The United Nations Secretary-General is urging the international community to respond to a request from Haiti’s government and urgently consider sending an international specialized armed force to the Caribbean Island nation to address spiraling insecurity and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

“Considering the extremely grave situation, international efforts to enhance support for the HNP [Haitian National Police] must aim to reduce the ability of armed gangs to block access to and carry out attacks on strategic infrastructure and threaten the livelihood of communities,” Antonio Guterres wrote in a 12-page letter to the U.N. Security Council on Sunday.

As envisioned, such a force would not be under the umbrella of U.N. peacekeeping but would be agreed bilaterally between Haiti and “one or several” other nations. The U.N. Security Council would “welcome” the force, not authorize it, like it does for U.N. missions.

On Friday, Haiti’s government authorized Prime Minister Ariel Henry to request the immediate deployment of an international specialized armed force to help stop the criminal gangs. The gangs are seeking to exploit the political vacuum left by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise at his home in Port-au-Prince on July 7, 2021.

Guterres says the most urgent need is to strengthen the national police’s ability to counter and contain the gangs.

“In this effort, the Haitian authorities underscored those solutions need to be Haitian-led and have the HNP in the lead, supported by international partners to improve its ability to provide security,” he said of consultations with Haiti’s leaders about what a force would look like.

Heavily armed gangs control parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and have blocked access to the country’s main fuel terminal since mid-September. This has worsened the already abysmal humanitarian situation affecting the availability of electricity, clean water, garbage collection and the ability of hospitals to operate.

“The national authorities cited the lack of adequate and sufficient individual protection gear, weaponry, ammunition and other tactical equipment, and of the capacity to effectively use them, as the key obstacles to progress in anti-gang efforts,” Guterres wrote. “The HNP is faced with criminal gangs in possession of higher-caliber weapons and better equipment than its own.”

Twenty-one officers were killed in 2021, and from January to August this year 13 have been killed.

In several gang-controlled areas of the capital, including Martissant and Cité Soleil, the secretary-general said there are not even any operational police stations, “contributing to an environment in which gang leaders exercise unfettered power.”

The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people have been directly affected by gang violence, and 20,000 have fled their homes seeking safety. Rape and other sexual violence are being used “systematically” the U.N. says.

Rapid reaction force

In the short-term, the U.N. chief proposes a rapid reaction force be deployed quickly under the leadership of one country and composed of forces from one or more countries. Nations would also assist through the funding and equipping of the force.

“The force would, in particular, support the HNP primarily in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area in securing the free movement of water, fuel, food and medical supplies from main ports and airports to communities and health care facilities,” Guterres said. “To this end, the force would support the HNP’s efforts to remove the threat posed by armed gangs and provide immediate protection to critical infrastructure and services.”

Longer-term options

The secretary-general suggests that the rapid reaction force would be gradually phased out as the national police begin to restore general security and people’s freedom of movement. They would be replaced by either a multinational police task force or a multinational special force.

The multinational police task force would enhance the national police’s tactical and operational capabilities to fight gang violence through advising, vetting and training them.

The task force would also deploy equipment, materiel and technology necessary for the national police to conduct anti-gang operations.

The other option would be a multi-national special force.

“The Special Force would be composed of well-equipped special police units provided by a group of member states, with one of them serving as the lead country in terms of the command and the direction of operations,” Guterres said.

He envisions this force supporting the national police at land border crossing points and as they try to re-exert government control in gang-held neighborhoods.

“Should member states not step forward with bilateral support and financing for this option, contributions under a United Nations operation may provide an alternative,” Guterres said. “However, as indicated, a return to U.N. peacekeeping was not the preferred option of the authorities.”

Haiti has had a difficult relationship with U.N. peacekeepers, including sexual abuse and exploitation of Haitian women. After the 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic ravaged the country infecting more than 800,000 people and killing an estimated 10,000. The outbreak was traced to sewage from a U.N. peacekeeping camp that contaminated a main water supply. It took the U.N. six years to admit its role in the epidemic.

Now the country is facing the return of the waterborne disease in the wake of fuel shortages that have led to power cuts and a shortage of clean water. In the past week there have been several confirmed cases and deaths, and dozens more suspected cases after three years of no cases.

Secretary-General Guterres also underscored the need for the Haitian government to move past its political impasse, warning improving the gang situation would only be temporary if corruption and good governance are not addressed.

The U.N. Security Council is considering new sanctions targeting the gangs and their leaders to help stem the flow of money and weapons to them. On September 26, Haiti’s foreign minister urged the council to sanction the gangs during a meeting on the spiraling violence.

“This is a real step in the right direction to bring an end to the phenomenon of insecurity in the country,” Jean Victor Geneus told the 15-nation council.

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