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Over 1,500 killed in Haiti this year as gangs recruit children, violate human rights, UN says


The number of Haitians killed by criminal gangs in the first three months of this year have skyrocketed, and armed gang violence remains the main driver of human-rights abuses in the volatile Caribbean country, a new United Nations human rights report said Thursday.

More than 1,500 Haitians have died at the hands of armed gangs, who continue to mount a deadly siege on Haiti’s capital. The alarming violence is exacerbating an already dire human rights situation, especially on children, according to the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.

Children are getting caught in the crossfire and being killed during violent attacks, and are also increasingly used by gangs as lookouts for kidnappings or to carry out armed attacks.

“The situation of the violence on children is particularly worrying,” the report said.

Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said dealing with Haiti’s ongoing security issues “must be a top priority to protect the population and prevent further human suffering.” He is scheduled to present the report on Tuesday in Geneva.

The continued use of sexual violence by gangs to brutalize, terrorize and control the population, the attacks on neighborhoods and the recruitment and abuse of children who are unable to leave gangs’ ranks for fear of retaliation, “are outrageous and must stop at once.”

The report covers the period between Sept. 25, 2023, and Feb. 29, the first day of the current siege. Through a series of deadly, coordinated attacks, a united front of armed gang leaders have targeted police stations, the main seaport and airports in Port-au-Prince, and orchestrated the release of thousands of inmates from the country’s two largest prisons. They’ve also set fire to schools, hospitals and pharmacies while expanding the violence into wealthy neighborhoods.

“Schools, hospitals, key government institutions, everything now is at risk,” William O’Neill, the U.N.’s designated independent expert on human rights, said from New York. “Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area is essentially an open air prison. There’s no way out — air, land or sea. In fact, it’s not even so open air anymore because people are afraid to leave their houses.”

O’Neill said the reality today in Haiti is not only “frightening,” but the human rights situation is “apocalyptic” and “catastrophic.” It’s worse, he said, then in the early 1990s, when while working for the first U.N. mission, he was tasked with documenting executions, disappearances and “a total crackdown on the media and civil society” following the military overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“I’ve talked to Haitians who remember the Duvalier dictatorship, both father and son, Francois and Jean-Claude. They say it’s much worse than under Duvalier. That really is saying something,” O’Neill said.

The new wave of violence has brought with it some worrying development, O’Neill said. They include the increasing recruitment of children, the attacks on government institutions — twice now, armed groups have tried to overtake the National Palace, and on Wednesday evening they set fire to an elite academic institution— and the targeting of human rights defenders and journalists.

“This is extremely alarming. The gangs have turned their violence towards people that for whatever reasons they see as a threat to their continued control of the territories they control,” he said.

Meanwhile, people are being forced to flee. The number of internally displaced persons, he said, have gone from 50,000 when he visited in October, shortly after being named, to 200,000 the following month to at least 362,000 today. The surge and increased vulnerability that comes with being homeless means that women and girls, especially, are increasingly at risk. It also risks an even greater humanitarian disaster as Haitians not only struggle to find healthcare but food: Hundreds of cargo containers at the seaport remain under gang control and the international and domestic airports in Port-au-Prince have been closed for four weeks.

“The key overriding issue is security. It’s got to be established to some minimal level. It is now almost non-existent in almost all of the capital and the surrounding area… [and[ also in the Lower Artibonite Valley, which is the breadbasket,” O’Neill said.

Gang violence in the rural region just north of the capital, has prevented the functioning of at least 10 hospitals and clinics, forced the closure of schools and is increasingly responsible for growing poverty.

“Gangs in the Artibonite department have attacked farm properties and also stolen hundreds of livestock belonging to residents, assets which often represent farmers’ life savings,” the report said. “Furthermore, along the northern coast of the Arcahaie and Léogâne communes, the Village de Dieu gang continues to use motorboats to … attack, loot, and steal from residents, local businesses, and humanitarian actors.

“To pay the ransoms demanded by gangs for the liberation of kidnapped family members, many have been forced to sell their homes and take out loans,” the report added. “Others have lost all their possessions and savings as they fled imminent gang attacks.”

Both O’Neill and Türk on Thursday reiterated the need for the urgent deployment of a U.N.-backed Multinational Security Support mission, with the former going a step further: O’Neill, who is American, said he wishes “the Republicans in my own country would stop playing games in Congress and release the money that the U.S. has pledged.”

Republicans have raised skepticism about the deployment of the mission that is supposed to be led by Kenya, while foreign nations that recently pledged funding have also yet to send it to a U.N. Trust fund, which only has $10.8 million. Kenya, which has put the mission on hold, has said the cost needs to be incurred by others.

“When I was there in the fall, I would talk to people from the slum areas, the areas that are controlled by the gangs that are living through this every day,” O’Neill said. “Almost every single one of them had three questions for me: One, where are the Kenyans? They use Kenyans for the shorthand for the force. Two, why is it taking so long — that was in November — and three, who was on the sanctions list.”

O’Neill called on the U.N. Security Council to get individuals financing the violence and with ties to the gangs on the sanctions list it approved for Haiti. He also called for much more vigorous enforcement of the arms embargo the council also authorized to help stop the flow of weapons and ammunition.

While the report said the Multinational Security Support mission is needed to help the Haiti National Police protect the public and restore the rule of law in the country, it also underscored the need for any mission to take into account the highly complicated dynamics of gang violence in Haiti where many of the members are primarily young men and children.

“A particular focus should be placed on children involved in gangs-related criminality as well as women victims of sexual violence, in accordance with international human rights law and standards. Victims should also be supported to access justice and to file complaints,” the report said.

The report underscores that while the current wave of violence is alarming, it had been building for months. In August, the once peaceful neighborhood of Carrefour Feuilles, for example, came under attack and entire families were burned alive in their homes. Others were forced to flee.

In addition to being responsible for more than 4,400 deaths last year, gang violence also has resulted in the looting and destruction of more than 1,880 homes and businesses since January 2023, U.N. investigators said.

“Corruption, impunity and poor governance, compounded by increasing levels of gang violence, have eroded the rule of law and brought State institutions… close to collapse,” the report said. “The impact of generalized insecurity on the population is dire and deteriorating… and the population is severely deprived of enjoying its human rights.”

The report notes that while gang violence has intensified, so have efforts by self-defense brigades among the population to protect themselves by taking justice into their own hands. At least 528 cases of lynching were reported last year and already stand at 59 this year.


© 2024 Miami Herald

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