Populations in Haiti are facing possible atrocity crimes due to escalating widespread 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, particularly in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have rapidly proliferated and are perpetrating widespread abuses in a climate of total impunity. Approximately 200 criminal groups are currently fighting over territory in Haiti, and the UN estimates that 2 million Haitians live in areas under gang control as of October 2023. In 2022 gang violence reached levels not seen in decades, with more than 2,100 murders and 1,300 kidnappings documented.
Throughout 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. As rival gangs continue to fight for other parts of Port-au-Prince, populations are often confined to their neighborhood and facing killings, disappearances, gang rape, indiscriminate sniper attacks and destruction of property. 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 has led to reprisals, including killings and arson attacks. The Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti has received reports of 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.
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. At least 72 schools were targeted between October 2022 and February 2023, and students and teachers continue to face daily threats.
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. Over 200,000 people, half of whom are children, have been internally displaced, a tenfold increase in two years. 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. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 100,000 Haitians have been forcibly returned from neighboring countries in 2023.
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. From 4-10 September experts from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) visited Haiti in a third attempt to advance negotiations.
In response to the multidimensional crisis, in October 2022 the UN Security Council (UNSC) established a sanctions regime, including an arms embargo, targeted asset freezes and travel ban measures.
Since the beginning of 2023 several UN officials have warned that insecurity in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict. Violence has spread to all communes in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince and to the Artibonite Valley, Gonaïves and Cap-Haïtien. Since January the UN has recorded at least 3,960 people killed and 2,951 kidnapped. 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.” The UN has documented at least 420 cases of lynching in vigilante justice so far.
Amidst growing insecurity, the Haitian National Police (HNP) has lacked the capacity to combat the territorial expansion of armed gangs and protect communities. Following a year of requests by Prime Minister Henry for the deployment of a multinational security force to combat gangs, on 2 October the UNSC authorized the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission to Haiti. The MSS is mandated to provide operational support to the HNP to re-establish security in Haiti and build conditions conducive to holding free and fair elections and to protect critical infrastructure sites, among other tasks. In November Kenya’s government said the 1,000 police officers to lead the MSS will not be deployed until conditions on training and funding are met.
Populations living in areas under the control of armed gangs are at heightened risk of grave and widespread human rights abuses, including killings, kidnappings and sexual violence, which may amount to crimes against humanity. The emergence of self-defense movements has resulted in a rise in summary executions and may lead to mobilization, arming and recruitment of youth into gangs. 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.
The unprecedented levels of violence stem 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 beyond 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 with impunity. 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.
Haitian 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 to and financing gangs, should be investigated and prosecuted in line with international human rights standards. Victims must have access to adequate medical and psychosocial care.
The HNP must vet all its members and remove from service any officers who have colluded with gangs or the Bwa Kale movement.
In cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the MSS must establish an oversight mechanism to prevent human rights violations or abuses, as well as strictly adhere to UN protocols on the prohibition of sexual exploitation and abuse. 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. In addition to security measures, the international community should give assistance to authorities to restore the rule of law and re-establish democratic institutions.
States in the region must end the collective expulsions and forced returns of Haitians and uphold their obligations under international refugee and human rights law.