Originally: On the Brink

Jun 16th 2005

A YEAR after a United Nations “stabilisation” force was sent to Haiti, the country is looking more unstable than ever. In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) describes the situation as “explosive.” This week, Bernard Gousse, minister of justice and public security in Haiti’s interim government, resigned amidst growing criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

For months, large parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, have been under the control of armed gangs. They have grown increasingly brazen, carrying out a spate of kidnappings, carjackings, home invasions and rapes. Most of the victims are middle or upper class. Those with relatives abroad are sending their children out of the country for the summer. Businesses are being forced to close.

The gangs appear bent on terrorizing the private sector and strangling the economy in a bid to undermine critical elections, due this autumn. These are supposed to complete the transition back to democracy following the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February last year. The ICG says a radical overhaul of the police and judiciary is needed to improve security before the voting “if the situation is to be saved.” It has called for the UN’s 7,400-strong peacekeeping force to be boosted by the addition of at least 3,000 extra police. This is probably more than the UN can manage, though a 10 percent increase is now being considered.

Late last month, the American embassy ordered non-emergency staff to leave Haiti along with their families. Some saw this as a vote of no confidence in both the UN and Haiti’s interim government. American officials deny this. “Haiti is a salvageable situation, but it requires urgent measures in the next weeks,” one official said. “It’s vital there be elections as scheduled.”

The source of the violence is a lethal cocktail of abundant weapons, political polarization and extreme urban poverty. Some of the gangs are believed to have political ties to the pro-Aristide Lavalas Family movement, while others are linked to anti-Aristide groups, the business elite, and drug traffickers eager to exploit the chaos. Police corruption has exacerbated the situation, creating a climate of impunity. UN forces have recently begun to adopt a policy of “zero tolerance” toward the armed gangs, but so far with little effect. “We did not anticipate the current urban war,” David Beer, the UN’s Canadian police commander in Haiti, admits.

Mr Gousse gave no explanation for his resignation this week. But he had come under fire for the continuing detention of Yvon Neptune, former prime minister under President Aristide. Arrested a year ago, it was not until last month that he was finally charged with orchestrating the killing of opponents of his former boss. He has repeatedly gone on hunger strike claiming his total innocence. Mr Gousse also stands accused of ignoring alleged atrocities by police against pro-Aristide slum dwellers.

UN mission chiefs insist that security must go hand in hand with social and economic programs for Haiti’s poor masses. Despite pledges of more than $1.3 billion in aid at a donors’ conference last summer, very little of it has reached Haiti. A new meeting is to be held in Montreal on June 17 at which the Canadians are hoping to crack some heads together. But time is running out. Many western diplomats believe that Haiti is now on the verge of becoming a “failed state.”