U.N. Security Council concerned about COVID-19 in Haiti; once again calls for elections

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The head of the United Nations office in Haiti took her controversial call for constitutional reform in the country before the international community Friday, telling the U.N. Security Council it is increasingly evident it “is required to break the cycle and create the characteristics for the country to thrive.”

“Haiti has for too long resorted to expedient agreements to address political problems, to the detriment of the principles that undergird its Constitution,” Helen La Lime said.

But with the exception of Haiti, Germany and France, which left the question up to Haitians “if that is the path” they choose, most members’ concerns were focused elsewhere: Haiti’s lack of an electoral calendar, the ongoing political crisis, the proliferation of armed gangs and guns, persistent human rights violations, lack of government accountability, the prolonged detention of prisoners and the impact of COVID-19, which all agreed is threatening to aggravate an already dire situation.

On Friday, the government announced that Fritz Gerard Cerisier, an assistant to the government prosecutor, was assassinated in Port-au-Prince.

“This is a time for action, not for talk,” U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said while raising concerns about the Haitian government’s failure to provide the Haiti National Police with a proper budget and to fully follow through on its March 27 decision to release pretrial detainees accused of minor crimes, as well as medically vulnerable prisoners nearing completion of their sentences.

Craft, who steered clear of the constitutional reform issue, said the U.S. found President Jovenel Moïse’s May 18 speech stressing his commitment to hold elections to be a positive step.

“We encourage the Haitian government and all political actors to reach a political accord to find a way forward, most importantly for the best interest of the Haitian people,” she said.

While others also called on Haiti’s warring political class to do the same, the likelihood remains dim. Even in her remarks, La Lime acknowledged that after a relatively calm political climate, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in Haiti following the 18 months of mobilization against Moïse, the landscape had once more evolved into public acrimony. A growing number of opposition figures are today contesting the length of Moïse’s presidential term and calling for a transitional administration to take over.

“The vicious cycle of mistrust, recrimination, and ultimately violence is once again starting to define the dynamics of Haitian politics, at a time when the entire society should be unified in its response to the pandemic, and striving to lay more virtuous and lasting foundations on which to build its future,” La Lime said.

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In its latest report to the Security Council ahead of Friday’s virtual meeting, La Lime’s U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti highlighted some of the ongoing challenges and lack of progress in Haiti, where police recruitment has been put on hold because of a lack of a budget and 470 cases of human rights abuses and violations have been documented by the office between Jan. 1 and May 31. In 93 of the cases, the Haiti National Police are believed to be responsible, the report said.

Still, the report paints Moïse in a much more favorable light, as it indirectly blames the opposition for the breakdown in talks to reach a political consensus earlier this year, which led to Moïse appointing his own prime minister. Despite the mission having to rely on virtual platforms to communicate with the government due to the pandemic, the presidency, it said, “remains actively engaged in advancing work that can be accomplished in the current context.”

“In seven speeches to the nation, the President called for national unity and urged the population to follow directives issued by the Ministry of Public Health and Population,” the report said. “He cautioned against the stigmatization of infected persons and promised to address the crisis efficiently and transparently while also responding to socioeconomic urgencies.”

Among issues that failed to make the report were a strike by judges over the recently published budget and ongoing criticism by human rights activists and local mayors over the centralization of the response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

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Some of those concerns, however, were raised by the president of the Haitian Bar Federation, Jacques Letang. He told the council that impunity and insecurity reigned in Haiti, where “the state is less and less in control of the territory,” a judgment in the La Saline massacre is blocked at the supreme court, and “massive human rights violations are on the rise.”

“The public services are virtually failing. The most basic rights are not guaranteed, while the depreciation of the gourdes and the hurricane season directly jeopardize the lives of millions of Haitians who are already food insecure,” Letang said, speaking from Port-au-Prince. “The rapid spread of the virus is particularly worrying in prisons, where conditions continue to deteriorate. The contingency and debottlenecking plans announced by the authorities have so far not been implemented.”

On the issue of the constitution, Letang said, given the institutional vacuum that exists in Haiti, where there is no Parliament and local mayors will have their mandates come to an end in July, “How can one support a contested government in carrying out a constitutional reform?”

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With the exception of the U.S., which noted it had donated $16 million toward Haiti’s COVID-19 response, the other council members joined U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in his call for more financial, political and technical support to Haiti.

Of a $253 million humanitarian appeal issued by the United Nations on behalf of the country, only $29.9 million has been received “as of the 8th of June,” José Singer, Special Envoy of the Dominican Republic to the U.N. Security Council, told his colleagues during the virtual meeting.

On Friday, Haiti reported 4,916 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 84 deaths. While the Dominican Republic has registered 25,068 cases and 647 deaths, it has tested far more people, more than 117,000, in comparison to Haiti’s 9,800, according to both countries’ ministries of health statistics.

“We are confronted with a situation where we are already faced with a number of challenges for the country and to these challenges now is added COVID-19,” said Germany’s U.N. Ambassador, Christopher Heusgen. “Haiti cannot cope with this by itself; it needs international support.”

Estonia’s representative said it was distressful that developments in the political process have been marginal.

“During the reporting period the number of human rights violations and abuses have increased,” said Ambassador Sven Jürgenson of Estonia. “Efforts to combat impunity are required. No progress has been made on any cases ... including La Saline or Bel-Air; 75 percent of the detainees are still waiting for their trial due to length and complicated proceedings.”

Jürgenson then brought up the issue that has been frustrating the country’s local mayors as the central government struggles with credibility problems in trying to convince Haitians to take the pandemic seriously.

“Estonia is concerned about the impact of the coronavirus in Haiti, where the humanitarian situation is already serious,” he said. “We welcome measures taken by the government of Haiti to combat the pandemic. ... However, more action has to be taken and a coordinated national response to the pandemic is needed.”