Haitians rally for interim government, but split on military intervention: experts

OTTAWA — Though citizen and business groups in Haiti are split on the idea of a military intervention amid humanitarian and political crises, experts warned Canadian members of Parliament Friday that the country is in dire need.

As a senior Canadian envoy is deployed to Haiti to discuss possible solutions, human-rights researcher Gédéon Jean painted a stark picture for MPs, saying in French: "Haiti is on the edge of the precipice."

Jean was among witnesses who told the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights that there must be a widely accepted plan for a transitional government in Haiti amid a debate over foreign help.

Haiti has not held elections since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Ariel Henry stepped in as president after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Instability in the country has allowed violent gangs to take control of critical infrastructure, leading to power and water outages, massacres and a cholera outbreak.

In response, Ottawa has sanctioned a dozen high-ranking Haitian politicians and business leaders, accusing them of financing the gangs. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, to the country to seek a path to consensus.

"When we put this pressure on the political and economic elite, we can eventually allow for a political dialogue, and that's why Bob Rae, right now as we speak, is in Haiti," Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters in French on Thursday.

"Our goal is to find solutions by and for Haitians."

Henry's unpopular government has asked for a foreign military intervention to create a humanitarian corridor, a move endorsed by the United Nations Secretary-General. United States officials namechecked Canada as a possible lead for such a mission earlier this year.

But some Haitians have pushed back on the idea, arguing that it would only lead to more chaos.

Monique Clesca, an activist with an opposition group that wants to form a two-year provisional government, argued that the president's request for a foreign intervention shouldn't be taken seriously.

"It is a crime of high treason, and this request demonstrates the failure of Henri's government and of the international diplomacy that installed it and continues to support it, despite its illegitimacy and disastrous governance," she said in French.

She argued that there is a gradual consensus building among politicians, religious groups and civil society for a security solution carried out by the Haitian National Police. But the country also needs humanitarian help and solutions to discourage youth from joining gangs.

"The issue goes beyond establishing a semblance of security, and it's not a cleanup that will solve the gang problems or the humanitarian needs," Clesca said.

Other witnesses told MPs that gangs recruit orphaned children, leading Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld to ask whether a military intervention could put "Canadian soldiers face-to-face with armed gangs, potentially in a shooting battle with what are essentially child soldiers."

Yet the International Crisis Group says its conflict-prevention experts believe that a military intervention is the only way to establish humanitarian corridors to combat cholera and stop sexual violence.

Next would be a transitional government to re-establish essential services and hold fair elections, perhaps with an external country as a mediator if Haitians request it.

"The situation there is increasingly dramatic, and inaction may not necessarily be the best course of action," the group's regional director, Renata Segura, said.

"It is crucial that Haitians come together in a national dialogue of sorts to determine if they wanted the arrival of these troops, and if so, what exactly their mandate would be."

Segura said locals are afraid to voice support for an intervention, as they don't want it to be conflated with support for the current government.

Jean, head of the Centre d'analyse et de recherche en droits de l’homme, argued that the international community must intervene under the United Nations' "responsibility to protect" doctrine.

He argued that his country is approaching a "proto-state" akin to the so-called Islamic State group's takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq. He said in French that Haiti's justice system has collapsed into mayhem, and one of its main prisons "resembles Nazi concentration camps, and those of other similar regimes."

Another representative of the International Crisis Group, Diego Da Rin, said that a series of clashes in Port-au-Prince over the past year have seen rival gangs filming the sexual assaults of women in newly won territory in an effort to assert control and stoke fears.

A national director for Partners In Health Canada, a charity that operates hospitals and clinics in Haiti, told the committee that Canada can help in the short term, regardless of whether a military intervention takes place.

"Canada can help right now," said Mark Brender.

Haiti needs fuel and storage capacity, he said, and Canada could build supply warehouses for essentials and medical supplies outside of the areas cut off by gang wars.

In the medium term, he said Canada could also invest in solar panels so that Haiti isn't brought to its knees by blockades around its main fuel terminal. These have left hospitals operating on generators staff at the group's hospitals trekking six hours through the mountains to the Dominican Republic to get fuel, he said.

This week, some of the most important business groups in Haiti signed an open letter pledging to weed out corruption and help the country rebuild, if political actors take up the mantle of "patriotic realism" and allow for foreign help.

The French-language letter asks political leaders to "sign a political agreement establishing a government of national unity that strives to include as many stakeholders as possible, with a clear roadmap leading to the holding of honest, transparent, and fair elections within a reasonable timeframe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press