Paralysis: The International Community’s Response to the Crisis in Haiti

Outside of targeted sanctions against several high-profile Haitians as well as some notorious gang leaders, a perplexing disconnect remains between the international community’s response and Haiti’s pleas for help.


Source: Richard Pierrin/ AFP via Getty Images.

The feasibility of international support to address Haiti’s crisis has been months in the making. This has also generated a slew of high-level U.S., Canadian, and other visitors to Haiti as well as special sessions at the United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)—highlighting the urgency for international action. Nonetheless, outside of targeted sanctions against several high-profile Haitians as well as some notorious gang leaders, a perplexing disconnect remains between the international community’s response and Haiti’s pleas for help. What explains this international hesitancy? Does it confirm the absence of a consensus among international actors as to how to respond? 

One can identify four factors at play. The first is historical and probably frames the psychology of how the current crisis is viewed by many—that this would be the fourth intervention in roughly three decades with few lasting positive outcomes. This also partially explains the language that has emerged in the current context, which tries to avoid referring to “intervention,” now viewed as a term loaded with a frustrating history. International responses are now framed in the context of an “armed action,” “security operation,” or words to that effect. 

The altered vocabulary also reflects some of the push-back from Haitian political and civil society actors to another military intervention from the U.S. and other key actors. This begins to highlight the limitations even of the vocabulary used. The emphasis on the needs of the Haitian national police (PNH) and tools to fight the gangs (let alone the familiar call for “boots on the ground”) all misleadingly imply an operation of limited scope. What Haiti now needs from the international community—in addition to security-related assistance—is support across a broad spectrum of economic, humanitarian, health, governance, and institutional rebuilding efforts. The scale of what should be envisioned is ultimately massive—which may be an additional factor for the ambiguous international response. 

A second factor underlying international hesitation is probably operational in character—namely that the current security situation in Haiti, let alone its political dynamics, are different from earlier interventions. Even with its inherent controversies, there was a relative level of clarity of purpose in the 1994 intervention to push out Haiti’s military regime and restore the democratically elected government of President Aristide. Similarly, while the backdrop to the 2004 intervention remains a matter of dispute, it ultimately had a clear focus—enabling a successor to the second Aristide presidency. 

In the current context, while interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested international assistance in an October 2022 UN address, it was imprecise as to its exact mission. It required the UN Secretary General to define a possible response as a “deployment of an international specialized armed force.” However, little has come of it. There is no doubt that Henry faces serious threats. One is his own shaky legitimacy as the interim leader in the wake of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021—itself a matter of continuing controversy feeding the deepening mistrust among Haiti’s societal actors. 

A second direct threat that is getting attention is the acceleration of a widening universe of well-armed gangs and trafficking networks that control the streets of Haiti—particularly Port-au-Prince and much of the central and southern portions of the country. This is, to a degree, the by-product of years of inexistent state governance at the community level as well as the impunity and collusion tying some political, police, and gang elements. Taken cumulatively, these factors make international policymakers pause.  

A third factor framing the hesitation of the international community is the notable absence of U.S. leadership—which had an overwhelming presence in previous international responses. An ambivalent U.S. posture gives a palliative character to the actions already taken by Washington (notably targeted sanctions) compared to Haiti’s daily realities. This uncertainty appears to caution the response of other key actors, including Canada whose actions also include targeted sanctions on an even broader scale. U.S. ambivalence is partly shaped by domestic politics where, in the wake of the chaotic exist from Afghanistan, there is limited appetite for another direct international commitment of U.S. security capabilities. There is also arguably disjointed policy attention by the United States to the Caribbean basin region in general—with U.S. interests made up of a mosaic of trade, energy, counter-drug trafficking, and country-specific interests, and often framed by a toxic domestic debate in the U.S. over immigration and border control. 

The cumulative effects of all of this bring us to the fourth factor—a hesitancy that has morphed into a well-intentioned policy principle: an international response predicated on a “Haitian-led solution” to the crisis. This is not an unreasonable principle in that it attempts to recognize the heavy-handedness of the United States and other actors in tipping the outcomes of past Haitian crises. To Haitian civil society’s credit, this has triggered competing, if significant, responses. Examples include the Montana Accord, a wide coalition of civic and political actors, and the recent emergence of the December 21 Agreement—which mostly defines Ariel Henry’s vision of a political transition and electoral timetable. However, what has ensued is mostly political talk, broken promises, and the absence of a will to drive a consensus path out of the deepening crisis. 

What is most perplexing and increasingly frustrating to Haitians and others on the outside has been the lack of creativity from Washington, Ottawa, the UN, the OAS, and others toward ensuring the emergence of a “Haitian-led solution.” Cynics might conclude that this is all little more than a rationalization for international inaction as well as “policy fatigue” over Haiti. Some of that is true, but of no help when the trajectory of current developments suggests a major humanitarian and political implosion with significant ramifications for the Caribbean and the United States. 

So, what happens next? There is residual policy momentum in three overlapping if not particularly synchronized arenas. 

First, what are essentially intra-Haiti dynamics centered mostly around the December 21 agreement, the Transition Council that it has set up, and confidence-building measures. This is a wobbly political machinery whose existence and credibility are weighed down by the weakness of the Ariel Henry regime which has limited control over street dynamics. The fact that the top U.S. diplomat for Haiti policy, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, early March visit to Haiti appeared to conclude empty-handed shows the fragility of the situation. 

A second universe of action may be linked to CARICOM and the aftermath of the recent summit in the Bahamas. This included the participation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and triggered expectations of a breakthrough response to the Haitian crisis. That did not happen, but the summit ended with measurable commitments from CARICOM to help solve Haiti’s crisis. These included convening a meeting of “stakeholders” in Jamaica and participation of CARICOM in a presumably synchronized discussion in Haiti with political and civil society leaders. There was an immediate follow-up action as well with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness visiting Haiti accompanied by senior leaders from the Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago, and other CARICOM countries. Notably, Jamaica had previously announced a willingness to commit a Jamaican police and security contingent to a multinational operation in Haiti. Still, neither Holness’ visit nor the Bahamas summit featured progress in this regard—except that CARICOM is now on record as not supporting the UN Secretary General’s—nor Ariel Henry’s—October 2022 request for the deployment of an international security force to fight the gangs, but instead focus on helping the Haitian National Police.  

Finally, there is a third space of motion anchored mostly to the diplomacy of actors with a more global reach such as the U.S., Canada, France, the UN, and the OAS. In this regard, the next calendar item to monitor is President Biden’s visit to Ottawa on March 23 and 24. This comes in the wake of Trudeau meeting with CARICOM leaders and growing private frustration among Haiti’s neighbors with U.S. inaction. 

The central question remains whether Washington and other actors can encourage Ariel Henry and the constituencies behind the December 21 Agreement and the Montana Accord toward a consensus and reconciliation process. With some optimism, one can envision this happening by merging the efforts outlined above. However, timing is critical or lasting damage to Haiti and the Caribbean region may emerge. 

This op-ed is based on a March 8, 2023 seminar presentation at the University of the West Indies/Mona titled “Options for Haiti: External intervention and its alternatives.”

Georges A. Fauriol is a Fellow with Global Americans; he is also a co-chair of the Caribbean Policy Consortium (CPC), as well as a Think Tank Haiti (TTH) Steering Group member, a partnership of Université Quisqueya (Haiti) and the Inter-American Dialogue, and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

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