Unpacking Haiti’s Crisis: UN Military Mission Dilemma

Martino Fabris
UN peacekeepers patrolling the Bel Air neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in April 2004. Source: UN News

In the past year, discussions have intensified within the United Nations regarding the possibility of deploying a UN military mission to the Caribbean island of Haiti. The country is currently facing a profound humanitarian crisis exacerbated by political instability, following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021. In particular, the purpose of a military intervention under the auspices of the United Nations would be to support Haitian law enforcement in their struggle against powerful local gangs that control extensive areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and critical infrastructure essential to the island’s economy. However, past military failures and Haitian opposition to foreign intervention may render such a scenario unlikely.

Haiti’s Plea for International Aid Amid Escalating Crisis

In early October 2022, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry emphasized the urgent need for military assistance from the international community in the Caribbean nation. His plea was supported by compelling reasons, reflecting the pressing need to restore security and stability in the country. This urgency was further exacerbated by the blockade of its main supply port by a coalition of gangs, resulting in a paralysis of commercial activities and essential services at that time. The request from the de facto government was subsequently endorsed by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. During this time, Guterres referred to a “specialized armed force” capable of supporting the Haitian National Police in liberating and protecting the country’s essential infrastructure.

Meanwhile, during the first six months of 2023, the situation in Haiti has not improved significantly. Criminal groups have expanded their control to nearly the entire metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, a worrisome expansion compared to December 2022 when criminal groups controlled 60% of the area. This, along with other alarming figures regarding internal security in the country, has recently prompted Antonio Guterres to reiterate, during a visit to Haiti in early July, the need for a specialized armed force authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

Challenges to International Intervention in Haiti’s Crisis

A Police officer kicking a burning tire near the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince. Source: NPR

As of now, however, an agreement at the United Nations headquarters has not yet been reached. The United States, which in October 2022 drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution encouraging “the immediate deployment of a multinational rapid-action force” is currently reevaluating its strategy. The Biden administration has expressed reluctance to lead such a multinational force from the outset, hoping instead that Canada would take the lead, given the strong diplomatic ties between the two Francophone countries. However, the Canadian Prime Minister has publicly expressed reservations about military intervention in Haiti, stating that such an operation “hasn’t worked to create long-term stability for Haiti” in the past. The lack of willingness among countries to risk their military contingents in a delicate urban warfare scenario where the enemy can easily blend in with the civilian population is undoubtedly one of the reasons why an agreement has not yet been reached.

At the same time, amid violent protests that have rocked several cities in Haiti, it is evident that a significant portion of the local population strongly opposes the hypothetical United Nations military intervention. The massive protests that occurred during October 2022, were primarily a vehement opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s request for foreign military assistance to address the gang crisis in the country. Demonstrators not only called for Henry’s immediate resignation but also expressed strong dissent regarding any foreign involvement in Haiti’s internal affairs, as evidenced by the fact that the protests also targeted the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

This resistance to external intervention has its roots in the nation’s historical experiences. Previous foreign interventions on the island, especially the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH, have left a legacy of distrust and dissatisfaction among the Haitian population. The people of Haiti seem determined to chart their own path to a political solution to the crisis, with a priority being the removal of the unpopular and, by many accounts, illegitimate government led by Ariel Henry. Henry assumed the role of interim prime minister with the support of the international community following the assassination of Jovenel Moïse.

The current government’s unpopularity largely proceed from the prolonged postponement of legislative elections, which haven’t occurred in the country since 2016. Despite this, Prime Minister Henry governs by decree and has announced his intention to stay in power until presidential elections take place. In this sense, the current government continues to be legitimized by the international community, who justify this support on the grounds that Ariel Henry was chosen as prime minister of Haiti by President Jovenel Moïse days before Moïse was assassinated. Nevertheless, the unpopularity of the current government would undoubtedly have a significant impact on the effectiveness of any external military intervention on the island.

Exploring Regional Cooperation for Haiti’s Way Forward

The opening ceremony of the Caribbean Community Heads of Government Conference in Nassau, Bahamas, on February 15, 2023, features Ariel Henry, the President of Haiti, alongside leaders from Grenada, Guyana, and Jamaica. Source: Caribbean Life

Haiti, a nation facing a complex scenario of political instability, economic crisis, and natural disasters, finds itself at a crucial juncture in its history. Confronted with this multifaceted crisis, there are several options to consider, each challenging the notion that a United Nations military mission can entirely resolve the multitude of issues plaguing the country.

In this regard, it is essential to emphasize the importance of regional cooperation, particularly through organizations like the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). CARICOM has been actively engaged in seeking peaceful solutions to the crisis in Haiti, advocating for dialogue and diplomacy over military intervention. This is demonstrated by a meeting held in Haiti last July, where the CARICOM Eminent Persons Group (EPG), political members of the current Haitian government, and civil society came together. This provided an opportunity to build greater trust among the parties, a crucial element for embarking on a long-term dialogue process capable of addressing sensitive issues such as the formulation of a new executive and power-sharing. Regional solidarity and diplomacy can offer a more nuanced and culturally sensitive approach to addressing Haiti’s challenges.

Addressing security concerns in Haiti is undoubtedly crucial, but the idea that a United Nations military mission alone can solve all the problems is overly simplistic. As mentioned, a multifaceted security approach should first involve the creation, facilitated through regional dialogue, of a consensus-based transitional government with shared executive power. Only then can an effective reform of local law enforcement, disarmament of criminal gangs, and the strengthening of the police be pursued to ensure lasting security. It’s only at this later stage that a specialized international force could be deployed to facilitate such strengthening.

The crisis in Haiti demands a holistic approach, in which diplomatic efforts and regional cooperation take precedence over military intervention. Only through a combination of these approaches can Haiti hope to achieve lasting peace, stability, and prosperity.

What role do you think economic sanctions could play in pressuring the Haitian government and opposition to come together and form a government of national unity? Are sanctions an effective tool in addressing the Haitian crisis?

Given Haiti’s complex history, culture, and geographical challenges, do you believe it’s realistic to expect the country to achieve stability without substantial and sustained international assistance?

Building upon the idea of a long-term, capable U.N. presence in Haiti, how can the international community ensure that the mission remains flexible and responsive to the evolving circumstances and needs of the Haitian people over time?

Suggested readings

Athena R. Kolbe (2020) Prospects for Post-Minustah Security in Haiti, International Peacekeeping, 27:1, 44-57.

Athena R. Kolbe (2022) United Nations Missions in Haiti. In: Richmond, O.P., Visoka, G. (eds) The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Oxford Analytica (2021) International moves add to Moise mysteries in Haiti. Experts Briefing.

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Unpacking Haiti’s C…

by Martino Fabris time to read: 5 min