Is Haiti on the brink of civil war?

by Katherine Arie

AlertNet, 12/23/04


LONDON (AlertNet)

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 South Africa.

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 Haiti?

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.

Haiti page

Index of Website

Home Page