Is Haiti on the brink of civil
by Katherine Arie
Fresh fears that Haiti could be headed
for civil war have surfaced as political and criminal violence
continues to escalate. Some 200 people have been killed since
September. Experts warn that unless all groups are disarmed, Haiti
could become a permanently failed state and spread instability
throughout the entire region in the form of an overflow of refugees,
violence and drugs.
The poorest country in the Americas,
Haiti is wracked by an ongoing political crisis. It is awash in
weapons, and various armed groups -- including both supporters
and opponents of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide -- operate
with virtual impunity, wreaking havoc on the impoverished and
war-weary population. Widespread looting and vandalism contribute
to the already insecure environment.
U.N. peacekeepers, stationed in Haiti
since June 2004, are charged with quelling the political violence
and disarming the armed groups. But the United Nations has deployed
just two-thirds of the full number of authorised troops, and the
Brazilian-led forces on the ground -- just 6,000 strong -- have
been unable to stabilise the country.
What happened to Aristide?
Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman
Catholic priest and Haiti's first democratically elected leader,
was forced from power in February 2004. Accused of corruption,
Aristide fled the country in the midst of an armed revolt and
under intense U.S. and French pressure. He was flown in a U.S.
jet to the Central African Republic and now lives in exile in
It wasn't the first time Aristide had
lost power. In 1991, Haiti's army overthrew the president. The
United States restored Aristide to office in 1994, and he promptly
disbanded the army.
A champion of Haiti's poor, Aristide
continues to command support in the poorest slums of the country.
His Lavalas Family Party is still active, and his supporters have
clashed with the police and the United Nations.
The interim government has blamed Aristide
for fomenting violence from exile in South Africa. Aristide counters
that the government has arbitrarily arrested and executed Lavalas
Family Party activists and sympathisers. The government's hard
line against Aristide supporters has prompted an outcry from human
rights groups, alarmed at rights violations perpetrated by police.
Who's in control of the country now?
Haiti's interim government is nominally
in control. It is headed by President Boniface Alexandre, former
chief justice at Haiti's Supreme Court, and Gerard Latortue, a
former Haitian foreign minister and U.N. official who was appointed
prime minister in March 2004.
But the government has failed to establish
authority over the country, and pro-Aristide supporters, street
gangs, and rebels -- all heavily armed -- battle in the streets.
Who are the "rebels"?
The rebels are former members of Haiti's
disbanded army. They played an instrumental role in forcing Aristide
from office in February and control large swaths of the country.
Human Rights Watch has criticised Prime
Minister Latortue's apparent indifference to the abuses of the
rebels. Latortue has said that in his opinion the former soldiers
are freedom fighters, but the once cordial relations between the
rebels and the interim government soured in recent months over
the soldiers' demand to be reinstated and compensated with 10
years of back pay.
In November, disgruntled rebels seized
Aristide's former walled compound in an upscale Port-au-Prince
neighbourhood, forcing a standoff with U.N. troops that threatened
to plunge the country further into anarchy.
The rebels left peacefully after two
days, but they blamed the government for requesting that the United
Nations intervene and subsequently called for a guerrilla war
to unseat the government.
What role is the U.N. playing in Haiti?
In June 2004, the United Nations Stabilization
Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), led by Brazil, replaced a U.S.-led
multinational force that had moved in when Aristide left. MINUSTAH's
mandate includes assisting the Haitian police in disarming all
armed groups, protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical
violence and strengthening the judiciary.
MINUSTAH, which had been criticised for
not intervening in the escalating violence, has responded to the
government's request to remove the rebels from Aristide's compound
and has intervened in gang violence in an attempt to halt the
indiscriminate killing of innocent bystanders.
In early December 2004, U.N. troops entered
Cite Soleil, a predominantly pro-Aristide slum of 500,000 people
in Port-Au-Prince, where gangs had squared off against each other.
MINUSTAH has also played a humanitarian
role. It has protected convoys going from Port-au-Prince to the
northern town of Gonaïves after rain from Hurricane Jeanne
in September 2004 flooded the town, and provided security and
logistic support for both local people and humanitarian agencies.
What is the humanitarian situation in
The humanitarian situation is dire. The
political crisis has disrupted everyday life for many Haitians,
interrupting health services and threatening food supplies. Without
security, law and order, humanitarian agencies have struggled
to reach those in need. Armed gangs, the hijacking of trucks and
looting remain a problem.
A U.N. report released in November, "A
Common Vision of Sustainable Development", found that 55
percent of Haitians live on less than $1 a day and 42 percent
of children under five are malnourished. It also found that one
in 10 Haitians will have HIV/AIDS by 2015 and that dying during
childbirth is now the second cause of death for Haitian women.
In September rain unleashed by Hurricane
Jeanne led to flooding in Gonaïves in which 2,000 people
were killed. Thousands of survivors were left homeless and without
food or clean water.