan to rally an international coalition of forces led by an unidentified third country to intervene at the request of the Haitian government has faltered since it was first proposed in the fall, compelling the administration to change course as the security environment in the Caribbean nation rapidly deteriorates.

The White House had hoped that Canada would lead such a force. But a push ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa this week made clear that the Canadians were unlikely to take on a leadership role, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly casting doubt on Canada’s capacity to assume the mission.

Trudeau has touted support for the Haiti National Police and his government’s use of sanctions against Haiti’s political and business elite, believed to be supporting gangs and fanning instability in the country. On Friday, he announced that Ottawa will provide $100 million in equipment and financial support to help the Haiti National Police. He also announced two additional sanctions on members of “the Haitian elite who are benefiting” from the gang violence. The individuals are former Haiti Sen. Nenel Cassy, and Steeve Khawly, a businessman and former candidate in the last presidential elections.

“We are determined to increase international support for Haiti including through humanitarian assistance,” Trudeau said at a press conference with Biden.

Trudeau noted that “for 30 years, western countries have been involved in Haiti to try and stabilize the country, to try and help the Pearl of the Antilles, and the situation is atrocious.”

The United States first proposed sending a multilateral “rapid action force” to Haiti in a resolution at the U.N. Security Council in November. The Biden administration never volunteered to lead the force itself.

Senior administration officials acknowledged that the topic of Haiti was among the more complex and complicated discussions that would take place between Biden and Trudeau, but did not provide hope that there would be a breakthrough.

“It is a challenge to get to certain parts of the country, and even neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, given the high levels of gang activity,” a senior administration official said, recognizing the escalating violence and kidnappings gripping Haiti’s capital since late February that has now spread to other parts of the country.

“What we’ve been doing is, I think, methodically, with Canada, looking at really what is needed on the ground, what it would take, really, how many potentially other countries what kind of mandate, whether a Chapter 7, or if it’s something that the U.N. Security Council really should be debating,” the official added. Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter authorizes the use of force for the enforcement of peace.

A State Department spokesperson told McClatchy on Thursday that the United States is still “working with our international partners to develop the framework for a police-led multinational force to assist the Haitian National Police.” But three sources familiar with the effort said the administration had quietly shifted its focus in recent days toward a peacekeeping mission.

In October, as a powerful gang coalition cut off roads and seized control of Haiti’s main fuel terminal, interim Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry asked for the international community to deploy troops to assist the Haiti National Police. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres supported the call, citing a “dramatic deterioration in security” that has “paralyzed the country,” proposing options for a multilateral force that would have had authorization by the Security Council to intervene in Haiti in the short, medium and long-term.

Under Guterres’ proposal, the force’s intervention would have been a direct agreement between the Haitian government and additional countries with the ability to go on the offensive against gangs. By contrast, a peacekeeping mission would pull from a U.N. list of troop-contributing countries under direct U.N. supervision.

Still, both typically require Chapter 7 authorization from the Security Council. It was unclear whether the United States’ force proposal would have ever secured Security Council approval — requiring votes from Russia and China — and it remains unclear if a peacekeeping mission would pass, either.

At the Friday press conference after their meetings, Biden and Trudeau addressed the crisis in Haiti, underscoring their shared concern.

“The biggest thing we could do — and it’s going to take time — is to increase the prospect of the police departments in Haiti to deal with the problems they face. And that’s going to take a little bit of time,” Biden said.

“We’re also looking at whether the international community through the United Nations could play a larger role in this circumstance,” he continued. “But there is no question that there is a real, genuine concern, because there are several million people in Haiti, and the diaspora could cause some real — how can I say — confusion in the Western Hemisphere.

“Any decision about military force, which is often raised, we think would have to be done in consultation with the United Nations and with the Haitian government — and so that is not off the table, but that is not in play, at the moment,” Biden added.


Any request for U.N. peacekeepers would need to come from the government of Haiti, which until now has been reluctant to invite the U.N. back in. However, the issue of an outside force has found support in Haiti, with a recent poll finding that nearly 70% of Haitians do not think the Haiti National Police can defeat the gangs on its own. But the idea of a return of U.N. blue-helmet peacekeepers — six years after the last foreign soldiers left and four years after the mission ended entirely — has remained controversial, due to the peacekeeping force’s history introducing a deadly cholera epidemic in the country months after the 2010 earthquake, and the poor U.N. response.

Cholera had not existed in Haiti for a century until peacekeepers from Nepal infected a local river. The waterborne disease left more than 10,000 dead and over 800,000 infected, but for years the United Nations would not accept responsibility for its role or issue an apology.

The United Nations, with support from others in the international community, refused to individually compensate victims, drawing criticism from more than a dozen of its own independent rights experts. Instead it chose to invest more than $700 million in Haiti’s epidemiological, water and sanitation systems to combat the disease and support the government’s national plan.

Other problems with a peacekeeping force have to do with sexual abuse allegations. U.N. peacekeepers were accused of getting young Haitian women pregnant and abandoning their children.

Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired Brazilian military officer who previously served as force commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2007, told the Herald in an interview that the missions are not meant to solve countries’ problems. They are meant to provide stability so that the government can step in and make the necessary reforms and pass laws to shore up stability.

“At the same time you’re providing support to the police, you need to study how to improve the conditions of the population,” he said. “You can’t only treat just the criminal question, you have to see what to do to have better conditions for the population … and how we improve the government and governance to have much more authority.”

The gangs, he noted, grew stronger because of the conditions in the country, including poverty.

Some observers question whether the Biden administration’s reluctance to deploy American soldiers to Haiti has also made its partners less willing to contribute forces. The administration has said that it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Previous missions began in 1994 as one-year deployments and soon turned into multi-year missions as the international community realized that Haiti’s turmoil could not be addressed quickly.

Although Haiti enjoyed relative stability between 2000 and 2004, the United Nations was forced to intervene when controversy over legislative elections deepened political turmoil, and demands rose for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was finally ousted in a bloody coup in 2004.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti was led by Brazil and was supposed to depart the country in 2011. But the 2010 earthquake extended its stay, and the U.N., the United States and others insisted on elections.

Despite its problems, the mission did have success in helping rebuild the Haiti National police force and provided a measure of stability that allowed the country to hold democratic elections after Aristide’s ouster. The mission’s presence between 2004 and 2017 provided several years of stability that allowed Haitian President René Préval to govern until the 2010 devastating earthquake.

Haiti observers who support outside security assistance to help the beleaguered police force have stressed that such aid for the police can help if it is carefully led — with an appropriate mandate that can counter the gangs, and a response by the U.N. when issues arise.

“Any operation can’t take just a SWAT team approach to the gangs,” said William O’Neill, a human rights lawyer who has served in Haiti under previous U.N. missions. “The U.N. must support not only the Haitian police but also the judiciary and the prison system, which are crucial to protecting rights and building the rule of law.

“The U.N. and all the major international actors must not interfere in Haitian politics,” he added.