First Kenyan Forces Arrive in Haiti as Part of Latest Foreign Intervention

June 26, 2024

On Tuesday, June 25, the first contingent of Kenyan security forces, the initial deployment of the much-discussed and long-delayed Multinational Security Support mission (MSS), touched down on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince. Its arrival comes 20 months after former prime minister Ariel Henry first requested a foreign security intervention amid nationwide protests calling for his resignation.

The deployment formally begins the third major security intervention in Haiti in the last 30 years. The last, a UN peacekeeping operation that followed the 2004 ouster of Haiti’s president, lasted 13 years and cost nearly $10 billion, leaving a legacy of abuse, impunity and political interference.

Although the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorized the Kenya-led mission in late 2023, it is not actually taking place under the auspices of the UN. Furthermore, while Kenyan officers are formally in the lead and at least six other countries have pledged to contribute troops, the US has largely been in control of the mission and will contribute the vast majority of the funding.

In recent months, the Pentagon has flown over 90 flights to Port-au-Prince, transporting many tons of equipment and civilian contractors. It has reportedly now finished constructing facilities for the expected 2,500 personnel who will constitute the MSS. In addition to Kenya, at least seven other countries have offered to contribute troops, namely, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Chad, and Jamaica.

However, even as the first boots hit the ground, key questions remain unanswered, and the possibility for even greater violence and civilian harm remains.

No Timeline and Broad Goals

Formally tasked with providing the Haitian National Police (HNP) with “operational support” in combating armed groups and with helping to build HNP capacity, the mission’s ultimate objective is broader and hints at another longer-term intervention. A Concept of Operations document drafted earlier this year states that the mission will continue until there are “credible and effective Haitian authorities with the capacity to maintain security conditions necessary for free and fair elections.”

Haiti’s last election was held in 2016, and there are currently no elected officials at any level of government. The current transitional government has pledged to hold elections and hand over power in early 2026. In this regard, however, little progress has yet been made. The Concept of Operations document also foresees the possibility of the UNSC “adapt[ing] or transform[ing] the MSS into a different type of mission.”

Monica Juma, a security advisor to the Kenyan president who traveled to Haiti with the first contingent of forces, told the press that she believed that the mission would receive support “as long as there is a need for” it but that they did not want the MSS to become a “permanent” presence.

The UNSC provided an initial authorization of one year, with a review set to take place after nine months. It is unclear whether this remains the case given the delays in deployment, but the review may still take place next month. The possibility that the UNSC could opt to not reauthorize the force remains.

Funding remains a concern. The UN basket fund, which is meant to consolidate donations from governments in support of the MSS, remains woefully underfunded, with just $21 million in its coffers. The total cost of the mission is expected to reach $600 million annually.

Last week, the Biden administration overrode a Republican hold on approximately $100 million in additional funding for the MSS, which had been blamed for delaying the mission’s deployment. The Miami Herald reported that the funding would go toward additional equipment.

Lack of Information

There has been very little information shared publicly about the MSS, including with the UNSC, which had requested a number of documents be submitted to the council prior to the mission’s deployment.

At a closed door UNSC meeting last week, US and Kenyan officials did not even disclose the initial deployment date, nor did they provide information on the rules of engagement, concept of operations, or accountability mechanisms, according to two sources with knowledge of the discussion.

Although framed narrowly as a mission to support the Haitian police that will take its cues from the Haitian state, the structure of the force and lack of UN oversight have raised questions about who is ultimately in control. Haitian, US, and Kenyan officials have also offered seemingly contradictory remarks about how the MSS will operate on the ground, adding to the confusion.

“The absence of a leading interlocutor or spokesperson for the mission, whether American, Kenyan or Haitian, reinforces the impression of opacity that has descended over the operation,” the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime commented in a report last week.

It also remains unclear what the MSS’s actual approach to combating armed groups will be, but there is a fear that direct armed confrontation could result in significant civilian casualties. UNICEF recently reported that up to 50 percent of all members of armed groups are children. A group of US-based NGOs (that receive US government funding) warned that the deployment put “children at significant new risks.”

An approach that focuses solely on armed groups and not the wider networks of support among the political and economic elite will, at best, achieve only short-term gains — and even that could come at a tremendous cost.

Failing to Learn From Past Mistakes

In its authorization, the UNSC had called on the MSS to create an “oversight mechanism to prevent human rights violations or abuses, in particular sexual exploitation and abuse.” Local and international human rights organizations have also repeatedly raised this issue as a concern, especially given the long track record of abuses associated with prior interventions and the difficulty of holding actors accountable.

For example, the UN peacekeeping operation that lasted from 2004 to 2017 was responsible for widespread sexual abuse and exploitation, extrajudicial killings, and the introduction of cholera, which killed more than 10,000. Yet, those abuses were perpetrated with near total impunity.

On June 21, the Haitian and Kenyan governments signed a status of forces agreement, outlining the privileges and immunities conferred to the MSS and its personnel. According to the document, which was obtained by HRRW, MSS personnel will receive near blanket immunity in Haiti. (Ayibopost published the full text of the agreement on June 26).

“All MSSM personnel, including locally recruited staff, enjoy immunity from jurisdiction for all acts performed in the exercise of their official functions,” the document states. If Haitian authorities believe that a crime has been committed, they must notify the MSS commander, who will then determine whether it was part of the official duties of personnel. However, even in such a case, “MSSM personnel are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of their participating state regarding any criminal offenses they commit in Haiti,” according to the agreement. The accord would allow civil claims to be heard by a local court but only under certain restrictive conditions.

“There were a lot of promises when this mission was authorized that lessons had been learned, Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer at Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic, said. “But there is nothing here to operationalize what now seem like largely empty promises.” As a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Lindstrom led a decade-long legal fight to hold the UN accountable for its introduction of cholera.

“History shows that when [foreign forces] operate with impunity, there will be horrific harms and grave human rights violations, and there is nothing we have seen that would prevent any of those things,” she told HRRW. In fact, she added, what we see now is an “even more opaque, even more discretionary accountability system.”

Long-Term Political Effects

Ultimately, even with robust safeguards, the root causes of Haiti’s insecurity cannot be addressed by a foreign security intervention — in fact, historically, foreign interventions have served to prevent necessary reforms and have reinforced what is an inherently unsustainable status quo. Without profound political change and a new approach taken by the US and others in the international community, there is little reason to see this latest intervention as different from past failures.

For years, Haitian civil society and grassroots organizations have called for systemic change, for a rupture with the past. The question is whether this foreign force will provide the space for Haitians to achieve the change that they desire or whether it will once again be used by international and elite interests to continue business as usual.

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