The UN chief calls for a robust international police force to help combat Haiti's armed gangs

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference at the diplomatic lounge in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

TANZANIA – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Thursday for a robust international force to help combat Haiti’s armed gangs and restore security in the impoverished nation, saying that a U.N. expert’s estimate that Haiti needs up to 2,000 additional anti-gang police officers is no exaggeration.

Stressing that the U.N. is not calling for a military force or a political mission, Guterres appealed to U.N. Security Council members and potential contributing countries “to act now” to deploy a multinational force to help the Haitian National Police “defeat and dismantle the gangs."

The Caribbean nation has been asking for such a force since last October, and Guterres has been looking for a country to lead the deployment.

The United States and Canada, two likely candidates, have opted out. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Georgetown, Guyana, on Thursday that the United States is involved in discussions trying to find a lead nation.

The U.N. chief, who visited Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on Saturday, told reporters that criminal gangs have a “stranglehold” on the population. “The Haitian people are trapped in a living nightmare. Humanitarian conditions are beyond appalling,” he said.

Guterres spoke ahead of a Security Council meeting later Thursday on his report on Haiti and following Wednesday’s news conference by the U.N. independent expert for Haiti, William O’Neill, who concluded a 10-day trip to the country last week.

O'Neill estimated that Haiti needs 1,000 to 2,000 international police with expertise in organized criminal gangs and their financing, as well as in kidnappings and urban operations. He stressed that the quality of the officers is more important than the quantity.

Guterres, asked about O’Neill’s estimate, said the right number for an international force needs to be assessed but that it should be “a meaningful number,” and that he believes the U.N. expert’s numbers “do not reflect any exaggeration.” He added that the police also need financing, training and equipment.

At the council meeting, many members supported the secretary-general's call for an international force but there were no new offers. Jamaica and The Bahamas have already signaled their willingness to contribute to a multinational force and Guyana's President Irfaan Ali said Rwanda and Kenya have also indicated a willingness.

O’Neill, an American lawyer who has been working on Haiti for over 30 years and helped establish the Haitian National Police in 1995, told reporters: “I have never seen the situation as bad as it is now.”

But he stressed that Haiti “is not without hope,” and cited efforts by prosecutors in Port-au-Prince to speed work on criminal cases and to launch corruption cases against top officials. He also singled out the customs agency’s efforts to collect taxes and duties that weren’t previously being paid.

Guterres called for simultaneous action on three fronts: restoring security, working toward a political solution that restores democratic institutions and addressing urgent humanitarian needs. He called on donors to respond quickly to the U.N. appeal for $720 million to help more than 3 million people, which is only 23% funded.

The U.N. chief said these three steps are vital to break Haiti’s cycle of suffering and create a path out of the crisis.

The gangs have grown in power since the July 7, 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and are now estimated to control up to 80% of the capital. The surge in killings, rapes and kidnappings has led to a violent uprising by civilian vigilante groups.

U.N. special envoy for Haiti Maria Isabel Salvador noted the second anniversary of Moïse 's assassination on Friday and told the council the call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice continues. She cited widespread backing for a robust international force, stressing that it must help strengthen, not replace, the Haitian National Police.

Since her briefing to the council in late April, she said, the dire security situation has gotten worse and the violence has moved beyond Port-au-Prince, with vigilante groups adding “another layer of complexity.” She said the U.N. political mission she heads has documented ""the killing of at least 264 alleged gang members by vigilante groups" since April.

O’Neill said he met with senior Haitian National Police leaders, including the inspector general, and they told him they are committed to seriously looking at the integrity and competence of all officers and for evidence of misconduct, abuse of power, criminal activity or collusion with the gangs.

He said the inspector general told him 80 officers have been suspended and are under investigation for misconduct or criminal activity, and that police participation in a vigilante justice movement called “bwa kale” is also being investigated.

O’Neill said he plans to meet council members and other countries active on Haiti over the coming week to discuss his visit and recommendations, including an immediate arms embargo as well as deployment of international police experts.

China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said regrettably he didn’t hear any country announce concrete actions in response to calls for an international force and told the council that it should therefore prioritize cutting off arms and ammunition shipments to Haiti, which experts have said mainly come from the United States.

“If large numbers of weapons were to continue to float unabated into the hands of Haitian gangs, it will be futile for the international community to try to give more support to the Haitian police," he said.


AP journalist Bert Wilkinson in Georgetown, Guyana, contributed to this report.