HomeTop StoriesTop UN expert warns of deteriorating situation in Haiti: 'It is apocalyptic'

Top UN expert warns of deteriorating situation in Haiti: ‘It is apocalyptic’

The UN’s top expert on human rights in Haiti has warned that the Caribbean country is fast becoming “like Somalia at its worst” after a criminal insurgency that has displaced tens of thousands of people and largely cut off the capital from the world.

Just over a month after the gangs’ uprising began, William O’Neill – an American human rights lawyer who has traveled to Haiti for more than three decades – expressed alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation in Port-au-Prince.

The international airport has been closed since early March due to the violence, foreigners are being evacuated by helicopter and heavily armed gang fighters continue to sow chaos, launching almost daily attacks on schools, universities, hospitals, banks, companies and the political heart of the world. the Haitian capital. The national library was looted on Wednesday.

Related: ‘It’s a siege, it’s a war’: Haiti’s gangs tighten their violent grip in deadly uprising

“I know someone who lost half her family [former dictator] François Duvalier’s execution crews and she said she has never seen it this bad. Uncles, cousins, brothers murdered – and she said it’s never been this bad,” O’Neill said from Geneva.

“Honestly, I’m running out of words right now… it’s apocalyptic, it’s like the end of times,” added the UN independent expert, who helped build the hungry Haitian police force now fighting to turn the tide. the mid-1990s. “[There’s] a level of intensity and brutality in the violence that is simply unprecedented in my experience in Haiti.”

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More than 1,500 people were killed in the first three months of 2024, compared with 4,451 in the entire last year, the UN said last week.

O’Neill is no stranger to challenging security situations, having worked in hotspots such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia, Nepal and South Sudan. But he expressed shock at the near-complete disappearance of Haitian authorities following the gangs’ mutiny, which began on February 29 and forced the Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, to announce his resignation from abroad. Haiti held its last elections in 2016 and has been without a president since 2021, when Jovenel Moïse was murdered in his home in Port-au-Prince. Haiti currently has no elected officials.

“Here I think the difference is that the state is virtually absent… There is no state and that is almost like a Hobbesian world where it is really the ‘survival of the fittest’… and unfortunately the fittest are out right now the gangs,” O’Neill said. , who thought it was just a minor miracle to help Haiti’s armed police prevent a total takeover.

Until now, most of the violence has been confined to Port-au-Prince, with up to 90% of it now estimated to be in the hands of Haiti’s powerful, politically connected gangs. According to the UN, more than 53,000 people have fled the capital in recent weeks.

However, O’Neill feared the unrest could soon sweep other parts of the country, leading to a mass exodus of refugees to the US and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. “If it all just gets completely out of hand and it spreads from Port-au-Prince into the countryside… [you’ll have] many people get on boats. You’re going to see it [them] … take whatever risk you have to get out of there.”

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O’Neill believed this nightmarish scenario lasted for “weeks.” [away] at worst, months at best.” “It’s now really descending into something akin to Somalia at its worst: a 90-minute flight from Miami. We’re not there yet. But we are dangerously close.”

Related: ‘It’s an impossible mission’: Fears are growing in Kenya over the plan to send police to Haiti

Despite his bleak prognosis, O’Neill believed the situation could be turned around. He hoped that a Kenyan-led multinational “security support mission” of up to 4,000 police and troops would be deployed and succeed in recapturing and securing key parts of the infrastructure such as the airport, port and fuel terminal.

The upcoming US elections made it unlikely that the Biden administration would send troops. But the UN expert believed Washington could seriously disrupt the gangs by cracking down on the smuggling of US-made weapons from Florida to Haitian ports.

“I’m amazed that you can’t get food or medicine into Haiti, but guns and bullets are still coming in… I can’t believe my government can’t inspect the boats leaving the Miami River and take out every gun. and bullets because Haiti doesn’t produce guns or bullets,” O’Neill said, adding, “If the gangs don’t have their guns or bullets, they lose all their power.”

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Gangs’ propaganda videos posted on social media in recent weeks offer a chilling glimpse of their firepower and draw comparisons to Mexico’s belligerent drug cartels.

Observers continue to debate the precise motives underlying the mafia uprising, which is being portrayed by a gang spokesman in the spotlight as a popular revolution against Haiti’s corrupt elites.

Related: Guns trafficked from the US are fueling gang violence in Haiti

O’Neill surmised that the uprising was not about seizing power, but rather about deterring the deployment of foreign security forces and intimidating politicians involved in a transitional council created to choose new leaders and restore order. to recover. He said Haiti’s near-total lack of government was essential to the gangs’ lucrative illegal activities, including kidnapping, arms trafficking, drug trafficking and extortion.

“I can’t read their minds, but it seems like they are targeting people or institutions that could be involved in a change – a transition from this catastrophe to something else… They are not interested in changing Haitian society or in good government or something,” O’Neill said of the gangs.

“I don’t think they want to take over… This is not like the Maoists in Nepal [Colombia’s] Farc. There is no ideology here to take over the state and run things. I think they want to maintain a very weak, ineffective and largely absent state so they can fill the void and maintain control.”

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