The White House is lowering expectations that President Joe Biden’s visit to Canada on Thursday will produce a breakthrough in its diplomatic effort to galvanize military assistance for Haiti, after months of debate over a U.S. proposal for a multilateral force to help Haiti’s national police in its ongoing battle with gangs.
John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, told reporters Wednesday that Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be sure to discuss Haiti “from a security and humanitarian perspective.”
But Kirby questioned whether “there’s a need” for a “rapid action force,” which the administration began pushing for in October of last year, when a powerful armed gang coalition seized control of Haiti’s main fuel terminal, cut off critical roadways and deepened a humanitarian crisis that included a deadly cholera outbreak.
A senior administration official, previewing the overnight visit and acknowledging that parts of the Haitian capital are difficult to get to due to escalating gang violence and kidnappings, said deploying any sort of international security presence to Haiti is only part of a way to deal with the country’s challenges. The administration remains committed to promoting political dialogue in the country where there remain no elected leaders following the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the end of the mandates of the last 10 remaining parliamentarians in January.
Also, like Canada, the United States is supporting the Haiti National Police “as a long-term effort to ensure that Haitian institutions can address the challenges of Haiti, and then finding ways to be able to deploy humanitarian and development assistance.”
What the U.S. has been doing with Canada, the official said, is methodically looking at what is needed on the ground as well as how many other countries would potentially participate in any outside force to assist the beleaguered police force. There is also a question of whether such a deployment should be a bilateral agreement with Haiti, as the U.S. and the United Nations secretary-general proposed last year, or whether it should be another U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Consideration also needs to be given to what kind of support such outside intervention would get in Haiti, “because it is something that is going to require the support of the population,” the official said.
“We need to derive lessons from the past ...maybe areas that we could improve upon,” said the official. “These are issues that take a lot of time. They are not fast... We are trying to do this with a sense of urgency given the crisis and I know the two leaders are going to discuss the way forward.”
The U.N. said this week that it has already counted at least 531 deaths in gang-related violence since the beginning of the year. In February, the country also saw the highest number of reported kidnappings since it began tracking abductions in 2005, with 259. Most of the violence is in the metropolitan Port-au-Prince area, and rural towns in the Artibonite Valley, just north of the capital.
McClatchy and the Miami Herald first reported earlier this month that the Biden administration would press Trudeau to make a decision on whether or not Ottawa would lead a multilateral force — a presumption that Washington has made ever since it proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution in the fall that would support the force.
Last week, during public appearances in Canada, Trudeau cast doubt about Canada leading such a force, saying that past military interventions in Haiti have not worked. The country, which also had two Navy vessels patrolling off the Haitian coast, also announced this week that their mission was done.
On Wednesday, Kirby also seemed to raise questions about whether the sense of urgency will lead to any changes in both the United States and Canada’s responses.
“I think they will continue to talk about ways we can continue to support, from a humanitarian assistance perspective, the people of Haiti and Haitian national security forces. And as for a multinational force, or anything like that, I don’t want to get ahead of the conversation here. But as we’ve said before, if there’s a need for that, if there’s a place for that, that’s all going to have to be worked out directly with the Haitian government and with the U.N.,” Kirby said.
Both the Haitian government and the U.N. secretary-general had called for the rapid establishment of a multilateral force in the fall, before the United States proposed its resolution at the Security Council. The U.S. draft resolution has not been formally put to a vote.
Following a fact-finding visit to Haiti last week, a U.N. delegation expressed alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Haiti and the violence by kidnapping gangs.
“The degradation of the humanitarian needs in Haiti is unprecedented,” said Sara Bordas Eddy, chief of the humanitarian field support section of UNICEF. “The suffering of a Haitian child today is not comparable to the suffering of a Haitian child a few years ago.”
Tareq Talahma, the acting director of the operations and advocacy division of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said “more than just humanitarian assistance, what the people of Haiti need is peace, security and protection.”