Wednesday brought news of potentially great consequence from Haiti, the Caribbean island nation hit hard by a 2010 earthquake as the impoverished nation has officially restored its military forces following a more than twenty year absence. The Haitian military was disbanded in 1995 following decades of its interference in politics through various coups d’état, as well as numerous human rights abuses. In the intervening time, a Haitian National Police and Coast Guard performed some military duties, but most of Haiti’s defense was the responsibility of United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.
The Haiti Sentinel reported yesterday that President Jovenal Moise officiated at a graduation ceremony of more than two hundred soldiers and fifteen officers, marking the official return of the Haitian military. Moise was quoted by Loop as stating on Twitter that “The remobilization of the Haitian Armed Forces is more than a campaign promise. It is a constitutional requirement and a historical necessity.” Defense Minister Enold Joseph stated in the Haiti Sentinel that “The new Armed Forces will support the population and spread the development of the country.” According to Dr. Joseph, the purpose of the reconstituted armed forces is to provide border protection along the country’s eastern boundary with the Dominican Republic as well as disaster relief.
Additionally, Haiti Libre reported that twenty percent of the new force was made up of women, with President Moise being quoted in that source as stating women, “represent the face of a new army in complete change,” and that the goal eventually would be to have the armed forces be fifty percent women. However, a report from March of 2018 by the Center for Economic Policy and Research found that the high command of the new armed forces is entirely composed of officers from the former Haitian Armed Forces, many of whom were previously convicted of war crimes committed during the country’s military coup regime of the early 1990’s. Mario Joseph of the Office of International Lawyers called it “a return to the barbarism of the past, and an endangering of the memory of a tragic period in Haitian history.”
There are both positive and negative implications to this development. Haiti deserves praise for attempting to take charge of its own recovery and defense, as this is one of the fundamental rights of nations and peoples, a tradition beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia and extending into the modern era of nation states. However, the retention of old regime officers within the new military’s high command is a cause for concern; with war criminals at the helm, the corruption and human rights violations of the old regime may return, unless significant checks are put in place to prevent this. Such steps could and should include civilian oversight and training of officers in human rights law and the laws of war, so as to discourage participation in war crimes. Transparency and significant contributions to the welfare of the country, through civil aid projects on the part of the new military will also do well to renew national and international trust in the military and the nation it defends.
Given the recent military history of Haiti, this task is sure to be arduous for the reconstituted force. Until 1995, the military was a feared part of Haitian life, being responsible for dozens of coups against the government. The ousting of democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide proved to be the final straw, with the American-led Operation Uphold Democracy ousting the government ushered in by the coup and reinstating a democratic leadership, which abolished the military in 1995. The responsibility of protecting the country fell to the United Nations.
However, according to the New York Times, the UN’s handling of the situation was flawed, with reports of peacekeepers engaging in rape, and also accidentally causing a cholera outbreak. According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, by 2012, this led to deep resentment from large numbers of Haitians, some of whom rallied under former military officers and began training as an unofficial army. One prospective soldier quoted by the Avalanche-Journal stated that he “wanted to see a return to order in [his] country,” which would be free of the problems created by UN peacekeepers. Finally, in 2017, Vice News reported that a new army was officially being training under the Moise presidency.
With the training of the new army complete, the future of the Haitian nation must be looked forward to with cautious optimism. Haiti is taking charge of its own defense and disaster relief, which is a step in the right direction in terms of development, but to truly move on from the past, it must do so with transparency, with human rights and dignity taking utmost prescience.