Populations in Haiti are at risk of possible atrocity crimes due to escalating violence by armed gangs.
Over the past two years, since the assassination of then-President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, violence has intensified in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs are perpetrating killings, rapes, kidnappings and intimidation in a climate of widespread impunity. Gangs have rapidly proliferated, with an estimated 150 criminal groups currently fighting over territory in Port-au-Prince and its metropolitan region. The UN estimates that the groups control nearly 90 percent of the city. In 2022 gang violence reached levels not seen in decades, with more than 2,100 murders and 1,300 kidnappings documented.
In 2022 violence escalated across several neighborhoods in Cité Soleil – a commune on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince – where intense turf wars and protracted conflict involving two of the main gang coalitions – the G9 alliance and G-Pèp federation – have led to grave abuses. Populations have faced killings, disappearances, gang rape, indiscriminate sniper attacks and destruction of property. A report by UN Women and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime found that 80 percent of those surveyed – 591 women and girls – were victims of one or more forms of gender-based violence in Cité Soleil. A group of UN Special Procedures reported that armed gangs are using systematic sexual violence, including collective rape and mutilation, as a means of exerting territorial control and to terrorize and inflict pain on communities under the control of rival gangs. Refusing sexual demands by armed gangs has led to reprisals, including killings and arson attacks. Although the leaders of G9 and G-Pèp agreed to a truce on 1 July, the agreement remains fragile as they did not commit to disarmament.
The UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict added Haiti as a situation of concern due to the gravity and number of violations reported and verified between September 2022 and March 2023. Schools are frequent targets for violence, as armed gangs perceive looting schools as a lucrative alternative to other forms of extortion and crime. Between October 2022 and February 2023 at least 72 schools were targeted compared to eight the same period the previous year.
Insecurity has compounded an existing humanitarian crisis. Haitians have little or no access to basic necessities, as armed gangs have blocked essential transport routes and looted humanitarian supplies. Nearly 200,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence while tens of thousands have sought refuge outside the country. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination warned that Haitians on migration routes, at borders and in detention centers in the Americas region have faced killings, disappearances, acts of sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking. In the first six months of 2023 countries in the region have returned at least 73,800 people to Haiti.
The grave security situation is exacerbated by protracted political deadlock. Prime Minister Ariel Henry has controlled executive and parliamentary functions since July 2021 and has been unable to reach a consensus with Haitian political authorities and civil society representatives to enable a democratic transition.
Since the beginning of 2023 various UN officials have warned that insecurity in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict. Since January the UN has estimated that armed gangs have killed at least 2,500 people – an increase of nearly 125 percent compared to the same period in 2022 – and kidnapped 970. In response to escalating violence, a civilian self-defense movement – known as “Bwa Kale” – emerged in April. Gang members retaliated by creating their own movement known as “Zam Pale.” Since late April the UN has documented more than 350 people lynched by local people and vigilante groups.
On 12 April UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, appointed an Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti following a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council at its 52nd session. Between 19 and 29 June the Independent Expert visited Haiti and heard reports of grave human rights violations perpetrated by armed gangs and possible summary executions by individuals wearing police uniforms, as well as mass arrests of individuals on grounds of criminal association, imprisoned without trial or access to a lawyer.
Amidst growing insecurity, the Haitian National Police (HNP) has lacked the capacity to combat the territorial expansion of armed gangs and protect residents. On 7 July leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) stressed the need to create a UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated humanitarian and security corridor. Following nearly a year of requests by Prime Minister Henry for the deployment of a multinational security force to combat gangs, on 29 July Kenya offered to deploy 1,000 police officers. The Bahamas has also pledged to send 150 security personnel. On 15 August the UN Secretary-General recommended the deployment of a new international force comprising “police special forces and military support units.”
Populations living in areas under the control of armed gangs are at heightened risk of abuse and possible atrocities. The emergence of Bwa Kale and Zam Pale movements may lead to further violence, as well as mobilization, arming and recruitment of youth into gangs. Civilians have already been targeted because of their support for self-defense groups.
Insecurity in marginalized areas of Port-au-Prince leave many without access to any public services, exacerbating existing inequalities which fuel patterns of exclusion – a driver of violence. Moreover, insecurity has created a climate of mistrust between some host communities and displaced populations, deteriorating social cohesion.
The unprecedented surge in violence stems from intensifying turf wars between armed gangs who are competing for control of strategic resources. Kidnappings and associated requests for ransom are a vital source of income for gangs to carry out operations and purchase weapons.
The prevalence and spread of gang violence across the capital and to the Artibonite region is also fueled by the power vacuum created since the assassination of former President Moïse. The lack of legitimate executive or legislative bodies, as well as a dysfunctional judiciary, has enabled gangs to continue their activities. Many of the armed gangs have alleged ties to state authorities or police officers, raising questions about institutional capacity and commitment to fighting gangs effectively and impartially.
While the request for a multinational force has gained traction among the international community, many Haitians have expressed concerns due to misconduct and serious abuses that resulted from previous international interventions by the UN and others.
National authorities, with the assistance of countries in the region, must bolster efforts to curb the flow of illicit weapons and ammunition. The UNSC arms embargo should be implemented immediately. Those responsible for serious abuses, as well as those providing support and finance to gangs, should be investigated and prosecuted in line with international human rights standards. Victims must have access to adequate medical and psychosocial care.
The international community must strengthen its support to Haitian authorities, including by bolstering the capacity of the HNP with a robust multinational force with civilian harm mitigation mechanisms and guarantees of human rights due diligence. Efforts to secure strategic locations and the country’s main roads should be complemented by initiatives to provide jobs, education and access to basic necessities in gang-controlled areas.
Regional states must end the collective expulsions and forced returns of Haitians and uphold their obligations under international refugee law and International Human Rights Law.