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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Haiti: Security deteriorates


The inauguration on May 14th of a new president, René Préval, elected with a strong mandate in a first-round vote three months earlier, led to hopes of Haiti emerging from a lengthy period of chronic instability. Now, such hopes, however guarded, may be unravelling. After a relative lull in violence in the period between the February elections and Mr Préval's inauguration, gang-related shootings and incidents of violent crime have been increasing.

At the start of 2006, violent crime, a moribund economy and political instability gave rise to a generally bleak outlook for Haiti, in which a worst-case scenario invoked a complete breakdown of national government and the establishment of an international protectorate. However, a tacit truce by gangs operating in the capital's shantytowns in the weeks prior to the February election and the swearing in of Mr Préval, of the Lespwa (Hope) coalition, for a five-year term were accompanied by a sense of optimism that conditions were set to improve, despite the substantial difficulties ahead. This optimism was bolstered by strong support for Mr Préval (who served as president in 1996-2001) from foreign governments and multilateral agencies, as well as the goodwill, it appeared, of the majority of Haitians.

However, concerns are on the rise once again following a series of violent incidents in recent weeks that have shaken the relative stability in place since early in the year. In one week in mid-July some 15 people were kidnapped, including two foreign missionaries and a Haitian employee of the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, the capital. There have also been clashes recently between armed Haitians and members of the UN’s stabilisation force (known as Minustah) in the country, in which eight people have died. Gang-related violence has also reappeared. During one week in early July, 20 people died as rival gangs clashed in a notorious shantytown in the southern part of Port-au-Prince.

US warning

More than 2,000 people have been kidnapped for ransom in Haiti over the past two years, according to one report. Though most victims by far are locals, the situation seems to present a growing risk to foreigners.

Some 50 Americans (including children) have been abducted in the last year, according to the US Department of State, which has renewed a travel warning for its citizens visiting Haiti. Only one other country in the western hemisphere—Colombia—is featured on the US’s list of places with similar safety advisories. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation says Haiti has surpassed Colombia as the riskiest country in the Americas for kidnapping.

The State Department notes that in Haiti the risks include the potential for spontaneous protests and public demonstrations, looting, intermittent roadblocks by armed gangs or the police, and random crime such as carjacking and assault in addition to kidnapping. It also warns about the absence of an effective police force in much of the country.

Spontaneous or planned?

While most of the abductions are believed to be criminal in nature (with ransom being the prime motive), there are concerns that the increase in gang-related incidents could be politically motivated, designed to destabilise the Préval government. Haiti has experienced particularly serious gang conflicts since the departure of the last elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was driven into exile by an armed revolt in February 2004. The UN peacekeeping mission deployed in the country since then has striven to keep the armed factions that support and oppose Mr Aristide apart. However, the 9,000-strong UN force has been widely criticised for failing to make progress on disarming the gangs and has proved unable to prevent the latest upsurge in violence. UN troops rarely venture into the most dangerous slums and have had little impact on the level of kidnappings for ransom.

With Haiti’s government still finding its feet, a struggling economy, a police force distrusted by large parts of the population and an ineffective justice system, there is little chance that crime and gang rivalries will be eliminated any time soon. A still graver risk is that the well-armed, politically aligned gangs will begin to exert sufficient power to weaken the government further. UN representatives fear that the recent attacks in the capital's slums may be designed to exert pressure on Mr Préval to allow Mr Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, to return to Haiti. Others fear that the small but powerful groups traditionally opposed to the kind of populist government represented by Mr Prévalmay be working behind the scenes to make it impossible for him to govern effectively.

The upsurge in violence is likely to result in the UN mission coming under increasing pressure to control the situation. Its ability to do so is extremely limited, however, given its relatively restricted presence and inability to respond effectively to the threat posed by the various armed gangs. The current mandate of the mission expires on August 15th, when it is expected to be renewed by the UN Security Council for a further six months. It is unlikely that calls by Mr Préval for the UN force to be significantly increased will be met. Meanwhile, should the security situation worsen, what little optimism exists regarding Haiti’s future could all but evaporate.
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