Intervening in Haiti, Again

Without a credible and locally owned political road map, another intervention will do little to strengthen Haiti.

By , a professor and the associate dean for research and policy engagement at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He is the author of Sovereignty Sharing in Fragile States.
A girl holds up a sign that reads "Let Haitians Decide Their Own Future"
A girl holds up a sign that reads "Let Haitians Decide Their Own Future"
Members of the Haitian diaspora as well as faith and human rights leaders protest outside the White House to demand the Biden administration stop supporting Haiti's government on Oct. 9 in Washington. Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Beyond Borders

Haiti is again embroiled in crisis. Gangs are fighting for territory in large swaths of the capital, Port-au-Prince, outgunning the hobbled Haitian police. Kidnappings and killings have spiked. Many refugees have fled only to be sent back unceremoniously by the United States. The probe into the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has stalled, while an unelected government led by acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry clings to power with no elections in sight.

The turmoil has prompted calls for foreign intervention. On Oct. 7, Henry’s administration requested the deployment of an international “specialized armed force” to quell the unrest. In a country with a long history of foreign intrusion, that request sparked large protests and a Haitian Senate resolution urging delay. Nevertheless, the United States and Mexico now seek U.N. Security Council authorization for a “non-U.N. mission” led by an unnamed “partner country” to help restore order. Past experience suggests how fraught that exercise is likely to be.

Haiti has long been a prototypical “fragile state,” lacking a government that can deliver adequate services and build public trust. The United States and United Nations have intervened on several occasions to help enforce law and order as well as strengthen Haitian institutions. Yet Haiti remains trapped in the same vortex, with dysfunctional domestic politics that are both the cause and the product of repeated international interventions.

Haiti is again embroiled in crisis. Gangs are fighting for territory in large swaths of the capital, Port-au-Prince, outgunning the hobbled Haitian police. Kidnappings and killings have spiked. Many refugees have fled only to be sent back unceremoniously by the United States. The probe into the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has stalled, while an unelected government led by acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry clings to power with no elections in sight.

The turmoil has prompted calls for foreign intervention. On Oct. 7, Henry’s administration requested the deployment of an international “specialized armed force” to quell the unrest. In a country with a long history of foreign intrusion, that request sparked large protests and a Haitian Senate resolution urging delay. Nevertheless, the United States and Mexico now seek U.N. Security Council authorization for a “non-U.N. mission” led by an unnamed “partner country” to help restore order. Past experience suggests how fraught that exercise is likely to be.


Haiti has long been a prototypical “fragile state,” lacking a government that can deliver adequate services and build public trust. The United States and United Nations have intervened on several occasions to help enforce law and order as well as strengthen Haitian institutions. Yet Haiti remains trapped in the same vortex, with dysfunctional domestic politics that are both the cause and the product of repeated international interventions.

In 1994, a U.S.-led intervention restored elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power three years after a military coup. U.S. and U.N. personnel helped maintain order while training the new Haitian National Police force. However, the police soon succumbed to corruption and factional rivalries linked to Haiti’s “predatory” politics, through which political elites have long used violence to secure power and extract the wealth that comes with it.

By 2004, when U.S. forces ushered Aristide out of power amid a new crisis, the Haitian police had largely imploded. An interim president blessed a U.N. military intervention, and then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote undiplomatically that Haiti was clearly “unable to sort itself out, and the effect of leaving it alone would be continued or worsening chaos.”

That led to a 13-year peacekeeping mission—formally called the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah for short. Minustah had some important salutary effects, including helping to restore order at key junctures and helping to rebuild the Haitian National Police. Many Haitians resented the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, however, seeing them as a force sent to advance U.S. and other foreign interests in Haitian politics. U.N. forces soon came under criticism for taking sides in partisan domestic feuds and for using excessive force, particularly while supporting President René Préval’s anti-gang campaign, branded “disarm or die.”

After the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, U.S. forces returned briefly, as the Haitian National Police splintered again. In requesting assistance, Préval explained to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “I need you to be Haiti for Haiti, because right now we can’t do it.” U.S. forces provided limited but crucial services, such as securing the airport for aid deliveries, and returned home quickly.

Minustah remained but soon wore out its welcome. The spread of cholera by Nepali peacekeepers, a U.N. cover-up, and unaddressed sexual abuse by U.N. personnel eroded public support for the mission. U.S. support for Préval’s successor, the increasingly authoritarian Michel Martelly, also led to renewed allegations that Minustah was a lever for foreign influence. Many Haitians celebrated the mission’s exit in 2017.


Five years later, Haiti is back to the drawing board. Security has deteriorated since peacekeepers left, particularly since Moïse’s assassination, with a sharp rise in violence and no real progress toward a resolution of the country’s political impasse. The question is whether another round of armed international intervention would help.

As U.S. and Mexican officials press for an emergency force, there is no ideal candidate to lead the charge. Minustah left a bitter aftertaste, and new U.N. peacekeepers would face public ire, especially when invited by interim Haitian leaders with deeply contested authority. Sending regular military units to address domestic law enforcement issues is also problematic in a country that has long suffered from repressive armed forces.

U.N. police would also carry the baggage of past interventions. U.N.-formed police units—groups of roughly 140 officers dispatched from their home countries—are equipped to provide the crowd control and anti-gang functions that Haiti needs. However, international police typically have struggled in Haiti due to language barriers, public suspicion, and resistance from Haitian rank-and-file officers unwilling to share the badge. Recruiting effective units would be challenging. France earlier indicated its willingness to furnish police under U.N. auspices, but as a former colonial power, its officers may not receive a warm welcome.

The Biden administration has rightly been wary of committing U.S. forces given the United States’ history in Haiti and the danger of mission creep. The last time a Haitian president was assassinated, in 1915, U.S. troops intervened to stem mob violence and stayed to occupy the country for nearly two decades. This bred lasting resentment and helps explain why many Haitians associate foreign troops with a long history of racialized exploitation. U.S. backing for Haitian autocrats during the Cold War only added to local suspicion and disenchantment.

U.S. forces have played more positive roles in the recent past, helping to stem unrest in the 1990s and after the 2010 earthquake. In both instances, however, U.S. forces arrived with the blessing of an elected Haitian leader and withdrew relatively quickly as U.N. missions took up the mantle. In this case, U.S. personnel would be accepting the invitation of Henry, an unelected leader regarded by many Haitians as the U.S. government’s “man in Haiti.”

Moreover, another brief intervention is unlikely to produce lasting stability. An entree by a U.S., Canadian, or other national force is apt to lead to a longer multilateral peace operation. Haitians have little appetite for that, and same goes for the United Nations.


Haiti faces acute hardships and needs international assistance. Without a credible and locally owned political road map, however, another intervention will do little to strengthen Haiti’s sovereign institutions. At best, a rapid reaction force will provide a Band-Aid, not a lasting remedy. At worst, a new intervention would deepen domestic divisions in Haiti, as has so often occurred in the past, and could even inflict further abuses on a vulnerable population.

The only sustainable way to fill Haiti’s sovereignty gap is through domestic development. That requires supporting domestically rooted political processes. The most promising at present is the Montana Accord, devised by Haitian civil society leaders to guide a transition toward new national elections. An updated version of this plan could provide the necessary political foundation for an international security mission.

Without such a road map, many Haitians would see a foreign force as yet another international effort to buttress an illegitimate but compliant government in Port-au-Prince. By contrast, a force linked to an agreed road map is more likely to be welcomed and earn the public cooperation it will need to succeed.

The United States and its partners should use the prospect of security assistance to push the Haitian government to engage earnestly with opposition groups and civil society leaders on a transitional framework and path to elections. With a credible plan in place, international forces can provide much-needed stopgap security functions. Until that point, even an intervention with the best of intentions may do more harm than good.

John D. Ciorciari is a professor and the associate dean for research and policy engagement at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He is the author of Sovereignty Sharing in Fragile States.

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