Haiti’s Stability in Peril without Strong Response to COVID-19, Legal Expert Tells Security Council
Amid protracted political, economic and institutional crises in Haiti, a strong response to COVID-19 is urgently needed to prevent an erosion of national stability, a top legal expert in the country told the Security Council in a 19 June videoconference meeting*.
Jacques Létang, President of the Haitian Bar Federation and member of the Human Rights Office in Haiti, said COVID-19 has tested his country’s institutional strength. Public services are virtually failing, and basic rights are not being guaranteed. The rapid spread of the coronavirus is particularly worrying in prisons, as announced contingency plans have not been put in place. Working-class neighbourhoods are being transformed into lawless zones, “where everyone’s life is subject to the goodwill of increasingly well-armed and organized gangs”, and most public institutions in Port-au-Prince are deserted.
“The State is less and less in control of the territory,” he said. Massive rights violations are on the rise. The La Saline case is just one of the most serious massacres in Haiti’s contemporary history. More than 71 people were killed on 13 November 2018, with “dozens and dozens” more since then. “The problem is primarily one of impunity,” he assured. Despite precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2019, the investigation has ended, as the case has been blocked for months at the Court of Cassation.
He said such actions by the State send a message to victims: they will receive neither protection nor justice. There are serious questions around whether authorities were involved — “yet nothing is happening”. Such shortcomings reflect dysfunction in the justice system, where access to a judge is guaranteed neither for defendants who spend years in prolonged pretrial detention, nor victims. Far from embodying a renewed spirit of independence, the Superior Council of the Judiciary is bogged down by corporatism geared towards defending bad practices. The electoral process is “deeply perverted”.
Describing Haiti as being at a political impasse, with no Parliament, no local authorities and “no more legitimate Government”, he said legislation is adopted by decree. The absence of institutional checks and balances is reinforced by the prolonged state of emergency. Eyes are now turning towards the end of the presidential term, with the polemic centred on fluctuating interpretations of the Constitution. “Clearly, the objectives set for the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) are not being met,” he said.
To be sure, he said the mission has inherited several sensitive files. The cholera tragedy has fuelled mistrust towards the United Nations, which has faced difficulty in acknowledging its responsibility — if not guilt. He asked about reparations for victims and the lack of discussion around criminal or even disciplinary condemnation for acts of sexual abuse, despite the Secretary‑General’s announced desire to address the failure of zero tolerance. By wanting to “support the State”, the United Nations links its destiny to that of the Government, at the risk of losing objectivity, he said.
Indeed, he said the international community is locked in a one-on-one dialogue with the Government, with its support appearing to depend more on strategic interests than human rights actions. “As a result, it is preparing veritable social time bombs,” he said, stressing that civil society actors must be heard and supported.
Helen La Lime, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, said the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching the country’s fragile health system. Three months to the day after President Jovenel Moïse declared a health emergency, authorities continue to struggle to open medical centres dedicated to the treatment of COVID-19 patients. A country of more than 11 million inhabitants, Haiti only has the capacity to treat a few hundred patients at a time, due to suboptimal coordination within the State apparatus, inadequate funding of the national response plan and staunch opposition by local communities to the opening of these centres, a manifestation of the lingering climate of denial, stigma and discrimination.
She said the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating and has officially affected more than 4,900 people. While its true toll is likely much higher, its effects are being felt by Haiti’s citizens. As a result of these multiple crises, Haiti’s economy contracted by 1.2 per cent in 2019 and is projected to shrink by 4 per cent in 2020. Factories are operating at reduced capacity, unemployment is rising, the Haitian gourde continues to lose value against the United States dollar and inflation consistently exceeds 20 per cent. Absent resources to support Haiti’s emergence from recession, hard-won security and development gains risk coming undone. “A primarily domestic problem could transform into a regional issue, should an already alarming humanitarian situation continue to worsen,” she warned.
On the political front, she said 18 months of popular mobilization against Mr. Moïse and the onset of COVID-19 led to an opposition initiative that eventually allowed newly appointed Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe to govern. But, early signals that preparations for legislative and local elections would begin reintroduced acrimony in the public discourse. Recent weeks have seen a marked increase in activities of gangs vying to control swathes of Port-au-Prince in an effort to influence the elections. A growing number of opposition figures are contesting the length of Mr. Moïse’s term and calling for a transitional administration to take over — one that would ostensibly launch reforms and organize subsequent polls. “The vicious circle of mistrust, recrimination and ultimately violence, is once again starting to define the dynamics of Haitian politics,” she warned. Reform of the Constitution is required to create the conditions for institutional stability, good governance and the rule of law.
For its part, BINUH has not lost sight of its six benchmarks set through the integrated strategic framework, she said. It has assisted Haitian authorities and institutions in considering key issues that impede the forging of a national consensus, encouraged political actors to engage with one another, and advised the Haitian National Police on how to resolve labour disputes within its ranks. It also has helped judicial actors devise a virtual hearings system that will allow courts to function, while they are physically still unable to convene. Accountability is a challenge, seen in the lack of progress in investigating and prosecuting the Lilavois, Grand Ravine, La Saline and Bel Air cases, involving abuses by gang members, law enforcement agents and political officials. Working with civil society, BINUH will encourage authorities to amplify the fight against impunity and the promotion of human rights, she assured.
In the ensuing dialogue, Council members discussed findings outlined in the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in Haiti (document S/2020/537), with several stressing that the island nation needs unflagging support in efforts to fight COVID-19, and more broadly, ensure the proper functioning of its democratic institutions.
The representative of the United States said reports of attacks on COVID-19 patients, and on medical facilities treating them, are deeply concerning. As the peak for infections may be yet to come, it is essential that all Haitians work together to limit the spread of the virus. She called on the Government to follow through on its 27 March decision to release pretrial detainees accused of minor crimes, as well as medically vulnerable prisoners nearing completion of their sentences. It is equally important that the Government continues its work on political, economic and social reforms, she said, calling the President’s 18 May speech in which he committed to holding elections a positive step and encouraging work with all political actors to reach a political accord. Commending gains made by the Haitian National Police, she noted the continued failure to provide them with required adequate resources and expressed concern over the lack of accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses, including in La Saline and Bel Air. As Haiti responds to the pandemic and the drivers of instability, it is essential to strengthen the rule of law and to end corruption. “Jacques, we are listening to you and we are reinforcing your concerns,” she assured.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaking also for Niger, South Africa and Tunisia, encouraged the international community’s continued support for Haiti and BINUH. Urging Haitian authorities to create an electoral calendar, she called on political leaders to forge ahead with forming a Government, to attract more bilateral and multilateral support, and to convene a national dialogue and refrain from acts that may trigger further violence, which, in turn, would compromise gains made under the guidance of the United Nations. While commending national authorities for tackling gang violence, she remained disturbed by the proliferation of illicit weapons and ammunitions entering Haiti, causing an upsurge in crime, and called for an investigation of reports that a “death squad” carried out violent attacks in several impoverished Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods. At the same time, she was encouraged about arms control legislation being developed by BINUH, national authorities and other stakeholders. Regretting to note Haiti’s reduction in national budget contributions for the National Police to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the national force, together with the relevant judicial institutions, have a fundamental role to play in the State meeting its obligations to protect its citizens.
Turning to the worsening humanitarian situation, she said the international community must redouble efforts to assist the Haitian authorities. Commending Haiti’s spirit of unity and solidarity in its initial response to COVID-19, alongside the Government and partners’ efforts, she welcomed reports that some international financial institutions will suspend the nation’s debt so it can respond to the pandemic, and called on the country’s partners to consider providing debt forgiveness. Welcoming the continued engagement of the Economic and Social Council Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti, which supports the country's long-term development strategy, she urged its greater collaboration with the Security Council to comprehensively address the root causes of the nation’s insecurity. Haiti remains “a fundamental pillar to our African and Caribbean civilization” with a glorious yet complex history. “Being the first black nation to revolt against slavery and oppression in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti paid an exorbitant price for its freedom,” she said, emphasizing that the country’s sustainable development will only remain a fleeting illusion to be pursued and never attained, if the genesis of its underdevelopment is not addressed, and this must begin with adequate restitution.
The Dominican Republic’s representative welcomed measures taken by Haiti to prevent the spread of COVID-19, noting that the Heads of State from both countries met virtually on 19 May to discuss synergies in their response. He expressed hope that the pause in the political process generates momentum for Haiti’s leaders to advance an open and inclusive dialogue that breaks the political deadlock. He expressed concern over persistent insecurity, stressing that the 270,000 illicit firearms in civilian hands and the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons are fueling new civil unrest. The flow of such weapons and their ammunition must be urgently addressed. In February, before the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 40 per cent of Haiti’s population required humanitarian assistance and he underscored the imperative of working together with Haiti’s Government to put in place risk assessment mechanisms and to design better strategies for bolstering core sectors and institutions. Information channels and collaboration with local communities should also be expanded to help Haiti prepare for climate-related shocks. He echoed the Secretary‑General’s appeal for financial support to help Haiti overcome its challenges, commending BINUH and the United Nations country team for their assistance during extraordinary circumstances that continue to hinder advancement of the mission’s mandate.
Estonia’s delegate, welcoming the Government’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, said that more must be done, and a national response is needed. Regretting to note only marginal developments in the political sphere, he said efforts must focus on overcoming the impasse, pursuing an open and inclusive dialogue and demonstrating the political will to find solutions to the most pressing issues, including constitutional reform and a clear electoral calendar. In addition, gang-related crime still is a great concern, only exacerbated by socioeconomic challenges. While the Haitian National Police has demonstrated growing professionalism and restraint in enforcing public order, he raised concerns about the increased number of human rights violations, abuses and killings. Efforts to combat impunity are required, he said, noting that no progress has been made on such cases as La Saline and Bel Air. In addition, 74 per cent of detainees are still awaiting trial due to lengthy and complicated judicial proceedings, causing prison overcrowding. Underlining the importance of enhancing accountability and ensuring that all cases are properly investigated, with perpetrators brought to justice, he said Estonia remains hopeful that continued efforts will bring a better future for Haiti.
Indonesia’s representative, speaking also for Viet Nam, said comprehensive national dialogue is the key to addressing the political uncertainty and polarization that are the main causes of the multifaceted difficulties and instability in Haiti. A Government that is not functioning for the people is meaningless, he said, underlining the importance of all stakeholders in Haiti to practice dialogue and compromise, and expressing support for United Nations engagement with the Provisional Electoral Council to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. Haitian authorities bear a moral obligation and duty to provide to their citizens the right to life in a peaceful and stable environment. Turning to security, economic and social challenges, he supported the United Nations system and the Peacebuilding Fund in carrying out socioeconomic interventions aimed at promoting stability and reducing community and gang violence, including by addressing the difficulties faced by the Haitian National Police that could hamper its ability to operate. Haitian authorities must take bold and necessary measures to address problems arising from the political deadlock. Regarding the impact of COVID-19 on current challenges, he expressed appreciation for BINUH engagement, urging multi-stakeholders to focus efforts on addressing the health emergency. While commending BINUH efforts, particularly the inclusion of gender equality in its recruitment and activities, he called on the mission and United Nations country team to identify measures needed to address the urgent issues in the country. A regional architecture can play an important role in shaping a new Haiti that fits local wisdom and characteristics, while at the same time addressing the root causes of the various challenges. Indeed, regional resilience can be a good catalyst for expediting political and socioeconomic recovery in Haiti.
Belgium’s delegate, voicing support for BINUH in facilitating political dialogue in Haiti, said all parties need to commit to an inclusive dialogue to face the country’s political, social, economic and humanitarian crisis. Concerned about reports of stigmatization and discrimination of people who allegedly have COVID-19, including through lynching and destruction of property, he commended United Nations efforts and encouraged political actors to seize the momentum of the pandemic response to build trust and work together to address the root causes of Haiti’s instability. Welcoming the President’s announcement to organize elections and call for clarity on the electoral calendar, he said that constitutional reform is necessary to address the extreme levels of political instability and polarization. Calling for renewed efforts to reform the justice sector to end impunity, he underlined the need for a credible budget for the National Police to address pressing challenges, including abductions, gang violence and other crimes. The national strategy on disarmament, dismantlement, reintegration and community violence reduction is encouraging, as is the reactivation of the Haitian National Police’s round table with civil society. On human rights, he called for progress in ensuring accountability for the violence in Grand Ravine, La Saline, Bel Air and more recently Village-de-Dieu, and for the National Human Rights Plan to be endorsed and implemented. Haiti cannot face its challenges alone, he said, adding that, together with European Union partners, Belgium provides financial, technical and political support, and calls on all international partners to follow suit.
The United Kingdom’s representative said his country recognizes the extraordinary difficulties Haiti has faced since the Council’s last meeting on the situation. A coordinated, holistic response to COVID-19 by Haiti and the international community is critical. He called on the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, the Resident Coordinator and the Humanitarian Coordinator to work closely with Haitian authorities in guiding a coordinated approach. He expressed concern over the lack of progress on human rights and accountability, stressing that the perpetrators of massacres at La Saline and Bel Air continue to escape justice, profoundly undermining efforts to build trust in the rule of law. It is likewise regrettable that the Government has yet to honour its commitment to appoint a Minister for Human Rights. Session after session, the Security Council has sought to encourage parties in Haiti set out a road map to overcome political deadlock and institutional paralysis. The collapse in February of dialogue efforts to reach an agreement on the needed outline for constitutional, institutional and structural reforms is yet another missed opportunity. “Now, more than ever, all parties should come together in the national interest,” he said.
The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity to express solidarity with Haiti in the face of COVID-19. The health crisis is adding to existing fragilities in the country. Noting that France will contribute to the work of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service to promote humanitarian access in Haiti, he also pointed to the European Union’s announcement that it will redirect €165 million in aid. In return, the Haitian authorities must provide guarantees on the proper use of these funds. The increase in gang violence since the start of 2020 is a source of deep concern and actions by the Haitian National Police, which committed to face it, must be blameless. “No human rights violations can be tolerated,” he said, stressing Haitian authorities must tackle impunity — first and foremost relating to the La Saline and Bel Air massacres — to rebuild trust. Faced with a multidimensional crisis, Haitians must engage in political dialogue, which remains the only solution. He expressed regret that efforts in February did not yield the formation of an inclusive Government. France calls on the President, as well as all political forces and civil society and the private sector to resume an inclusive national dialogue to prepare for elections and revision of the Constitution. BINUH has worked tirelessly with the United Nations country team to support Haiti in its response to the pandemic. The Council must continue to take appropriate measures, particularly if the situation deteriorates.
The representative of Haiti said the Secretary-General’s observations will fuel enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and Haitian authorities. It is important that BINUH continues to implement its mandate in strict compliance with resolution 2476 (2019). “The spirit of collaboration must prevail between all those involved in national life,” he said, encouraging civil society groups to play a greater role in efforts to foster independence in Haitian justice, and to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law.
In terms of justice and security, he described the free movement of small arms and light weapons as “a real plague”, with clashes among armed groups causing suffering for all strata of society. He called for strengthening the Haitian National Police and urged courts to judge impartially. The Government recognizes the gravity of the situation and will mobilize all security actors to address this threat. It also will tackle the determinants of social inequality, corruption, poverty, food insecurity, economic difficulties and lack of health‑care access “with determination”, he said, stressing that financial aid to Haiti must align with the needs of its people and demands for strengthening national institutions.
Turning to the Secretary-General’s report, he noted concerns about the absence of a functional legislature, lack of detail on a timetable for the next elections, and the need for constitutional and structural reforms. He blamed persistent political divisions, difficulties in establishing a national dialogue and the spread of COVID-19 for the slow progress. He urged all political forces — with support from the United Nations — to relaunch the national dialogue, stressing: “Nothing great and lasting can be accomplished outside the founding values of the Republic of Haiti.” Constitutional reforms must consider current realities and remove ambiguities around certain provisions.
Indeed, the country's socioeconomic situation has deteriorated under the combined effects of the political crisis, the “peyi lok” strategy and recurrent natural hazards, he said. The impact of COVID-19 is being felt heavily. The national economy is facing multiple simultaneous shocks: reduced tax revenues, foreign direct investment, exports and remittances among them. The health crisis also weakened Haiti’s capacity to respond to the cyclone season. With overall cases now at 4,547, the Government has created technical and administrative structures to manage the pandemic, carried out a vast prevention campaign, acquired medical equipment and materials and significantly increased the budget for the Ministry of Public Health and Population, from 5.6 billion gourdes for the 2017‑18 fiscal year to 21.6 billion in 2020.
He said the Government has also postponed payment of income taxes, strengthened control over “prices of first necessity” and extended support to vulnerable farmers. In reflecting on Haiti’s need for aid, he called for enacting the lessons learned from the modalities and level of aid provided to the country after the 2010 earthquake. “Let us not persist in the same errors,” he said. “The country is in dire need of adequate and predictable resources to overcome many challenges.” With that, he reiterated the President’s call for “solidarity, affability and flexibility” among bilateral and multilateral donors, and ambition in funding extended to Haiti for its recovery.
The representatives of Germany, Russian Federation and China also participated in the meeting.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.