Medical NGOs and civil society groups in Haiti have warned that the government’s plan to request foreign military intervention to restore order will only cause more bloodshed in the beleaguered nation.
On Friday, the government formally authorized the prime minister, Ariel Henry, to request “specialised armed forces” to take back control of Port-au-Prince from the hundreds of gangs who have tightened their grip over the capital in recent weeks.
Foreign assistance is also needed to neutralise the gangs and tackle a series of acute humanitarian crises, including the return of cholera, the document signed by Henry and his ministers read.
But activists and aid groups said that calling in foreign forces risks escalating the brutal violence that has engulfed the capital while offering no long-term solution.
“Our immediate reaction, as a medical organisation, is that this means more bullets, more injuries and more patients,” said Benoît Vasseur, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Haiti. “We are afraid there will be a lot of bloodshed.”
Haiti has plunged deeper into socioeconomic chaos since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.
Conditions have become particularly dire in recent months as the 150 to 200 gangs warring for control of Port-au-Prince have taken control of the capital and blockaded the country’s fuel terminals.
Amid severe food and water shortages, the country’s economy has been paralysed and hospitals forced to close just as cholera has returned.
The overlapping crises have prompted angry protests against the unpopular government.
“The whole country has been taken hostage,” Henry said in a speech requesting international support on Wednesday.
Haitian diplomats have requested the creation of a humanitarian corridor to free up fuel supplies.
With Haiti’s army outnumbered and outgunned, experts say the country would need international support to take down the gangs with force, but the Caribbean nation has a long and troubled history of foreign intervention – which Haitians fear is repeating itself.
UN peacekeepers sent to respond to an earthquake in 2010 left behind hundreds of fatherless children and were accused of systematic sexual abuse and exploitation of Haitian women.
The UN mission also introduced a cholera outbreak which killed 10,000 and took nine years to eradicate. The UN has apologised for sparking the deadly outbreak but never formally accepted responsibility for releasing contaminated faecal matter.
Haitians fear the history of human rights abuses will repeat itself and will probably protest against any intervention, the head of an aid organisation in Port-au-Prince who requested not to be named said.
Foreign forces would not address the corruption and inequity at the root of Haiti’s myriad crises, he added.
“They come for years and things improve slightly but then they leave and it’s worse than when they came to begin with,” he said. “Any sustainable solution to Haiti’s problems needs to come from within.”
Henry said that if the cholera outbreak detected on 1 October is to be beaten, the gangs – who are the de facto authorities in much of the capital – must be confronted first.
In gang-run slums, 111 suspected cholera cases have been detected and at least seven have died from the new outbreak.
The fragile accommodations NGOs have been forced to strike with the bandits in order to carry out their work could be jeopardised by foreign intervention, making the task of tracing the source of the outbreak and chlorinating the water supply impossible, Benoit said.
“Access to the slums is already complicated enough, without military intervention. I don’t even want to think about what it would be like if foreign forces were sent here. It will be total chaos,” he said.
Details on what the international forces would look like are scarce but a Haitian government official told reporters on Friday that it would be a special police force.
A UN spokesperson told journalists it had not received an official request from the Haitian government. “That being said, we remain extremely concerned about the security situation in Haiti” Stephane Dujarric said.
A spokesperson for the US state department said it was aware of a request to establish a humanitarian corridor to alleviate fuel shortages but did not comment on the prospect of sending boots on the ground.
Civil society groups said that any international efforts to restore order to Haiti should be accompanied with a change of administration and not prop up the current, illegitimate government. Haiti has not held presidential elections since 2016 and analysts say the political elite are tied to the very gangs holding the country to ransom.
They also questioned what would be different this time given that repeated intervention has failed to create lasting change.
“We have had foreign intervention in 1915, 1994, 2004 and yet here we are again today in the same situation,” said Louis-Henri Mars, the director of Haitian peacebuilding non-profit Lakou Lapè. “Every time there’s intervention the same system stays in place.
“We will be back to square one with illegitimate leaders that are there just to suck up the country’s money.”