By Harold Isaac and Michelle Nichols
PORT-AU-PRINCE/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Haiti on Saturday to highlight the crises facing the impoverished Caribbean country as it struggles to fight against the violent gangs that have largely invaded the capital Port-au-Prince.
Guterres’ visit comes nearly nine months after he backed a request for help from the Haitian government and proposed that one or more countries send a “rapid action force” to support Haiti’s security services. No such force has yet been deployed as no country has stepped in to take the lead.
“I am in Port-au-Prince to express my full solidarity with the Haitian people and call on the international community to continue to stand by Haiti, including with a robust international force to help the Haitian National Police,” said Guterres said in a Twitter post.
“Now is not the time to forget about Haiti.”
Guterres told the UN Security Council in April that he considered insecurity in Port-au-Prince “comparable to countries in armed conflict”, and said Haitians face one of the worst human rights crises for decades.
In September last year, gangs worsened the humanitarian situation by blocking a fuel terminal for six weeks, disrupting most economic activity. In October, the UN Security Council sanctioned Haiti’s most powerful gangster, accused of leading the blockade to protest government fuel subsidy cuts.
The United States and Canada have also imposed sanctions on Haitian politicians and businessmen.
While there was broad support for Guterres’ proposal to create a rapid action force with several countries expressing interest in contributing, none volunteered to lead a deployment, diplomats said.
Countries have been reluctant to back the unelected administration of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who said fair elections could not be held amid current insecurity. Haiti has been without an elected official since January.
Henry, who took power in July 2021 days after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, has pledged to leave office by February 7, 2024, after repeatedly postponing elections citing first an August 2021 earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people, and then gang violence.
NO COMMUNITY SPARE FROM VIOLENCE
Guterres told the Security Council in April that gangs had tightened their grip around the metropolis of Port-au-Prince, “where no commune is now spared from gang-related turf wars.”
“In many areas affected by the violence, economic activity remains completely paralyzed. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people leaving Haiti, both by sea and through the land border with the Republic Dominican,” he said.
The UN refugee agency said some 73,500 people fled Haiti last year. The United Nations says 5.2 million people – nearly half of Haiti’s population – need humanitarian assistance in 2023. It has appealed for $720 million to deliver aid this year , but so far they are only 23% funded.
Guterres said Haitian police believe there are seven major gang coalitions and about 200 affiliated groups. They ambushed and attacked security forces, while “other gang tactics include spreading terror by indiscriminately shooting public transport passengers and raping”.
Any foreign-led military rapid action force would not deploy as a UN mission, but would likely receive support from the UN Security Council. The United States said it would seek a council resolution to show support for such an operation, but diplomats said that would only happen once a force was formed.
A UN political mission is currently deployed in Haiti.
UN peacekeepers were deployed to Haiti in 2004 after a rebellion led to the ousting and exile of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Peacekeeping troops left in 2017 and were replaced by UN police, who left in 2019.
Haitians are wary of an armed UN presence. The country was cholera-free until 2010, when UN peacekeepers dumped infected sewage into a river. More than 9,000 people have died from the disease and some 800,000 have fallen ill.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Daniel Wallis)