The Western hemisphere’s most fragile state is once again in serious trouble. In the aftermath of last year’s assassination of President Jovenel Moise, Haiti has descended into near-anarchy, with armed groups holding sway over large parts of Port-au-Prince and the country’s government in disarray. For long-suffering Haitians, an ongoing cholera outbreak has made daily life—already diminished by economic privation and the real threat of being killed, raped or kidnapped—even more precarious. For outsiders, the ‘what to do’ question with respect to Haiti has re-asserted itself with a vengeance.
For several weeks this autumn, Canada appeared to be seriously considering the prospects of leading a multilateral military intervention aimed at calming Haiti’s troubled waters. An assessment mission was deployed, yet after its return Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at the recent Francophonie Summit in Tunisia, appeared to back-track from any firm Canadian commitment. In comments that were both politically astute and at least somewhat disingenuous, Trudeau suggested that any prominent Canadian role in Haiti would be conditional on the achievement of consensus among political parties in Haiti in support of a Canadian-led intervention.
Such a consensus is nearly impossible, given the fragmented and polarized nature of Haitian politics, so the prime minister’s comments appeared to effectively rule Canada out of a front-line role in helping to resolve Haiti’s current crisis. Indeed, a recent Politico article by former US Ambassador to Haiti James Foley made no mention of Canada in the context of possible intervention scenarios.
For Canada, this cautious stance is consistent not only with its recent reluctance to put boots on the ground in significant numbers in support of UN peace operations—the ‘Canada is back’ mantra of the first Trudeau mandate having been a bit of a bust—it is also reflective of the diminished state of the Canadian Armed Forces. As Tristan Hopper recently observed in the National Post, ongoing personnel and material shortages mean that ‘there are almost no circumstances in which it would be even remotely possible to mount a friendly invasion of Haiti.’ Simply put, a grave mismatch between the scale of Haiti’s current challenges and the capacities—let alone the political will—available to address it will very likely result in a continuation of the non-interventionary status quo, at least for now.
WHY THE HESITATION?
Beyond questions of capacity and political will, there are eminently good reasons why Canada—and others—would hesitate to sign up for another tour of duty in Haiti. There are good reasons, too, to be skeptical that yet another armed military intervention could successfully generate a durable transition from chronic instability to sustainable peace where previous UN-led missions have failed.
The UN has been engaged with Haiti on-and-off since 1993, when its UNMIH mission was established with a mandate to restore democracy and modernize the country’s security forces following the 1991 military coup. Multiple missions followed, the most prominent of which was MINUSTAH, another democracy-restoration and institution-building mission which began in 2004 and was wound down only in 2017. While not without its high points, including presiding over Haiti’s first peaceful transition of power from one democratically-elected president to another, the MINUSTAH era will be forever associated with Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake and its turbulent aftermath.
While relations between Haitians and peacekeepers had been strained well before the disaster—with the UN mission unaffectionately referred to as TOURISTAH by locals—the fact that peacekeepers were almost certainly responsible for introducing a deadly strain of cholera in the quake’s aftermath, killing thousands, further alienated the UN from those they were meant to assist. The UN’s reputation in Haiti was tarnished further by its part in the international community’s generalized failure to fulfill its promise to ‘build back better’ in the earthquake’s aftermath.
Combined, these factors help account for the deep ambivalence on the part of Haitians faced with the prospect of yet more foreign soldiers on their sovereign soil, and for the fact that any future mission would almost certainly not be UN-led.
A REPEATING CYCLE
In the absence of the institutionalized framework of UN peacekeeping—which for all its flaws has demonstrated the capacity to sustain long-term, multidimensional engagements in some of the world’s most challenging contexts—it is difficult to see how a renewed foreign intervention, led by one or at most a handful of states, could sustain the effort required not only to manage Haiti’s current security crisis but to help rebuild the foundations of legitimate governance.
This is the core dilemma with which policy planners continue to grapple: Haiti is at serious risk of slipping ever further into humanitarian disaster in the absence of foreign intervention aimed at bringing armed gangs to heel. Without a long-term perspective on re-building the Haitian state, the country’s now-familiar cycle of intervention-stabilization-stagnation-deterioration-crisis is very likely to repeat itself. Given this scenario—which evokes the language of peacekeeping ‘quagmires’ à la Congo or Mali—it is unsurprising that few countries are lining up to lead the charge into Haiti.
One hard-earned lesson of peacebuilding in the post-cold war period—a lesson dramatically reinforced by last year’s chaotic retreat of coalition military forces from Afghanistan—is that peace cannot be imposed by external military force. The UN’s own 2015 High-Level Panel on Peace Operations reached a similar conclusion, emphasizing ‘the primacy of politics’ in any successful war-to-peace transition. Similarly, as the long-term effort—28 years and counting—to build up the Haitian National Police suggests, institution-building on its own cannot overcome social instability, as institutions built on weak social foundations are inherently unstable and constantly at risk of being eroded and/or co-opted.
THE MONTANA ACCORDS
If peace, ultimately, must be built from below rather than imposed from above, then one modest glimmer of hope in an otherwise grim Haitian political landscape is the existence of the so-called Montana Accords. Signed in August 2021 (and named for the posh Port-au-Prince hotel where they were signed), the Accords are the product of a broad civil society platform which came together in the aftermath of the Moise assassination to chart a credible, Haitian-led path out of the current national crisis. They lay out a two-year period of transitional governance, to be followed by elections. More importantly, perhaps, they envision an extensive and inclusive national dialogue aimed at addressing the broken relationship between state and society in Haiti, restoring a functional government, and re-establishing basic social protections.
To their credit, the Accords’ authors recognized that Haiti’s problems require a root-and-branch re-thinking of Haitian society. Gang violence and the absence of constitutional order are important in this immediate crisis, but they are symptoms of Haiti’s deeper problems, not their causes.
While the Montana Accords represents one promising manifestation of local ownership, the gap between accurate diagnosis and effective treatment remains wide. The current national government—led by Ariel Henry lacking a popular mandate, and widely considered illegitimate—has distanced itself from the core elements of the Accords, while some key figures linked to them, including Senator Joseph Lambert, have recently been sanctioned by Canada and the United States for their allegedly close links with drug traffickers and criminal gangs.
More generally, there remains an enormous and profoundly destabilizing gulf in Haiti between the country’s elites and the vast, impoverished majority of its citizens. It is here that one should look for the root causes of Haiti’s ongoing problems: within a predatory elite class that fits the description of what Rachel Kleinfeld has termed an ‘oligarchy in the raw’.
In a context where access to political power provides the surest path to security and wealth, elite machinations to protect their privileges—often through collusion with gangs and/or sympathetic international benefactors—frequently come at the expense of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and anything that might resemble the wider public interest.
For an initiative such as the Montana Accords to have any chance at success, then, it must begin to address the social inequality that lies at the heart of Haiti’s instability, and envision some redistributive politics, without which the country’s grim socioeconomic situation will continue to drive hope-deprived youth (and young men in particular) into the arms of armed gangs and out of the country.
To the extent that this agenda remains a non-starter for elites, who hold the main levers of political power and have long manipulated them—in ways both legal and illegal—to protect their interests, the search for political consensus on a way out of the current crisis is likely to remain elusive.
HOW MUCH CAN WE FIX?
Ultimately, those looking closely for the right answer to the question of how to effectively respond to Haiti’s recurrent crises may discover that there isn’t one. While the injection of external military force might briefly contain gang violence, save lives, and restore some semblance of order—no small accomplishments—we should no longer pretend that it can also create lasting peace. We would be wise to stop pretending that outsiders, however well-intentioned and well-resourced, can ‘fix’ troubled, failing, or conflict-affected states, even as we guard against the tendency to replace liberal hubris (we can do everything) with liberal hopelessness (we can do nothing).
While it may be the case, as Richard Gowan has suggested, that the ‘standard treatment’ for addressing the problems of fragile and conflict-affected states no longer works, there remains much that international actors can do to help, from humanitarian assistance to material and diplomatic support for Montana-style dialogues to increasing pressure on elites who both stoke and profit from ongoing instability.
Haiti’s current crisis is likely to linger, even as it drops from the headlines. Only seven years ago the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promised to leave no one behind in development terms and even to ‘reach the furthest behind first’. Much has changed since 2015: from COVID to climate change to the war in Ukraine, the world feels like a more dangerous place, and donor countries may no longer feel able to commit to crisis management in conflicts that do not threaten core national security interests.
Peacebuilding interventions have had disappointing results in recent decades, and the appetite is waning for armed intervention in complex humanitarian emergencies. Crises such as Haiti’s may be increasingly ignored, with its victims left to fend for themselves. Or does there remain sufficient substance in the SDGs’ original commitments to inspire a re-doubled search for more constructive intervention and conflict resolution strategies? Is there hope that Haitians, and other victims of conflict and fragility, will not find themselves left ever further behind?
Timothy Donais is an associate professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, and a faculty member of the Balsillie School of International Affairs.