'Not the time to forget' troubled nation: UN chief in Haiti

AFP , Sunday 2 Jul 2023

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Haiti on Saturday for a lightning visit, saying "this is not the time to forget" the Caribbean nation mired in overlapping security, political and economic woes.

Jean Victor Geneus, Haiti s Minister of Foreign Affairs, looks on as UN Secretary-General Antonio Gu
Jean Victor Geneus, Haiti s Minister of Foreign Affairs, looks on as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference in Port-au-Prince on July 1, 2023. AFP

 

For months, the world body's leader has raised the alarm bell about the situation in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, which has been wracked by gang violence, a worsening public health situation and political instability.

"I'm in Port-au-Prince to express my full solidarity with the Haitian people and call on the international community to continue to stand with Haiti, including with a robust international force to assist the Haitian National Police," Guterres said on Twitter a few minutes after his arrival.

"This is not the time to forget Haiti."

Guterres -- making his first visit to Haiti as UN secretary-general -- is expected to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Henry as well as other political leaders and members of civil society, his spokesperson said.

The United Nations and Henry have repeatedly made the case for a multinational force to stabilize Haiti, which has not held national elections since 2016.

But nine months after Guterres first asked the Security Council for such a force, no country has been willing to step forward to lead one, fearing high risks and uncertain success.

Canada and Brazil have both been heavily involved in discussions, and several Caribbean nations have backed a multinational force.

President Joe Biden has made clear that the United States, which has a long history of intervention in Haiti, will not lead a force and instead wants to focus on bolstering the fledgling national police.

The United Nations has meanwhile been clear about the nightmare suffered by many Haitians on a daily basis -- shootings, kidnappings, rapes are frequent.

'Never been worse'

"Haitians and our team there tell me it's never been worse than it is now," UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Catherine Russell said this week after returning from Port-au-Prince.

Russell highlighted "unprecedented hunger and malnutrition, grinding poverty, a crippled economy, resurgence of cholera, and a massive insecurity that creates a deadly downward spiral of violence."

Compounding the crises, the flooding and earthquakes that have repeatedly ravaged the country "continue to remind us all just how vulnerable Haiti is to climate change and natural disasters," she told a briefing.

And then Russell recounted the horrific story of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped by five men -- and raped by three of them.

"She was eight months pregnant when we spoke and gave birth just a few days later," she said, recalling that armed gangs control more than 60 percent of the capital and large swathes of the countryside.

Faced with such violence, residents have occasionally taken matters into their own hands. In April, a group of civilians beat to death several suspected gang members who were in police custody and burned their bodies in the street.

And in June, Haiti's minister of planning and external cooperation Ricard Pierre warned of the risk that the country could descend into civil war if an international assistance force is not deployed soon.

"The risk of civil war is very real," he said.

Some 5.2 million Haitians -- nearly half of the country's population -- need humanitarian assistance. Three million of those in need are children.

Guterres is also planning to "underscore the need for a Haitian-led, inclusive political pathway towards elections and the return of constitutional order in Haiti," his spokesperson said.

Henry, who was named to his post shortly before the July 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moise, has faced questions about his own legitimacy.

Following his stop in Haiti, Guterres will head to Trinidad and Tobago for a summit of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will also attend that meeting, where he plans to meet Henry.

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