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Spotlight Haiti: What are the long-term prospects for climate, peace and security?

Haiti: an escalating crisis…

… There is no state and that’s almost like a Hobbesian world where it’s really the survival of the fittest … and unfortunately the fittest right now are the gangs, (…) It’s really now descending into something that’s like Somalia in the worst of its times, a 90-minute flight from Miami. We’re not there yet. But we’re perilously close.

William O'Neill UN human rights expert 

These are the grim conclusions that UN human rights expert William O'Neill drew about the current situation in Haiti in an interview with The Guardian in April 2024.

The country has suffered from the activities of criminal gangs for decades. However, in late February 2024, a new alliance of these groups joined forces to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Henry, unleashing a new, unprecedented level of violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Since then, gangs have launched coordinated attacks on state institutions and critical infrastructure, including police stations, government buildings, prisons, but also residential neighborhoods, hospitals and schools. It is estimated that about 90 percent of the capital has now been brought under their control. According to UN experts, the firepower of gangs far exceeds that of the police, making state response extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The escalation comes at a time of deep political instability for Haiti. Following the assassination of President Moïse in 2021, an appointed transitional government, led by de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has presided over the affairs of the state. 

Related publication:

Roots for peace: uncovering climate security challenges in Haiti and what to do about them

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However, despite extensive negotiations with opposition members facilitated by CARICOM, the government has been unable to reach a consensus on the path of the political transition  needed and has failed to organise elections. With the most recent elections dating back as early as 2016, Haiti currently has no elected officials remaining in office.

The violence and political instability that has besieged Haiti in recent months has been accompanied by an increasingly worsening humanitarian emergency. According to the UN, in January and February 2024 alone, the total number of people abducted, injured or killed as a result of gang violence had risen by 40%. In March 2024 alone, more than 50,000 people from Haiti’s capital region were internally displaced, contributing to the countrywide total of 360,000 people. Women and children are particularly affected by the situation, with rape being systematically used by gangs to instill fear and subjugate the population. It is assumed that the number of cases of sexual violence has risen by approximately 50% compared to the previous year.  At the same time, children are not only caught in the crossfire but are also charged with carrying out armed attacks.

Climate change is making things worse

On top of these ongoing crises, Haiti is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, as our recent report showed. For example, from 1992 to 2016, Haiti experienced nine drought episodes including one in 2016 which affected 3.6 million people. Haiti's economy is largely agrarian, and these drought events have had a severe impact on crop production and livestock farming. The country is also highly susceptible to extreme weather events. Just recently, in May 2024, a tornado in northwest Haiti has injured at least 50 people, destroyed 200 houses and left more than 300 families homeless, according to the United Nations. When people lose their livelihoods, they are often forced to revert to alternative – often unsustainable – forms of income generation, which can generate conflicts within and between communities. Alternatively, they are forced to leave and migrate to either Port-au-Prince, where historically most of the job opportunities and services have been concentrated -or, as conditions in the capital have been made unbearable by gang violence, seek safety in the neighboring Dominican Republic or the United States.

Drought, floods and other extreme weather events have combined with the violence and insecurity situation to cause skyrocketing rates of food insecurity in the country. At present, about 4.97 million people – 50% of the population is currently facing food insecurity or worseChildren are particularly impacted, with an alarming 19% increase in the number estimated to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2024. The supply of food has been severely disrupted by looting, the control of supply routes by gangs, as well as the closure of the port and the airport (which has since been reopened in mid-May 2024). The UN has also expressed concerns that “hunger is being used as a weapon” by gangs against the local population.

Related podcast episode:
Bringing together diverse stakeholders for an inclusive response to climate and insecurity in Haiti

Podcast 35 - Haiti -  platform thumbnail

Haiti is facing a deep security, political and humanitarian crisis and is simultaneously one of the most vulnerable countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to climate change. In this episode, we bring together the researchers behind the Roots for Peace report to discuss experiences conducting the study, setting up the Haiti Climate Security Working Group and share with the broader research community, the lessons learnt while doing so.

What political solutions are on the table? 

Clearly, this situation is untenable. Haiti needs a political and security solution to its crisis as soon as possible. Slow progress is being made in this sense. In April 2024, Henry was finally forced to resign due to the deteriorating security situation. A transitional presidential council has now been appointed to set up a new interim government to organise the necessary conditions for new elections in 2026. On May 28, after a convoluted selection process, it appointed Garry Conille as prime minister. The council is expecting support from an international police mission under Kenyan leadership, whose deployment was authorised by the UN Security Council in October 2023. Despite criticisms to the project from different sides, an advance team has now been sent to Haiti and preparations are underway for the arrival of the police officers on site. However successful the transitional presidential council and the Kenya-led police mission will be in improving the security, political and humanitarian situation in Haiti, what is clear is that they will not be enough to achieve long-term peace and put Haiti back on track on the path of sustainable development. To this end, a more comprehensive approach is needed, one that focuses not only on restoring national security but also on securing livelihoods by factoring in and addressing environmental and climate challenges. Haiti needs a high-level strategy that puts climate and the environment at the heart of stabilisation, recovery and development efforts; the strategy should lead to locally-led and implemented interventions that focus on climate change adaptation and environmental restoration and protection in a way that also contributes to rebuilding social cohesion and peace. International donors and partners to Haiti have a key role to play on this, to stop looking at the country as a charity case or a pariah state, and start supporting its long-term plans for economic prosperity and security.