Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, has called for a “robust international force” to help Haiti’s beleaguered police fight criminal gangs on a visit to the Caribbean nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
The visit on Saturday was Guterres’s first to Haiti as head of the UN and was meant to spotlight the crises facing the country as it struggles to combat violent gangs that have largely overrun Port-au-Prince.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“We must put Haiti on the international political map and make the tragedy of the Haitian people the international community’s top priority,” Guterres told reporters following a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
“I met Haitians and I felt the exhaustion of a population that has been facing a cascade of crises and unbearable living conditions for too long,” he said.
For months, the UN chief has been calling on nations to send a “rapid action force” to support Haiti’s security services. But no such force has yet been deployed as no country has stepped up to take the lead.
Guterres pleaded for solidarity and urged the UN Security Council, which is due to discuss the situation in Haiti later this month, “to authorise the immediate deployment of a robust international security force”.
“Every day counts”, the UN chief said. “If we don’t act now, instability and violence will have a lasting impact on generations of Haitians.”
While there has been broad support for Guterres’s proposal to create a rapid action force, with several countries expressing interest in contributing, none has volunteered to lead the operation in Haiti.
Canada and Brazil have both been heavily involved in discussions and several Caribbean nations have backed such a force.
Joe Biden, the president of the United States, has made it clear that Washington, which has a long history of intervention in Haiti, will not lead a force and instead wants to focus on bolstering the fledgling national police.
Diplomats say countries are wary of supporting the Henry administration, which took power in July 2021, days after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, and has repeatedly said that fair elections cannot be held under the current insecurity.
Henry has pledged to leave office by February 7, 2024.
Guterres said elections were a topic of discussion during his meeting with Henry.
He said he had “frank exchanges” with Henry and others about the “need for a political agreement to put an end to the crisis”, without offering specifics.
The UN chief in April said the insecurity in Port-au-Prince was comparable to that in countries in armed conflict and that Haitians were facing one of the worst human rights crises in decades.
Last September, gangs worsened the humanitarian situation by blocking a fuel terminal for six weeks, halting most economic activity. The UN Security Council in October sanctioned Haiti’s most powerful gangster who was accused of leading the blockade to protest government fuel subsidy cuts.
The US and Canada have also imposed sanctions on Haitian political figures and business people.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) executive director, Catherine Russell, said after a visit to Port-au-Prince this week that the situation was “shockingly bad”.
“The violence was palpable there,” Russell told Al Jazeera. “Clearly, somebody needs to come in to restore some level of security for the people who live there and I don’t think that the Haitian police are going to be able to do that.”
In a briefing upon her return, Russell highlighted “unprecedented hunger and malnutrition, grinding poverty, a crippled economy, resurgence of cholera” as well as violence against women and children.
She recounted the horrific story of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped by five men and raped.
“She was eight months pregnant when we spoke and gave birth just a few days later,” she said, noting armed gangs controlled more than 60 percent of the capital and large swaths of the countryside.
Compounding the crises, the flooding and earthquakes that have repeatedly ravaged the country “continue to remind us all just how vulnerable Haiti is to climate change and natural disasters”, Russell said.
The UN refugee agency said some 73,500 people fled Haiti last year. The UN has said 5.2 million – nearly half Haiti’s population – need humanitarian assistance in 2023.
It has appealed for $720m to deliver aid this year but so far, it is only 23 percent funded.
UN peacekeepers were deployed to Haiti in 2004 after a rebellion led to the removal and exile of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Peacekeeping troops left in 2017 and were replaced by UN police, who departed in 2019.
Haitians are wary of an armed UN presence. The country was free of cholera until 2010, when UN peacekeepers dumped infected sewage into a river.
More than 9,000 people died of the disease and some 800,000 fell ill.