The Battle for Haiti’s Security Is Largely Political

Former members of the then-disbanded Haitian army patrol the streets during a protest against President Michel Martelly. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 5, 2016. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Hopes for a peaceful transition ending another drawn-out electoral crisis in Haiti dimmed when gunmen attacked a police station in Les Cayes on May 16 this year, looting weapons and leaving one officer dead. Former coup leader and senate candidate Guy Philippe—who had earlier threatened rebellion unless provisional President Jocelerme Privert stepped down—denied involvement in the attack but failed to appear at a related hearing on June 7. After an arrest warrant was reportedly issued last week, Philippe vowed to resist any attempt to enforce it, calling Privert an “illegal and illegitimate president.”

These events highlight two troubling trends. First, Haiti’s political elites remain unable to compromise in order to resolve protracted disputes. Second, threats of paramilitary action continue to lurk behind the country’s political factions. Whatever the truth regarding the May 16 attacks, Philippe’s threats to “divide the country” serve as a warning that Haiti’s politics remain marred by the potential for violence, as political actors continue to use affiliated armed groups, including gangs, to pursue their goals.

The recent reinstatement of the Haitian armed forces, 20 years after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded them, adds a new set of actors and another layer of complexity to already shaky security and justice institutions. Crises like the present one will test whether or not the army can be a stabilizing force, which is an uncertain proposition given its historical inability to stay above the political fray. If it does not develop into an impartial and apolitical institution, the army risks adding fuel to an already combustible environment. One of the most important tasks for Haiti’s new leaders will be to create effective frameworks to manage, govern, and oversee the reinstatement process.

The return of the armed forces comes at the end of a lengthy and internationally led period of stabilization in Haiti, with nine United Nations peacekeeping missions deployed since 1991, all of which sought to build the capacity of its democratic institutions. The current mission (MINUSTAH) has become particularly unpopular, after it was discovered that some of its peacekeepers were responsible for a cholera epidemic that affected approximately 7% of the population and killed 9,000 people. To make matters worse, the UN initially denied responsibility and has since claimed immunity from litigation.

As Haitians eagerly await MINUSTAH’s departure, one of the main arguments in favor of the army’s reinstatement is the need to protect the state against threats from armed groups who might overwhelm the national police. Many believe the UN mission’s armed contingent has been responsible for keeping these forces at bay.

Nevertheless, Haiti’s traditional international donors have kept their distance from the army reinstatement process. None of the UN, United States, Canada, or France have made any meaningful contribution to the forces or the Haitian Ministry of Defence. Lacking this financial backing, the Haitian government has been forced to move at a much slower pace than originally envisaged by a leaked 2011 plan, which called for 3,500 troops to replace MINUSTAH’s armed contingent in time for the mission withdrawal. The army was expected to relaunch by 2012 with only 1,500 troops, though even this modest goal has yet to be reached. Instead, progress has been limited to reestablishing the Ministry of Defence, which has grown from 41 staff in 2013 to 63 in 2014, and 120 in 2015, and the training—with assistance from Brazil and Ecuador—of an initial cadre of army engineers. As one report put it, “there has been virtually no funding of the Defense Ministry to carry out larger plans.”

Ensuring proper governance and oversight of the army will be a critical challenge. Decision-making in Haiti’s security sector is still a top-down process. Reestablishment has been particularly associated with the personal politics of former President Michel Martelly. Although Haitian law forbade Martelly serving consecutive terms, he has reportedly said that he could return after his chosen successor Jovenel Moïse’s term in office, should Moïse be elected. Whoever ends up as Martelly’s successor, the challenge is to depoliticize and depersonalize the next phase of developing Haiti’s security sector.

One promising initiative has been the creation of a new white paper on defense, with the assistance of the Organization of American States. The Haitian government held a series of consultative workshops and presented the paper to Martelly in June 2015. This document has the potential to transform the army reinstatement from an executive-led process to one grounded in a national security strategy, and to establish a clear outline for the responsibilities and mandates of Haiti’s security sector actors. When it is made publicly available, the white paper will allow for defense policies to be debated, evaluated, and overseen by political authorities. Most importantly, the process of formulation provides an opportunity for international donors to reengage with the army’s development without committing to training and equipping forces.

Good governance in Haiti’s security and justice system could inoculate against a return to authoritarianism. As a Haitian proverb  states, “a constitution is made of paper, a bayonet of iron.” In other words, laws and regulations do not define political reality. To make the white paper meaningful, the international community must help Haiti’s government build deeper and stronger systems of accountability and oversight. This could involve providing resources to help Haiti’s parliament fulfill its role in security sector governance, or policy and administrative support for the Ministry of Defence. To the extent that training is provided for military personnel, it would be wise to limit it to senior personnel and focus on promoting human rights, accountability, and governance. If donors miss the current opportunity to engage, Haiti risks falling into familiar patterns of authoritarianism and repression. Given the country’s current state of crisis, ignoring the armed forces and hoping for the best no longer seems like a responsible policy.

Geoff Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance.