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As Trudeau meets Caribbean leaders, some warn against military intervention in Haiti

Gangs have taken control of much of the Island country since the assassination
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspects an honour guard as he arrives in Nassau, Bahamas, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses the escalating crisis in Haiti with Caribbean leaders this week, some experts are urging him to put the brakes on suggestions of military intervention.

Trudeau arrived in the Bahamas Wednesday to participate in a meeting of the Caribbean Community, where 20 heads of government from the region are gathering.

He is expected to deliver remarks during a summit plenary and meet with several of the leaders one-on-one Thursday, including de facto Haitian prime minister Ariel Henry, who took power after the assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse but was never elected to that role.

Gangs have taken control of much of the country since the assassination, grinding its economy to a halt and hastening a resurgence of cholera. A United Nations report last week detailed “indiscriminate shootings, executions and rapes.” Police have failed to contain the widespread violence.

With the support of the UN, Henry’s unelected government is seeking an external security force to quell the chaos.

To date, though the United States has been more hawkish about a potential intervention, the Canadian government has been reluctant to commit to one, citing a preference for a Haitian-led solution.

Some Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and the Bahamas, set the stage for the Nassau meetings by publicly committing to contribute to a force if one is established. In a joint statement last fall, the leaders of the Caribbean Community said they “take note of the appeal” for “short-term assistance.”

But the people of Haiti themselves have not asked for such a thing, said Jean Saint-Vil, a Haitian McGill University researcher. And Canada should avoid legitimizing what Haitians suspect would inherently be an “imperialist” intervention, he said.

“It consists of an illegal request, because the person who made that request himself is an illegal entity,” Saint-Vil told The Canadian Press in a French interview, noting that Henry stands accused of involvement in his predecessor’s assassination — a charge he has denied.

“The Haitian state has been taken hostage.”

Mario Joseph, the managing attorney of the Bureau des avocats internationaux based in Port-au-Prince, said in a November letter to the Caribbean Community that an international intervention would “prop up the unconstitutional, corrupt and repressive de facto government and stifle legitimate dissent.”

Joseph said that the last major UN stabilization mission in Haiti, which operated from 2004 until 2017, “set the stage for today’s spectacular rebound of gang violence” and left Haiti less democratic than when it arrived.

“We do not want our (Caribbean Community) sisters and brothers to come with guns to help powerful countries impose a repressive regime on us.”

The International Crisis Group organization argued in a recent report that the collapse of the Haitian state and the severity of the humanitarian emergency increasingly justifies preparations for a mission.

“But its deployment should hinge on adequate planning to operate in urban areas and support from Haiti’s main political forces, including their firm commitment to work together in creating a legitimate transitional government,” the December report said.

Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in Nassau Wednesday evening that a solution has to come from within Haitian society and be executed by Haitian police.

“We have to come to grips a bit with the history of large military interventions, where basically you’re just pushing aside all of the Haitian institutions and saying, ‘We’ll do this,’” Rae said.

Rae and Sébastien Carrière, Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, both said the current regime must play ball on the opposition’s demands for an election.

“It’s really hard to start tackling the security problem seriously,” Carrière said, if only one faction of the political class is on board.

“A broader political consensus would greatly help restore people’s confidence in their institutions, including (the police).”

A foreign intervention remains “highly unpopular” in Haiti, said Brian Concannon, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

“The troops who go down there are going to be fighting the people that they were sent to protect. And neither the Canadian nor American governments want that on the news, that their mostly white soldiers are shooting at Haitian civilians,” said the former UN official and human rights lawyer.

“So they’re trying to get somebody else to be the face of that mission.”

The public largely sees the current, unelected government as responsible for the disarray, Concannon said in an interview. Though he conceded that it makes sense to liaise with current officials on humanitarian aid, he said it’s time for the international community to stop inviting Haiti’s leadership to the table on a security solution.

Concannon said that Canada’s existing response to the situation hasn’t gone unnoticed. Colleagues on the ground believe Canadian efforts to sanction elites accused of supporting gangs have been helpful.

“It’s hard to prove anything, but they believe it’s making an impact.”

Rae said Canada wants the U.S. and Europe to move further ahead on sanctions, while other experts suggest that Trudeau could push Caribbean banking centres to do the same and freeze offshore bank accounts.

Canada is also pushing to stem the flow of illegal arms trafficking at the Haitian border, Rae said, with Saint-Vil arguing that a more aggressive push by the U.S. would go a long way toward ending the carnage.

—Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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