By EVENS SANON and MEGAN JANETSKY
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI (AP) — Haitians are expressing skepticism over an offer by Kenya to lead an international police force aimed at combatting the gang violence that has wracked the Caribbean nation.
They say the sexual abuse and a devastating cholera outbreak that have accompanied foreign forces in past decades don’t inspire much trust. But Haitians also say uncontrolled bloodshed in their country leaves them with few other options.
Florence Casimir, an elementary school teacher, said that while past international interventions have damaged Haiti, their abuses don’t compare to the brutality of gangs, which kidnap her students and force parents to pay hefty ransoms.
“It will never be better (than past interventions), but the Haitian people don’t have a choice at this point,” Casimir said. “The Haitian people can’t fight it on their own.”
After Primer Minister Ariel Henry urged the world in October to deploy an armed force to fight the gangs, the United Nations has struggled to convince a nation to lead efforts to restore the order in the Caribbean country, in part due to past controversy over peacekeeping missions. There’s been little appetite for a U.S.- or U.N.-led force, and the United States unsuccessfullt tried to persuade Canada to lead a force.
As the search continued, gang warfare continued to worsen, leading to a wave of hundreds of kidnappings and the emergence of vigilante forces taking justice into their own hands. Today, armed groups control an estimated 80% of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Kenya has offered to send 1,000 police officers to help train and assist an overwhelmed Haitian police force, saying it hopes to “restore normalcy in the country.” This week, the United States said it will put forward a resolution to the U.N. Security Council to authorize the force.
“This is not a traditional peacekeeping force,” the U.S. ambassador at the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said at a news conference.
Kenya’s proposal has sparked debate among Haitians, many of whom distrust international interventions after the failures and abuses of U.N. peacekeeping missions over the decades.
Haitians saw rounds of foreign interventions throughout the 1900s, often a response by nations like the U.S. to political instability in Haiti. In some cases, such missions helped ease chaos and in the 1990s led to the creation of the Haitian National Police.
But successes are often overshadowed by scars that Haitians carry with them from abuses that came with those missions.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission from 2004 to 2017 was plagued with allegations of mass sexual abuse, including claims that peacekeepers raped and impregnated girls as young as 11. Investigations by The Associated Press found evidence of high levels of impunity.
In 2010, sewage runoff from a U.N. peacekeeper camp into the country’s biggest river started a cholera epidemic that killed nearly 10,000 people.
“They left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Haitian people,” said Valdo Cenè, who sells cooking gas. “Bringing in international forces could mean repeating our history.”
This international police force would not be a U.N. force. So if deployed, Kenyan police would be in charge rather than answer to a U.N. force commander as they would be required to do in a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Haiti’s prime minister said Tuesday that he spoke with Kenyan President William Ruto to thank Kenya for the “demonstration of fraternal solidarity.” Henry said Kenya plans to send a task force in the coming weeks to assess the mission’s operational requirements.
Haitians aren’t the only ones questioning the plan. Watch dog groups are raising alarms about the human rights track record of police in Kenya, saying the force may export their abuse.
Police in the East African nation have been long accused of killings and torture, including gunning down civilians during Kenya’s COVID-19 curfew. One local group said officers fatally shot more than 30 people during protests in July, all of them in Kenya’s poorest neighborhoods.
Louis-Henri Mars, head of the Haitian grassroots peacekeeping organization Lakou Lapè, echoed those concerns.
“People are puzzled about this,” Mars said. “It may just become just another big mess.”
While Mars is among many who say a Kenyan force would be an important step to stabilizing Haiti, he expressed hope its deployment will be a temporary effort that paves the way to a longer process of untangling rampant violence in Haiti, such as the kidnapping of an American nurse and her daughter.
Haiti needs to build a stable and trustworthy police force and provide a pathway to restorative justice for victims and former gang members, often young men pulled into the violence around them, Mars said.
Others, like Jerthro Antoine, say Kenya’s police can’t come soon enough.
The cellphone repairman said he dreams of once again setting foot on one of Haiti’s beaches, but violence in his country has gotten so bad that even walking on the street is a risk.
“I feel trapped in my home. Any foreign force in support of Haitian police is more than welcome,” Antoine said. “The Haitian people need it, we need a break and to have a life again.”
Janetsky reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.