On November 18, the 217th anniversary of the Battle of Vertières where Haitians delivered a fatal blow to Napoleon’s troops during their struggle for independence, thousands took to the streets across the country to protest rising insecurity and government inaction. Anti-government actions took place in Cap-Haitien, Gonaïves, l’Estère, Saint-Marc, Delmas, Tabarre, Port-au-Prince,Cayes, Jérémie, Mirebalais, and Jacmel among other locations, according to Fondasyon Je Klere (FJKL), a rights organization. “The problem of insecurity therefore affects the entire national territory,” FJKL noted. “The demands of the Haitian people against power are gaining ground.”
The national day of action came just days after president Jovenel Moise appointed a new chief of the Haitian National Police (PNH), Leon Charles. Most recently Haiti’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Charles previously served as police chief under the interim government that replaced Jean-Bertrand Aristide following his 2004 ouster.
With the president ruling by decree and consolidating power, Charles’ appointment has raised new concerns about human rights and political violence in Haiti. If last week’s protests provided an early test, the new chief appears to have failed.
The police response to the November 18 protests “demonstrated a blatant lack of professionalism,” FJKL wrote. Street demonstrations were dispersed with tear gas, and, in some cases, with live ammunition. On the Champ de Mars, a young man was shot in the head. Eight others were admitted to area hospitals with bullet wounds. Nearby, a police vehicle rammed into a group of individuals sending at least two to the hospital with serious injuries — one eventually died due to the injuries sustained.
Video of the police vehicle hitting the protestors has been widely shared on social media and sparked outrage from civil society and human right groups. Lyonel Trouillot, a prominent Haitian author, published an op-ed criticizing the authoritarian use of the National Police by successive governments. He also noted the lack of interest from civil society groups in the international community. “It is shameful that a national call is not sent to international civil societies in the face of such acts […] for them to hold their representatives who might want to lend their support to a murderous regime, accountable,” he wrote.
The result of the day was conclusive, according to FJKL, the rights organization. “The PNH no longer considers the right to demonstrate as a democratic right.” Rather, FJKL continued, the police have become politicized and “[do] not act as a professional body responsible for ensuring the exercise of democratic rights.”
FJKL called on Charles, the new police chief, to immediately conduct an investigation into who is responsible for the abuses and to hold those actors accountable. “What the Haitian people expect from the new Director General of the PNH is the mobilization of the police to fight against gangs, kidnappers, insecurity … The police should in no way interfere with the exercise of the democratic rights of the population. Its priority is to protect them.” Taking a differing approach, the following day Charles released a statement commending the professionalism of the police in their response to the day of protests.
A New Chief Confronts Old Problems and His Own Legacy
In its most recent report on the human rights situation in Haiti, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) documented the alarmingly high level of insecurity that is particularly affecting poor neighborhoods in and around Port-au-Prince. Between March and August, there have been 701 reported killings and 161 kidnappings, according to the UN Secretary-General. The current government’s relative silence in the face of such abuses and its failure to address spiralling violence continues to spark outrage and lead to more public demonstrations. In turn, peaceful protestors have become targets of the oppressive and growingly aggressive nature of the Haitian National Police.
The rise in reported kidnapping and acts of violence is punctuated by an increase in police involvement; IJDH notes that ΅local human rights organizations investigating the rise in violence have documented the involvement of police officers and state officials in numerous attacks against marginalized communities and raised credible concerns that gang violence is being deployed as a tool of political repression.” It went on to state that threats to the judiciary system, corruption, and a lack of accountability also seem to be increasing.
Inheriting a fragmented National Police, Léon Charles will have to deal with “Fantom 509,” a group of police officers who have expressed dissatisfaction with their employers and have demanded better pay and working conditions. Yet they have also been known to cause panic in the country’s capital through at-times violent protests and destruction of government property.
“We’re in a situation where there are a lot of problems inside the police and in a context like this, it’s not easy for a director general of the police to give results,” Gédéon Jean, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights Analysis told the Miami Herald. “If things do not change, it’s not Léon Charles who is going to come make a difference.”
Indeed, Charles has his own history as police chief to contend with as well. Working with UN troops after the 2004 coup, the Haitian police were involved in a widespread, iron-fisted, and politically-motivated crackdown in Haiti’s capital that left thousands dead. As police chief, Charles also oversaw the reincorporation of former members of the military into the force despite questions over human rights vetting. Further, a human rights report from the University of Miami found that Charles “routinely [gave] orders to stop political demonstrations, and the police [did not] hesitate to perform for him.”
As the Herald notes, diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks revealed that foreign officials privately questioned Charles’ ability to adequately confront the insecurity at the time. “Charles was unwilling or unable to discipline or arrest officers that everybody knows are corrupt and colluding with the kidnappers,” one June 2005 cable noted. He was removed from his post one month later.
This time, Charles replaced Normil Rameau — widely seen as backed by the US and other donors, who continue to provide the local force with funding and training. Given that level of support, it is unlikely that Moise would have moved forward with Charles’ appointment without the support of the donor community, especially the US. Since Trump took office, the US has nearly quadrupled its support to Haiti’s police — from $2.8 million in 2016 to more than $12.4 million last year. This fall, the US reallocated an additional $8 million in assistance for fiscal year 2021, likely pushing the figure even higher.
On November 17, the State Department responded to a bicameral Congressional letter led by Representative Wilson (D-FL) and Senator Markey (D-MA) that expressed concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in Haiti. “Our Embassy continues to regularly raise concerns about insecurity and human rights abuses with the Haitian government,” State noted, while adding that continued financial assistance “supports the Haitian National Police’s efforts to maintain order, arrest perpetrators of human rights abuses… and strengthen accountability within the police force.”