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Canada on sidelines as Haiti finally gets an armed intervention against gang violence

This week, the UN Security Council authorized a multinational security force for Haiti. Kenya, rather than Canada, will be leading the force. Canada was under pressure during the past two years from the Biden administration in the U.S., the UN, Caribbean allies and others to take the lead — but it didn't want to.

Under pressure to lead a force, PM Trudeau manoeuvred to dodge a potential quagmire

Police stand guard as as former Haitian president Michel Martelly leaves after appearing before the investigating judge in the case of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Oct. 3, 2023.

Back in February, the Caricom group of Caribbean nations met in Nassau to discuss ways to reduce the chaos and violence in its biggest member state — Haiti.

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis acknowledged that the problem was too big for the bloc of small island nations to deal with on its own.

"What we at CARICOM have come to appreciate is that we do not have the resources to be able to deal with the Haiti problem ourselves, and we do need outside help," he said.

Fortunately, added Bahamian Foreign Minister Frederick Mitchell, that outside help was already being lined up.

"The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is coming down," Mitchell said. "Canada has been asked to take the lead."

The UN Security Council finally voted to authorize such a mission this week (China and Russia abstained). The Bahamas, Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda have all agreed to send troops or police to Haiti.

But as the same Caribbean countries gather with the Trudeau government in Ottawa this month for a follow-up meeting, they've realized that Canada will not be leading the mission and won't be sending any of its forces to help.

Two years of dodging and weaving

The story of Canada's involvement in Haiti over the past two years is above all a story of a government determined not to get drawn into a potential quagmire.

The Trudeau government never thrust itself forward for such a mission in the first place. It was rather volunteered for the role by a more powerful ally: the Biden administration.

Washington did not hesitate to suggest to other governments that, given its own commitments in Ukraine and elsewhere, Canada was the logical choice to lead a mission to defeat Haiti's ruthless gangs.

Never far from front-of-mind for President Joe Biden and his team was the desire to avoid a surge in Haitian migration that inevitably would lead to rafts off the Florida coast and migrant caravans at the Rio Grande.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers opening remarks at an event focusing on Haiti at the United Nations, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 in New York.

The Trudeau government, unwilling to give a flat no to the many countries asking it to save the day, used a variety of tactics to stall for time. It sent fact-finding missions to assess conditions on the ground, convened parties for talks, set conditions that were unlikely to be met and never missed an opportunity to remind the world that past interventions had not produced good results.

Haiti's Catch-22

Above all, Canadian officials pointed to the illegitimacy of the Haitian government and the lack of a political accord as insurmountable obstacles to a successful mission. For peace to take hold, Ottawa said, it was necessary for Haiti to first have a government accepted by its people.

Haiti has been trapped in a Catch-22 situation ever since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise: a security force was unlikely to be effective without at least a clear path toward a new legitimate government, but no new elections could be held before security was restored.

The stalemate was made worse by the endless infighting among Haiti's political elite, and by the obstinate refusal of de facto leader Ariel Henry to leave office.

A woman screams about how her family members died at the hands of gang members in the Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhood during a protest against insecurity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Aug. 25, 2023.

Canada has done things to help Haiti. It gave the island nation $100 million in security assistance over the last year that has helped to pay for things like a new vetting office for police recruits (the gangs are constantly trying to infiltrate the police). Canada will shortly be delivering 250 motorcycles to Haitian police.

Canada has also sanctioned individuals. Many Haitians welcomed the first sanctions, though over time some came to feel they were being used as a cheap and easy substitute for more difficult actions. While the first individuals targeted were uncontroversial, some of those sanctioned later on protested loudly that they did not deserve such treatment.

"I think people are skeptical of the motives because they have not explained why they are sanctioning this individual or that individual," said Louis-Henri Mars, who heads Lakou Lape, a peacebuilding organization that works in some of Port-au-Prince's toughest districts.

Not all Kenyans are keen

Mars said news of the Kenyan-led mission has been received in Port-au-Prince with guarded optimism. In Kenya itself, there appear to be some reservations.

Kenyan opposition lawmakers have demanded a vote in parliament before the mission goes ahead, and Kenyan laws and precedent appear to be on their side.

MP Anthony Oluoch told the National Assembly that Kenya's own security needs, which include defending itself from the al-Shabab terrorist group, "ought to take first precedence before any foreign commitments."

Kenyan President William Ruto has pledged "not to fail the people of Haiti" — but he also took decisive action when his own foreign minister got out over his skis by promising the mission would begin "within a short time."

Just days later, Alfred Mutua found himself demoted from foreign minister to minister of tourism.

Kenyan police often feared

There are also concerns about the human rights record of Kenya's security forces. They used live fire to suppress protests this summer and are frequently accused of brutal excesses at home.

"On the relation of the Kenyan police history of violence, we are very much attuned to that and especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence taking place already in Haiti," Lisa Vandehei, director general of Canada's Interdepartmental Task Force (Haiti), told a Senate committee this week.

"We're looking at working with the Kenyans and the U.S. on how to bring our own lessons learned to the table from our work in Haiti as well."

A truckload of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces arrives after dawn outside the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

If Kenya's police can be abusive, those abuses pale in comparison to the allegations laid at the door of its army. And yet, Chalmers LaRose, Haitian-born co-director of the Observatoire des Amériques at the Université du Québec à Montréal, told the Senate committee the soldiers will have to come too.

"I would say that if it's a police mission, made-up only of police, I don't see how it could succeed on the ground," he said. "The mission must also have some military participation.

"Because at this time in Haiti, we're talking about urban guerrillas. It's not a peacekeeping mission, it's a combat mission. And at the very minimum, it cannot succeed unless there is a contingent of soldiers who can deal with higher violence."

Can't kill your way to security

Mars told CBC News that even if the Kenyans defeat the gangs militarily, that would be only half the battle.

"Just killing everybody, or trying to kill everybody, is also not going to work," he said. "There has to be a plan for the day after also.

"If you intervene, and the state does not occupy the space that has been made, the vacuum is going to be filled again by all of those young people that that do not have any alternative. And the the quickest way for them to make some cash is to grab a gun.

"How is there going to be public works for temporary jobs in the neighbourhoods? How is the private sector going to be engaged in creating permanent jobs through developing businesses in those neighbourhoods? All of that has to be done in parallel to preparing the intervention.

"That's the only way that it's going to be a sustainable action and not just a temporary Band-Aid."

People surrounded by their possessions sit on wooden stairs

Funding that part of the intervention is a task that likely will fall to the two countries that were least keen to provide boots on the ground: the U.S. and Canada.

Mars said the Haitian people have suffered so much at the hands of the gangs that their just demands for punishment will have to be heeded.

"You cannot just give a blanket amnesty and immunity to those who have done wrong, including to their sponsors and those who have been supplying them with guns and ammunition," he said.

But because the crimes have been so widespread and have involved so many people, he said, there will also have to be a role for restorative justice.

Window of opportunity

If the contributing countries provide enough soldiers to defeat the gangs, enough police to bring law and security to formerly gang-ruled areas, and enough money to allow the Haitian state to reoccupy the vacuum — and if the Haitian state does its part — the multinational security force might start to turn things around, Mars said.

At that point, Haiti will need to confront its next catastrophe: the crisis of governance in a country where no elected officials remain and the justice system is in complete disarray.

"It is an opportunity maybe for Haitians to take stock and say, 'We've been at each other's throats for the past 220 years, and we need to sit down and decide where we want to go,'" Mars said.

"And the fact that the gangs' stranglehold on society is being loosened up is a window of opportunity for us to do that, so that we don't continue doing the same things year after year, decade after decade, century after century."

The next Haitian government will need to be led by someone with more legitimacy than Ariel Henry, and it will need to address the problems of impunity, corruption and gross inequality that have left the country so vulnerable.

"There's an issue that has not been solved in Haitian society over the past 200 years, and we need to do something about it," Mars said.

"If not, what is happening with this intervention is going to just be water under the bridge, and five years from now we're going to start back again from square one."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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