Handling the Aftermath of Haiti’s Presidential Assassination
Handling the Aftermath of Haiti’s Presidential Assassination
A police car filled with civilians and policemen drives up the Jalousie township where men accused of being involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, have been arrested on July 8, 2021 at the Jalousie township in Haiti. Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean 11 minutes

Handling the Aftermath of Haiti’s Presidential Assassination

The killing of President Jovenel Moïse in murky circumstances has plunged the country into political turmoil. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Mariano de Alba explains the state of play and what outside actors should do as they seek to help Haiti achieve stability.

What’s the state of the investigation into President Moïse’s killing?

The circumstances behind President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination remain opaque, and conflicting theories as to the culprits abound. According to Haiti’s National Police, a squad of 28 mercenaries carried out the murder in the early hours of 7 July. The police have already killed three alleged suspects and arrested a further twenty, including eighteen Colombian former soldiers and two Haitian Americans. Five are missing. Authorities in Haiti proceeded to capture Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Florida-based doctor, and accused him of plotting the killing through a security company headquartered in Miami. On 13 July, the police issued arrest warrants – listing charges of “murder and armed robbery” – for former Senator John Joël Joseph, an opponent of Moïse’s Tèt Kale Party, businessman Rodolphe Jaar and Joseph Félix Badio, an official who had worked for the country’s anti-corruption unit and was recently sacked. On 15 July, Haitian police took the head of the president’s security into custody. Authorities have also arrested three other local security officials and prohibited several others from leaving the country. Proceedings against the accused men are still ongoing.

All these actions, however, do not seem to have fully allayed the Haitian public’s mistrust of the official account of what happened on 7 July. Some observers wonder why there is no evidence that the security forces who were supposed to protect the president’s residence resisted the attack, in which only Moïse died while his wife was seriously wounded. Some also find it suspicious that the eighteen Colombians apprehended by Haitian authorities – several of whom claimed, according to family members, to have been hired to protect the president amid a wave of gang violence in Port-au-Prince – were so easily captured in the homes where they had been staying for the previous month, seemingly unprepared for the possibility they would be found.

As the U.S. and the Colombian governments sent law enforcement experts to Port-au-Prince to assist with the Haitian investigation, Colombian media and security officials offered speculation about the possible involvement of interim prime minister Claude Joseph, a version later denied by the head of Colombia’s police. The investigation is proceeding.

What was Moïse’s background and why was his presidency so controversial?

Prior to launching his political career, Jovenel Moïse was a banana exporter who became president of the Chamber of Commerce in Port-de-Paix, a city in north-western Haiti. He developed close ties with the former president, Michel Martelly, who was in power when Moïse appeared to win the first round of voting in the October 2015 presidential election. Turnout in the election was low, with only 1.5 million (of 5.8 million) registered voters going to the polls to choose from a field of 54 candidates – a manifestation of the country’s splintered politics. But although some international monitors, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), found that the first-round outcome was consistent with the voting that they observed, Moïse’s adversaries did not recognise the results, asserting that they were marred by ballot tampering and fraudulent tabulations. The dispute in turn led to violent unrest on the streets and repeated postponements of the second round of voting.

In May 2016, a commission formed by Jocelerme Privert, then interim president, to verify the 2015 results recommended that the election be restaged after finding evidence of “significant fraud”. In November of that year, Moïse won a fresh first round, in which only 1.12 million people, or 18 per cent of registered voters, turned out. He captured more than 50 per cent of the ballot, disposing of the need for a runoff, and assumed office in February 2017.

Haiti was in a bad state when Moïse took over ... by some measures the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere

Haiti was in a bad state when Moïse took over. It was by some measures the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, suffering extreme socio-economic inequality alongside flare-ups of political violence, and with weak institutions and high levels of impunity. It was also still enduring the effects of a devastating 2010 earthquake, estimated to have killed over 200,000 people. But during Moïse’s tenure, Haiti’s troubles went from bad to worse. On his watch, the country saw political and social unrest amid a deep economic crisis, worsening insecurity, corruption, poor handling of the pandemic and resurgent gang violence. Moïse was also implicated in a high-profile scandal. In May 2019, Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors delivered a report to the Senate alleging that the president, among other political figures, was involved in the embezzlement of over $2 billion obtained through a financial agreement whereby Venezuela provided credit financing for Haiti and other countries to purchase crude oil on preferential terms. The profit from selling subsidised oil to private companies was supposed to fund investments in crucial infrastructure projects, but these never came to pass.

President Moïse’s opponents grew in number and strength as he sought to expand his presidential powers, which he did on several fronts. He began ruling by decree in January 2020, after his government decided not to hold parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for the previous October, citing “security concerns”. The decision effectively gutted the parliament. The terms of twenty senators expired, leaving the Senate with just ten elected members and unable to muster a quorum. In the lower house, all the deputies departed when their terms expired. Moïse also asserted control at the local level by handpicking mayors and local councillors in the absence of elections. On top of these moves, in February 2021, Moïse proposed a referendum (months later criticised by U.S. and EU officials) that would remove constitutional safeguards that had been introduced to curtail presidential power after dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was toppled in the 1980s.

Still, Moïse faced further massive protests after parts of the opposition, civil society groups and Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judiciary determined that his five-year term in office had come to an end in early 2021. Moïse argued that he was due a one-year extension until 7 February 2022 given the delay before he took office. His position was backed by the UN Secretariat, the Secretary-General of the OAS and the U.S. government, but it encountered enormous pushback inside Haiti. On 7 February, the opposition tried to instal a parallel government, which led to the arrest of twenty people, including a Supreme Court judge. Moïse deemed the crisis an “attempted coup” and held onto power, despite recurrent mass demonstrations calling for his resignation.

Who is now in charge of the country?

In the wake of Moïse’s assassination, there was little clarity as to the legal order of succession. Claude Joseph, acting prime minister, proclaimed himself interim president and declared that the police were in control of the situation. According to the 1987 constitution, however, if the presidency becomes vacant, the head of the Supreme Court should take over (later revisions to that constitution altered the line of succession but their validity is disputed by critics). Yet after the head of the Supreme Court died of COVID-19 in June, there was no certainty as to who was the country’s most senior judge.

Complicating matters further, days before his death Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry as his new and seventh prime minister. Henry, a neurosurgeon who coordinated Haiti’s response to the cholera epidemic in 2010 and served as interior minister under President Michel Martelly in 2015, had nevertheless not been sworn in. On 7 July, he also declared himself acting president and asked Joseph to move to the post of foreign minister, while voicing his commitment to political dialogue and even joining Joseph’s meeting with a delegation from the U.S. government on 11 July.

On 17 July, the Core Group of states and organisations that has been discussing Haiti’s crisis in New York (comprising Brazil, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, the OAS, Spain, the UN Secretariat and the U.S.), called for formation of a “consensus and inclusive” government, and encouraged Henry to put it together. On 18 July, Joseph said to The Washington Post that he would step down and hand power over to Henry, which he did on 20 July.

What does the security picture look like in Haiti?

Security conditions are grim. There continues to be an immediate risk of escalating political instability and unmanageable street violence, particularly if powerful political figures are ultimately found to have been involved in the 7 July assassination.

Haiti’s violent and powerful gangs ... appear to be growing in strength and influence

But concerns about the country’s security extend far beyond Moïse’s murder and its aftershocks. Haiti’s violent and powerful gangs – often linked to political and business forces – appear to be growing in strength and influence, posing a major threat to overall security and the integrity of any elections. According to a recent UN report, in 2020 kidnappings increased by 200 per cent from the previous year, while murders rose 20 per cent and reported rapes 12 per cent. UNICEF stated in June that in Port-au-Prince “there are an estimated 95 armed gangs that control large territories” making up about one third of the capital, while a 1 July report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicated that gang violence has impeded the distribution of humanitarian assistance, including by forcing the cancellation of a program for distributing cash to more than 30,000 people. On 26 June, the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Martissant area of Port-au-Prince had to suspend operations because it was the target of an armed attack.

The development of effective state and security institutions to address these challenges is likely to remain an elusive goal so long as powerful elected politicians and their backers fund gangs, and the police force and courts remain too weak and compromised to enforce the law. In December 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department said “armed gangs in Haiti [are] bolstered by a judiciary that does not prosecute those responsible for attacks on civilians. These gangs, with the support of some Haitian politicians, repress political dissent in Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods known to participate in anti-government demonstrations”. Human rights abuses committed by the police are further cause for concern.

Will elections happen this year, and should they?

On 8 July, Joseph’s office announced that despite the assassination, elections will be held in September 2021, a date set by the Provisional Electoral Council that Moïse appointed by decree and that lacks broad political backing. Joseph promised talks with opposition leaders and other stakeholders to facilitate the electoral process. It is unclear, however, if Ariel Henry will stick to this plan now that he is in office. Encouragement to follow this course is likely to come from U.S. government officials and the UN special representative, who continue to say they expect Haiti to hold a presidential election in September.

Sceptics strongly question the wisdom of continuing down this path, arguing that the situation in Haiti is simply too insecure to hold credible elections. They also contend that the political establishment sorely lacks the legitimacy required to steer the country through the crises and challenges it is facing, including the growing links between politicians and gangs. To take on this task, some opposition parties and civil society groups have proposed handing the reins to a credible transitional government for a period of two years or more. Under this scenario, the transitional authorities would get started on needed reforms, such as enforcing vetting and accountability mechanisms for the police, creating a body to investigate and help try high-level corruption cases, and giving officers proper equipment. They would also lay the groundwork for elections and handle the most pressing issues affecting Haiti, such as fuel scarcity and the need to mount a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

If the country takes this direction, it will be especially important that the transitional authorities stay within their emergency mandate and respect the integrity of Haiti’s institutions and its political diversity. Once in office, any transitional government, as well as its foreign backers, should also pay close heed to the views of Haitian civil society groups, many of which have been organised since the start of 2021 in a Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis in Haiti.

Are outside actors going to intervene militarily to stabilise Haiti?

Outside actors have made clear their desire to avoid any bold intervention in the country. U.S. officials rebuffed a request for military assistance from Joseph, their scepticism no doubt fuelled by the failure of previous military interventions to bring about lasting improvements in Haiti. The U.S. intervened in 1994 to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency and depose the military junta that had ousted him, only to return ten years later in the midst of a gang-led rebellion to escort Aristide into exile in highly controversial circumstances. On 15 July, President Joe Biden confirmed that “the idea of sending American forces to Haiti is not on the agenda at this moment”.

Nor does the UN Security Council seem likely to step up the UN’s presence in Haiti significantly. In 2017, the UN wound down a major stabilisation mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that it stood up in 2004, soon after Aristide had taken flight, to address the country’s rampant insecurity and massive human rights violations. Relying on a significant Brazilian military contribution, MINUSTAH claimed early success in stabilising gang-affected areas and reforming the police. But the mission was also plagued by allegations that its troops used excessive force, committed sexual abuses and bore responsibility for the cholera epidemic that followed in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. In 2016, the office of the Secretary-General acknowledged the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak.

The Security Council discussed Haiti privately after Moïse’s killing, but there appears to be no consensus on enhancing the mission

MINUSTAH was eventually succeeded in 2019 by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH), a relatively low-key political mission, which focuses on advising and providing limited assistance to local authorities on how to achieve political stability and violence reduction. The Security Council discussed Haiti privately after Moïse’s killing, but there appears to be no consensus on enhancing the mission, including within the Core Group. Some Council members seem drawn to the idea of strengthening the mission’s ability to provide electoral support ahead of the planned September polls, which is part of its mandate – although given its limited capacity, others believe that BINUH would better attain its goals by supporting intensive diplomatic efforts to narrow the gulf between Haitian political and social forces.

Although international wariness about military intervention is well advised, outside assistance will nevertheless be key to helping Haiti overcome its daunting security challenges. Focused assistance to build up the police force is especially needed: experts estimate that the force suffers a deficit of at least 21,000 officers. Work to build up force numbers and territorial presence must be joined up with intensive efforts to mould a more professional, humane and reputable force.

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