U.N. Secretary General calls armed violence in Haiti “tragic” and threat to whole region

Calling the situation in Haiti “tragic,” the head of the United Nations on Monday acknowledged that it has been difficult mobilizing the international community to rescue the country from the “absolutely appalling” gang violence.

“This has been a difficult exercise,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said from Kingston, Jamaica. “It has been difficult to mobilize the will of those that would have the best capacity to lead this operation. And it has been difficult to create, also, the political conditions to make it easier for different countries to accept to be part of this action.”

Guterres, who arrived in Jamaica on Sunday, spent the day Monday meeting with Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The two discussed a range of issues from the climate crisis in the Caribbean to the lack of low-interest borrowing for developing and vulnerable middle-income countries, to the deteriorating situation in Haiti where more than 600 people were killed last month across metropolitan Port-au-Prince in conflict caused by armed groups.

“Haiti is in a tragic, tragic situation,” the secretary-general said, personally addressing Haiti’s catastrophic descent into a spiral of violence for the first time in months. Previous comments have come through a spokesperson, his representative in Port-au-Prince, or his regular reports to the U.N. Security Council.

“You have dramatic humanitarian needs. You have a political system that is paralyzed, and you have levels of violence by gangs that are absolutely appalling,” he said, adding that both the gang violence and the political paralysis needs addressing. “The number of people killed, the number of people unable to live their lives, the dramatic food insecurity problems are indeed something that needs a much stronger commitment by the international community.”

Guterres’ visit came a day before foreign ministers of the 15-member Caribbean Community, known as CARICOM, are set to meet in Jamaica. The meeting, chaired by Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamina Johnson Smith, will broach several issues including the region’s foreign policy, bilateral relations with the U.S., Canada and the U.N., and the situation in Haiti, the regional bloc said in a statement.

In an interview with Nationwide Radio in Jamaica, Johnson Smith announced that CARICOM heads of government have agreed to appoint three former prime ministers — St. Lucia’s Dr. Kenny Anthony, Jamaica’s Bruce Golding and Perry Christie of The Bahamas — to work with a technical support group to engage with Haitian leadership to try to broaden consensus around a path to elections, security and other areas of agreement. The hope is to have proposals that can be discussed at a potential Haiti summit in Jamaica this summer.

In October, as a gang federation seized control of the country’s main fuel terminal in the capital, Guterres called for “the immediate deployment of a multinational rapid action force” to assist the country’s beleaguered police force as it struggled to regain control from powerful gangs. His appeal, which was part of a multi-pronged security plan, was later accompanied by a resolution by the U.S. and Mexico before the Security Council to create a non-U.N. multinational force. By making it not a U.N. peacekeeping mission, per se, the U.S., which doesn’t want to deploy its own boots on the ground, was hoping the proposal would be more palatable to the Haitian public — and perhaps members of the international community who have been critical of previous U.N. interventions in Haiti.

Seven months later, however, neither request has gone anywhere and the security situation has only worsened. Gangs now control at least 80% of the capital and have expanded their reach to the Artibonite Valley, just north of the capital. Haitians facing acute hunger has risen from 4.7 million to more than 5 million. At least eight documented gang massacres this year have contributed to the deaths of at least 1,446 people in the first four months.

With violence becoming more extreme, kidnappings have soared and mob killings and lynchings are on the rise. The U.N. says at least 164 suspected gang members were killed in April by the population taking matters into its own hands.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths has allocated $9 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund to support relief efforts in Haiti, which continues to see deterioration of its humanitarian situation due to spikes in violence.

The people in need of humanitarian assistance has doubled over the past five years to 5.2 million people, and the number of children suffering severe acute malnutrition, compared to a year ago, has increased by more than 30%.

This year’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Haiti is the largest since the devastating 2010 earthquake. But of the $720 million the U.N. is seeking for Haiti, only 12% has been funded.

Jamaica willing to help

In late January, Holness publicly announced Jamaica’s willingness to assist Haiti by deploying soldiers to be part of a multinational force. The support, endorsed by the country’s opposition in a rare show of unity on an international issue, was followed a month later by a visit to Port-au-Prince as Holness led a small delegation on behalf of CARICOM, of which Haiti is a member. The purpose of the trip was to gain a better understanding of the security crisis and to see if Caribbean leaders could help Haiti’s warring political factions come together.

Since the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, Haitians have been at odds over how to govern the country in lieu of elections or any elected officials. The international community has called on Prime Minister Ariel Henry to broaden a December political agreement that sets up a transitional council to assist him in taking the country to elections. Civil society groups, which have endorsed their own plan known as the Montana Accord, want Henry out and say they have their own road map for addressing the crisis.

During the press conference after their meeting, Guterres said Jamaica was “the first country that immediately expressed its readiness to be part of” the multinational force. He added that Jamaica “is involved in a very important political process trying to bring together the different stakeholders to find their way out of this political crisis.”

“I want to express my full support to the initiatives of Jamaica and CARICOM. And I want to once again, ask the international community to understand that an effective solidarity with Haiti is not only a matter of generosity, it is essentially a matter of enlightened self-interest,” Guterres said. “Because the present situation in Haiti reflects a threat to the security of the whole region and further afield.”