As violence in Haiti worsens, Canada bets on assistance to police

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As Haiti’s vicious cycle of gang violence continues, the Canadian government says it remains committed to helping the country overcome its security challenges by aiding the Haitian national police.

Haiti’s government and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres have been calling for outside intervention to assist the country’s beleaguered police force combat gangs. The Biden administration, which authored a resolution at the U.N. Security Council supporting such a deployment, was hoping Canada would take the leadership role.

However, ahead of Biden’s first official visit to Ottawa as president in March, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent strong signals that leading a deployment into Haiti wasn’t his government’s focus, and Ottawa believed the way to help Haiti is through assistance to the Haiti National Police and targeted sanctions against those believed to be financing gangs and engaged in corruption.

That position has not changed, said the country’s ambassador to Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, who is in Miami meeting with members of the Haitian community and who spoke Wednesday morning at Florida International University’s 8th Annual Hemispheric Security Conference.

“I still believe that the long-term solution to any security problem is the HNP,“ Carrière said in a Miami Herald interview ahead of his FIU appearance. “It’s not U.N. mission after U.N. mission.”

Carrière said Canada has spent more than $150 million Canadian dollars over the past 20 years on the Haitian national police. “At the same time, we, Canada, spent $175 million on a U.N. peacekeeping mission. What if we have put more of our money on the HNP? Where would we be today?” he said.

Biden agreed that the best thing the U.S. and others could do is to help Haitian police deal with the country’s gang problem. But he said “it’s going to take time.”

Ahead of the Ottawa visit, U.S. sources had confirmed to the Miami Herald and McClatchy newspapers that the administration had quietly shifted its focus toward a U.N. peacekeeping mission, which the president acknowledged in a press conference with Trudeau.

Still, more than six months after the request for a foreign deployment and two months after the Biden-Trudeau visit, there are no indications that a mission under the umbrella of the United Nations is likely to happen anytime soon.

During last week’s U.N. Security Council meeting, the new U.N. envoy to Haiti, Maria Isabel Salvador, reiterated the secretary-general’s urgent plea for an outside force. But despite her argument that gang kidnappings, killing and rapes of women and children has drastically escalated — along with fed-up Haitians carrying out vigilante killings — and presents a regional threat, no country raised its hand.

Carrière said in his meeting with members of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida that it it is clear that “people are frustrated with the situation in Haiti and worried about what comes next.”

As part of a $100 million in assistance to the Haiti National Police that Trudeau announced during the Biden visit, Carrière said Canada is looking at spending the money to equip the force, possibly help with police salaries and to provide weapons, which it currently does not, and is complicated given Canada’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates international trade of conventional arms. The Canaian government is also exploring helping the police with healthcare, because the force currently doesn’t have a trauma center.

“We want to provide equipment for the new recruits that graduated last year, and still not out in the streets for lack of proper equipment,” he said. “We’re trying to do that as quickly as possible from existing stocks, because procurement is a nightmare.... Because our problem is no matter what we’re trying to buy for the HNP, we face delays, delays just like everything else.“

A Canadian technical team visited Port-au-Prince last week made up of experts from the foreign affairs ministry, the Department of National Defense, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and public safety.

“We know what the needs are. The HNP have identified their needs. The question is how we work” with the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the United Nations Police, Carrière said. “If we are going to be spending money on security in Haiti, we want to be spending it on the HNP.”

Helping Haiti’s struggling police force is a challenge. Its leaders and officers are being targeted by gangs and some have had to relocate from their homes and are sleeping in police stations. Cops at two rural police stations in the Artibonite Valley, where the violence has spread, have abandoned posts, leaving the stations empty.

Salvador told the Security Council that there are only 3,500 police officers out on the streets in service at any one time, which isn’t sufficient given Haiti’s population of 12 million. In addition to being ill-equipped, the force suffers from high attrition rates that are being made worse by a new humanitarian parole program launched by the Biden administration.

A record number 18,000 Haitians have already been approved to enter the U.S since the program was launched in January. At the time, Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry said at least 600 police officers had applied for passports. The demand led director of immigration to open a separate center to process police passport requests.

Government officials say they are currently tracking the number of officers who have been approved to leave Haiti to get a better idea of how much the force will be affected.

“The situation in Haiti is incredibly dire,” Carrière said at his address at FIU, adding the country is “hanging by a thread.

“Haiti is a failed state,” he said. “State institutions have all but disappeared.”

The Haiti National Police, he added, is the last functional institution in the country, and while far from perfect, it is still functioning. But he said the force “is putting out fires everywhere.”

Carriere said Haitians living in the U.S. and Canada could be “better organized in terms of shaping the view and giving policy leaders in Washington and Ottawa a better sense” of what policies should be.

“I think the diaspora should inform policy,” he said.

Carrière, who arrived in Port-au-Prince in October 2021, said things have only gotten worse since then. When he arrived 4.6 million people were living in a state of crisis. Today, he said, “a million more people ... do not have enough to eat every day. People are dying every day; people are getting burned on the streets.”

He also discussed Canada’s continued commitment to sanctions. So far, Ottawa has hit 19 politicians and members of the country’s private sector with targeted financial sanctions that freezes assets they have in Ottawa and bans them from traveling to the country. He acknowledged that most of the people sanctioned have economic interests in the United States.

“We never meant to act alone,” Carrière told the Herald. “U.N. sanctions to me are the key. So too are the U.S. and European” sanctions.

Canada, he said, has not argued that sanctions would stop the gang violence, but it’s one part of the solution. Another is a clear political signal to the gangs from Haiti’s warring political factions.

“I think the Haitian political class needs to get together and send a powerful signal of unity,” Carrière said. “It’s baffling to me that almost a year-and-a half after [President Jovenel Moïse] was assassinated, we still don’t get a sense that there’s a broad consensus.”

Like others in the international community, Carrière said Canada commends the appointment by Henry of a High Transition Council to prepare for elections in the long term.

“Haitian politics need to change,” he said. “The ‘winner-takes all’ mentality is not sustainable; the sitting there waiting for the guy in front of you to falter so you can have your shot at faltering is not sustainable, and as an international partner, Canada is not interested in playing in this game anymore.”