This piece was originally published on Just Security
Four years after United Nations peacekeepers left Haiti amid a legacy of human rights abuses, foreign security forces are preparing to return once again. This month, the U.N. Security Council took the momentous step of authorizing a multinational force for Haiti, led by Kenya. The new force will aim to respond to a staggering human rights crisis, as violent gangs have taken control of large swaths of society, exploiting a governance vacuum exacerbated by the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But the fraught record of the last U.N. mission in Haiti must now inform how – and to whom – the new mission will be accountable. The authorizing resolution provides a promising start. As the Security Council and contributing countries determine next steps, they must ensure that robust accountability mechanisms enable Haitian victims to seek justice for any abuses linked to the new force.
A Fraught Context
The conditions in Haiti are ripe for the mission to become complicit in abuse. The force is being deployed at the request of, and subject to an agreement with, an unelected Haitian government that has persistently dismantled accountability systems for a decade. The mission is tasked with supporting the police in combatting gangs that are brutalizing the population amid a complete breakdown in the rule of law.
Leading Haitian human rights groups have long documented State complicity in gang violence, including widespread police participation in gangs and the use of police equipment to carry out massacres. Human rights due diligence is critical to ensure that the mission is empowering police who are fighting crime – not joining it.
Human rights concerns loom against the backdrop of repeated violations from the prior peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH. That mission stretched on for more than a decade, from June 2004 until October 2017, and a smaller “justice support” force then took over until 2019. The impact of those U.N. missions continues to haunt Haitians’ collective memory. While carrying out anti-gang raids, MINUSTAH used excessive force, in one instance unleashing 22,000 bullets, 78 grenades, and five mortars that killed more than 20 women and children in their homes. MINUSTAH’s soldiers were also implicated in numerous sexual exploitation and abuse scandals, and have left behind countless children whose single mothers have no access to child support. Notoriously, the mission flouted basic sanitation protocol at a peacekeeping base, causing a devastating cholera epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 people and counting. Cholera is now resurging as the current crisis imperils access to lifesaving hydration and medical care.
U.N. peacekeeping forces like MINUSTAH have well-settled legal obligations to remedy victims of U.N. harms. The Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the U.N. grants it immunity from suit, but requires the organization to compensate civilians for injuries out of court. The status of forces agreement that the U.N. signs with host countries designates independent claims commissions to determine U.N. responsibility in such cases. But in practice, the claims commissions have never been established, leaving the U.N. to decide claims in secret behind closed doors. The accountability vacuum that follows has often left victims without justice, contributed to Haitians’ loss of faith in foreign intervention, and hurt the U.N.’s credibility beyond Haiti’s borders.
A New Security Force
The Security Council seems acutely aware of this history, as the resolution authorizing the new Multinational Security Support Mission (MSS) emphasizes responsible use of force, prevention and accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse, and the adoption of proper wastewater and environmental management – an important measure given that U.N. audits show that for years following its introduction of cholera to Haiti, the organization continued to place local populations at risk by mismanaging waste across missions globally.
To promote accountability, the resolution calls on the participating countries to establish “a robust compliance mechanism to prevent, investigate, address and publicly report violations or abuses of human rights related to the [mission].” It also requires the MSS to establish an “oversight mechanism to prevent human rights abuses,” including sexual exploitation and abuse.
But if the past is a guide, the effectiveness of these mechanisms will depend on what comes next. To be meaningful, they must deliver accountability to the Haitian people by addressing violations in a victim-centered, rights-based manner.
First, the compliance mechanism must be open to victims to report abuses and file claims. To ensure accessibility, the mission should disseminate information about the mechanism in Haitian Creole, using methods such as radio and phone messages that account for illiteracy, disability, and geographic marginalization. Second, investigations and assessments of responsibility must be conducted according to transparent, pre-established procedures, to avoid the kind of opaque and cursory dismissals that have raised questions in prior U.N. missions. Third, the mechanism should appoint independent experts to assess claims of abuse, as the U.N. did for the Human Rights Advisory Panel in Kosovo and other situation-specific panels. This will protect the mechanism’s impartiality and independence.
Finally, the mechanism must be legally and financially empowered to award remedies to victims of abuses. Past experience in both Haiti and Kosovo – where some of the largest U.N. claims have arisen – shows that governments are unlikely to finance remedies voluntarily after the fact. To overcome political inertia and ensure that victims have timely access to justice, the U.N. could authorize the MSS trust fund to cover compensation and other remedial measures as ordered by the mechanism, while requiring that contributing countries bear ultimate responsibility to reimburse for liabilities incurred by their nationals.
Operating Outside the U.N.’s Peacekeeping Guardrails
A robust claims process is especially critical in light of the unusual structure and context of the new mission. While authorized under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which establishes the Security Council’s role in maintaining international peace and security, the Kenya-led force is not a U.N. peacekeeping force. The Secretary-General requested this structure based on his view that “the current context in Haiti is not conducive to peacekeeping,” requiring instead “a range of coercive law enforcement measures, including active use of force.”
This means that the MSS will operate outside of the guardrails of the U.N.’s peacekeeping framework, which limits the use of force, calls for human rights due diligence, and clearly establishes responsibility for harms. Even where formal U.N. accountability frameworks failed to deliver justice for victims, the U.N.’s human rights mandate and presence of U.N. officials willing to hold the institution to its highest principles created opportunities for public advocacy. In the absence of those protections and mandates, advocates and victims must now find ways to enforce Haitians’ rights eight time zones away in Nairobi.
Moreover, human rights observers have expressed deep concern that the new mission will be led by Kenya, whose police force is notorious for violent crackdowns. In August, Amnesty International issued a letter citing the abuses as grounds for strong accountability mechanisms as Kenyan forces head to Haiti. These were echoed recently by a member of Kenya’s own Human Rights Commission. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, promised that “[t]he U.S. will engage on these issues very, very aggressively. We have learned from mistakes of the past.”
The deployment of the mission is likely still months away, and not a certainty, as a Kenyan court weighs a constitutional challenge to the decision to lead the mission. This provides a critical opportunity to iron out the mission’s details. Compared to the task of restoring security to Haiti, designing strong accountability mechanisms is readily achievable. Doing so is also core to fulfilling the mission’s mandate. Security and stability cannot come without the rule of law. By definition, the rule of law demands that no one – including this mission – is above the law.