PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Amid continuing gang warfare and a vacuum of law and order, Haiti is “on the verge of an abyss” said the UN human rights chief Volker Türk on Thursday, warning that any hope of a sustainable recovery requires “urgent and sustained action” to tackle the root causes of the overlapping crises afflicting the island nation.
The High Commissioner said the Haitian Government also needed to provide a firm commitment to accountability, and the rule of law, after decades of “systematic corruption and rampant impunity”, which have led up to the country’s current paralysis.
He warned Haiti has descended into the worst human rights and humanitarian situation in decades. Urgent solutions to this “protracted, multifaceted crisis” must be found, he stressed.
“People are being killed by firearms, they are dying because they do not have access to safe drinking water, food, healthcare, women are being gang raped with impunity. The levels of insecurity and the dire humanitarian situation have been devastating for the people of Haiti,” Türk said.
For the last two months, heavily armed gangs have been blockading access to the country’s main fuel terminal and seaports, severely hampering access to drinking water, food and medicine.
Food insecurity is on the rise, with a record 4.7 million – nearly half of the population – facing acute hunger. Poor sanitation and lack of safe water supplies have led to a so far uncontrolled cholera outbreak.
To date, 2,600 suspected cases of cholera have been reported, half of them children, and claimed dozens of lives.
Gang violence continues to expand across the capital and in other regions of the country.
In just over a week in mid-October, more than 71 people were killed, a dozen women were raped, and hundreds of residents were forced to flee their homes, as a result of turf wars between rival gangs in Croix-des-Bouquets, one of the main communes of the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, according to the Human Rights Service of the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH).
“Kidnappings and sexual violence by gang members are being used as weapons to inflict severe pain and instil fear among the population,” the High Commissioner said.
“There is a desperate need to tackle the root causes of inequality and violence, including that have crippled the country’s development for decades.”
The latest Security Council resolution 2653 (2022) passed last month, establishing a sanctions regime targeting individuals and entities engaging in or supporting criminal activity and violence – together with a targeted arms embargo – is an important step, said Türk.
Violent response to protests
Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating since late August to protest against Government policies, the rising cost of living and the increasing insecurity, noted the UN rights office, OHCHR, adding that according to information received, at least 54 people were killed during protests, most of which allegedly because of disproportionate use of force by police officers.
Political violence has also been documented with the killing of prominent political leaders and journalists.
“Police must respect the principles of precaution, necessity and proportionality at all times when using force,” said Türk. “Prompt, thorough and effective investigations need to be established and those responsible for unnecessary or disproportionate use of force must be held accountable.”
Suspend forced returns: UNHCR’s Grandi
In the light of the crisis, the UN refugee agency on Thursday, called on States in the region and beyond, to suspend the forced return of Haitians to their country.
Given the current situation, “I appeal to all States to stand in solidarity with Haiti and urge them not to return Haitians to a country that is extremely fragile,” said High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.
Haitian women, children and men who are outside the country and returned to Haiti may face life-threatening security and health risks, and further displacement inside the country.
The forced removal of people to a place where they may face risk of persecution, torture or other serious or irreparable harm would amount to “refoulement”, which is explicitly prohibited under international refugee and human rights law, UNHCR said.
International law also prohibits collective expulsions and arbitrary detention associated with it.
ECOSOC advisory group ‘deeply concerned’
The Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti, which meets under the umbrella of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) also issued a statement calling on the international community to urgently support the country’s efforts to provide lifesaving aid to those in need.
“We are alarmed that the continuing blockade by armed gangs of roads, ports, and the main oil terminal, will lead to many preventable deaths because of lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation, basic health care and food”, said the group of 21 concerned nations.
“Pregnant women and their newborns are significantly at risk. Most poor households, already made vulnerable by inflation and low-paying jobs, continue to suffer disproportionately. Alarmingly, hunger has reached a catastrophic level in the capital’s Cité Soleil neighbourhood.”
The Group said it welcomed efforts by the government, with support from the UN as well as other international, national, and local civil society, “to address the humanitarian needs of the population and mount an effective cholera response based on the national authorities’ experience and expertise.”
Members called for more solidarity with the Haitian people and support for the humanitarian and cholera response in Haiti, including by contributing to the 2022 Haiti Humanitarian Response Plan which has only received 36 percent of its $373.2 million requirements.