Possible Kenya-led mission to Haiti prompts growing calls for safeguards

Rights advocates say framework needed due to Kenya’s domestic police record, grim history of intervention in Haiti.

Haitian National Police officers patrol an intersection in Port-au-Prince amid a surge in gang violence in the Haitian capital in recent months [File: Odelyn Joseph/AP Photo]

International observers and human rights defenders are awaiting an anticipated proposal for a United Nations-backed, Kenya-led police mission to Haiti.

Last week, a 10-person Kenyan delegation visited the crisis-racked Caribbean nation to assess the situation.

And the United States and Ecuador announced in late July that they planned to introduce a UN Security Council resolution authorising a multinational force in the country although they have not said when that measure will be put forward.

As the prospect of a Haiti mission takes shape, calls are growing to ensure safeguards are in place to protect Haitians from the woes of past foreign interventions, most recently a UN peacekeeping mission marred by sexual abuse claims and links to a deadly cholera outbreak.

Rights observers say such protections are even more urgent given Kenya’s own legacy of police abuse, which has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the East African country’s offer to help Haiti “restore normalcy” after months of surging gang violence.

“Our national police service has a known history of human rights violations,” Martin Mavenjina, a senior programme adviser at the Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi, told Al Jazeera. “That is a conversation that has to be had before this deployment can be made.”

Under any UN Security Council-approved intervention, Mavenjina said, there must be a “clear framework for accountability, oversight and ensuring that [deployed police] discharge their duties in a professional manner” as well as recourse for victims if abuses are committed.

Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defence Network in Haiti, said Kenya’s potential leadership role in a multinational force has stoked concerns from Haitian civil society, which has remained wary of a new foreign intervention.

Esperance is among a group of rights defenders that has hesitantly endorsed a possible intervention to boost Haiti’s beleaguered National Police. They said such a mission must be accompanied by a political transition from the unelected Haitian government in place since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

Otherwise, Esperance told Al Jazeera, any foreign mission risks being swallowed in a quagmire of corruption and dysfunction.

“We need technical support for the police. We need training for the police. We need police equipment,” he said. “But there’s no way to do that without fixing the political crisis.”

Gang violence surges

Several countries have hailed Kenya for stepping forward to lead the intervention after months of appeals went unheeded.

Haiti’s interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, first urged the international community to help set up a “specialised armed force” in Haiti in October, and his call has been increasingly amplified by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the US.

But Washington said it did not want to lead such a mission, and it struggled to get an ally to take charge of an intervention that many observers feared would be costly, open-ended and politically fraught.

Henry made his call for international assistance as a powerful gang coalition maintained a weeks-long blockade on the main fuel terminal in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, leading to petrol shortages and hampering healthcare and other services. He has said he would call for elections after security is restored.

Haiti has grappled with a political crisis for years, but the situation in the country of 11 million people worsened significantly after the assassination of Moise in July 2021. Since then, gangs have wielded outsized power and used indiscriminate violence to maintain control over a majority of the territory in Port-au-Prince and expand into other areas.

Since the beginning of the year, the UN estimates that at least 2,439 people have been killed and about 200,000 have been displaced by gang warfare. Instances of kidnappings and rapes also have increased, as have widespread hunger and public health crises.

Meanwhile, the Haitian National Police has seen high numbers of killings and kidnappings of its officers, who remain under-resourced and ill-equipped while also being accused of ties to gangs and corruption.

According to the UN, the force has some 10,000 active officers, but only about 3,300 are assigned to public safety duties. As a result, vigilantism has soared.

After months of deteriorating conditions, Kenya announced in late July its willingness to lead a potential foreign force and contribute 1,000 police officers to train and assist Haiti’s police to “restore normalcy in the country and protect strategic installations”. It said the mission “would crystalize” after receiving a UN Security Council mandate.

The Bahamas and Jamaica have since offered to provide personnel, and US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it is “committed to finding resources” to support the mission.

But several questions surrounding its makeup and mandate remain unanswered. That includes whether the force would take offensive action against gangs or serve a more “static” role of protecting key infrastructure; what the duration and roadmap of such a mission would be; what funding it would receive and from whom, and what type of support it will get from the UN.

Kenya’s police in spotlight

While the details of the mission are still unclear, Amnesty International urged caution in a letter to the UN Security Council on August 21, highlighting Haiti’s fraught relationship with international interventions, stretching back to its independence from France in the 1800s.

Many Haitians remain wary of foreign operations after a nine-year UN peacekeeping mission following a devastating 2010 earthquake. That mission was linked to the outbreak of cholera in the country as well as sexual violence against Haitian women and girls.

Kenya’s human rights record also should be examined “in full before endorsing their deployment to Haiti”, Amnesty’s letter said. The organisation has documented at least 30 Kenyan police killings of protesters since March alone.

Kenya has not specifically addressed the rights concerns related to an intervention in Haiti, but Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki in August pushed back against allegations that police committed “atrocities” in response to recent Kenyan protests.

The minister said Kenyan police officers were “neutral, impartial and professional”, as reported by The Associated Press news agency.

But Mavenjina, the Kenyan human rights observer, said a years-long effort to establish police accountability in Kenya has done little to stem abuses. He pointed to comments made this month by Kenya’s national police inspector general, Japhet Koome, accusing protesters of “hiring dead bodies” to falsely claim police had committed abuses.

Amnesty International has said 11 people were killed in July in demonstrations against a tax law, including several who appeared to have been shot while running from police or trying to surrender.

Without proper accountability in Kenya, “if [those responsible] were deployed to Haiti, one could only imagine the magnitude of the violations”, Mavenjina said.

‘Oversight and accountability frameworks’

Concerns over Kenya’s domestic policing and its potential leadership role in Haiti “do not exist in separate worlds”, according to Lisa Sharland, director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict and Human Security Program at the Stimson Center, a US-based think tank.

Those worries underscore the need for a robust UN oversight framework, Sharland said.

Guterres has recommended a “non-United Nations multinational force to assist the National Police” in Haiti, target gangs and re-establish state presence in areas that armed groups control, according to a letter that he delivered to the Security Council in mid-August and was obtained by Al Jazeera.

That is short of a full-fledged UN peacekeeping mission or UN police deployment, but the UN chief said any Haiti intervention should comply with the global body’s human rights policies.

Still, such a model creates its own challenges and potential risks.

While deployments of UN personnel have their own built-in – if at times flawed – oversight and accountability frameworks, including human rights and vetting processes, such mechanisms for missions like the one being assessed for Haiti tend to be “tailor-made”, Sharland told Al Jazeera.

“There is no set model that the UN applies on these circumstances,” she said.

“So you could envisage in a scenario like this with a multinational force that you would want some of those human rights compliance frameworks in place. Application of the UN’s human rights due diligence policy … will be critical, in addition to thorough reporting mechanisms back to the Security Council about what is occurring.”

Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International’s representative at the UN, said rights groups will be closely watching to assure those safeguards are in place when a Haiti mission proposal emerges.

“This is non-UN force and, therefore, we fear that this is going to be ruled by an agreement between Haiti and Kenya,” he told Al Jazeera. “And that could not include all those safeguards or standards that we expect from any UN operation.”

Source: Al Jazeera