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Aug 21, 2013 | Commentary

In October 2011, a leaked plan for the reconstitution of Haiti’s armed forces sparked an outcry from critics who opposed its reinstatement. The country’s army was disbanded in 1995 and its domestic security functions transferred to the country’s newly created civilian police force. There were a number of common themes in these early critiques. First, that the cost of reconstituting the armed forces (then pegged at US$95 million) was unjustifiable, given the other urgent priorities facing the country. Second, that the police were capable of managing the country’s internal security, and in the absence of international threats, the armed forces were unnecessary. Third, that it was reckless to ignore the institution’s history and its potential to be used as a tool of repression. Finally, even those who recognized Haiti’s right to reconstitute its armed forces were alarmed by the draft plan’s timeline, which called for an operational force of 3,500 within three years.

Nearly two years later, there is evidence to suggest that many of these fears were misplaced. In its first full year of operation (2012-2013), the Ministry of Defense spent US$4.15 million. It has requested US$5.5 million in 2013-2014, representing 0.2% of the overall budget. One of the overriding concerns in 2011 was that the creation of the armed forces would siphon resources away from the Haitian National Police. This has not occurred. In fact, the budget for the Ministry of Interior (MICT) grew from US$26.5 million in 2012-2013 to a proposed US$75 million in 2013-2014, including US$33 million for investments in infrastructure.

Recent plans for the development of the armed forces paint a picture of a more civil service-oriented institution capable of making meaningful contributions to the country. The armed forces will be divided into four units, an engineering corps, a medical unit, a border unit and eventually a naval unit. The first unit to be constituted will be the corps of engineers, which has been training in Ecuador for the past year learning “civil engineering, construction techniques, carpentry, masonry, operation and maintenance of heavy machinery.” According to a senior official in the Ministry of Defense, this unit will be installed in the next month, and will be working closely with the Ecuadorian contingent of MINUSTAH in the Artibonite Region.

The question of whether an armed force is necessary to patrol the Haiti-Dominican Republic border is a matter of debate. The model proposed by the Ministry of Defense is to have the police retain responsibility for the four official border crossing points, while the military patrols the roughly 80 clandestine crossing points. Thus the police will control the ordinary flow of people and goods across the border while the military will attempt to halt illegal border crossings.

The question of abuse is another contested point. The proposed structure of the army suggests that this will be a more civil service oriented incarnation. The engineering unit and medical unit have significant potential to assist the public in the event of natural disasters (indeed, when the MINUSTAH mission leaves, this is one of the most important capacities that will leave with it). President Martelly said of the new force: “”What we want to create is a force that will help with development, natural disasters, protecting our borders and supporting in security issues when the police are overwhelmed.”

The timeline question is one that has clearly been addressed. Where critics at the time saw sinister motivations for “rushing” the creation of the armed forces, the reality appears to have been an unrealistically optimistic timeline. According to a senior official in the Ministry of Defense, President Martelly and the Minister of Defense Jean Rodolphe Joazile are now deliberately moving at a slow pace to ensure that the institution is on solid footing.

Questions of Ownership

Among the most interesting questions arising from the army’s reinstatement is why a process that has from the beginning been locally owned and driven has received so little support from Haiti’s traditional SSR donors.

One explanation is that there is a legitimate difference of opinion about whether a “police-only” model can work for Haiti. Donors who believe it can, such as Canada, have preferred to stay on the sidelines, viewing the armed forces as a distraction to the more important task of bolstering the police force.

Haiti’s present government does not share the police-only vision. President Martelly’s campaign platform included a pledge to reconstitute the armed forces. His opponent, Mirlande Manigat, also supported its reinstatement. Moreover, two separate presidential commissions in 2006 and 2008 recommended the reinstatement of the armed forces. That the armed forces should be reinstated is a widely held belief among a section of Haiti’s elite (though research by Robert Muggah suggests that the public remains strongly against it).

The pro-armed forces position holds that the experience of 2000-2004 reveals the problems with the police-only model. Ministry officials are quick to point out that in 2003-2004, when faced with an armed threat, police stations “fell like dominos.” They argue that the police force may be mandated to protect the public, but it is unable to protect itself; consequently one of the important mandates of the armed forces is to protect the police and the state. This is a role, they say, that is currently being played by the over 6,000 UN soldiers currently in the country, and when the UN leaves, a Haitian armed force capable of protecting the country must replace it. This is a view that appears to be shared by two of the largest troop-contributing countries to MINUSTAH, Brazil and Ecuador, both of which have supported the development of the Haitian armed forces.

Another explanation for the lack of interest from Haiti’s traditional donors is that these donors are not used to Haitians articulating their own strategic priorities. One ministry official told a story of a meeting where donors debating the merits of the merits of the armed forces and were taken aback when he exclaimed: “This is my country and I will not allow foreigners to think for me.” The traditional donor community seems torn between a sincere conceptual attachment to the importance of ownership and a legitimate belief that the government is making a mistake in reinstating the army.

It is a fascinating case for SSR researchers. The process of reinstatement is being led by Haitians and supported by non-traditional SSR donors, Brazil and Ecuador. If its early successes continue, it can only underline the importance of local ownership, even if local and international priorities clash.


Geoff Burt is the Vice President of Security Governance Group.