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Jan 27, 2016 | Commentary

For more blog posts and publications on security sector reform in Haiti, you can visit the SSR Resource Centre recently updated SSR Country Snapshot: Haiti.

Elections, instability and violence in Haiti

Following a first round of legislative elections which were ‘marred by flagrant violence and voter intimidation at the polls,’ October’s presidential poll – a key step in choosing a replacement for outgoing president Michel Martelly – fared little better. Widespread allegations of fraud accompanied the release of second-round results, which showed Martelly’s favoured successor in the lead, and led to significant street protests both within and outside the capital, Port-au-Prince. The presidential run-off vote, re-scheduled for January 24, was postponed again after it became clear that opposition parties and much of the population had lost confidence in the impartiality of the Provisional Electoral Council mandated to oversee the process.

Electoral controversy is nothing new for Haitians. Election seasons have, with depressing regularity, been periods of unrest, instability, and violence, and a difficult reminder of the Haitian state’s continuing fragility nearly three decades after it began its transition from authoritarianism. Elections have also provided a periodic – if largely unwelcome – stress test for the Haitian National Police (HNP), which has been widely criticized for its uneven performance (ranging from indifference in the face of electoral shenanigans to excessive use of force against protestors) in managing political unrest in a professional and impartial manner. Alongside ongoing concern about the quality of Haiti’s democracy, therefore, recent events have raised renewed questions about the quality of Haiti’s policing, and about the HNP’s ability to manage the tensions between public service policing and public order provision. Such questions take on particular importance in the context of ongoing discussions around the transformation of international security assistance to Haiti, and the potential drawdown of MINUSTAH, the UN stabilization mission that has since 2004 been the key vehicle for the delivery of such assistance.

The Haitian National Police: Between the state and its citizens

Indeed, after two full decades of international support the balance-sheet on the development of a national police force for Haiti remains both mixed and ambiguous. The official view – as seen in both UN documents and statements from Haitian officials – is one of slow but steady progress, with growing capacity (both in terms of quality and quantity of personnel) and professionalism underpinned by the ongoing implementation of the HNP Development Plan. Despite the turbulent political context, the HNP, in the words of former Prime Minister Evans Paul, continues to evolve in the right direction. Other, non-official, views offer a more critical stance, pointing to continued political interference in HNP operations, episodes of excessive force, and credibility problems vis-à-vis the wider population as evidence that the HNP is not yet ‘up to the task’ of public security provision in the current Haitian context.

Our own analysis suggests that there is merit to both positions, and that beyond questions of basic policing capacity lie unresolved issues around how that capacity is best utilized. In other words, the mixed results of HNP reform point to a situation of post-stabilization and pre-consolidation: while Haiti’s police are now more or less capable of performing basic law enforcement functions, the specific institutional character of policing in Haiti remains fundamentally contested. This ongoing struggle for the soul of the HNP – which revolves around the fundamental question of whether the police serve the state or its citizens – can be seen in the tension between paramilitary and community approaches to policing. On the one hand is the public order imperative, manifest in recent investments in formed, heavily-armed police units (such as the motorized intervention brigade, or BIM) capable of confronting the country’s armed gangs and drug traffickers. Straddling the line between police and military, such units are also increasingly accused of excessive force perpetuated by a ‘shoot first, talk latter’ attitude. On the other hand, and developing in parallel, is the public service imperative, marked by the re-invigoration of community policing within the HNP as well as by ongoing (if uneven) efforts to take gender-based violence seriously as a law enforcement issue. While both tendencies can – and do – co-exist within modern democratic police forces, how the balance between the two will be worked out in Haiti’s case may prove to be a decisive factor in Haiti’s longer-term statebuilding and peacebuilding process. The uneven performance of the police during the elections greatly complicates this challenge.

International security assistance and the future of police reform

As discussions unfold through 2016 about a smaller international security footprint in Haiti, therefore, Haiti’s multilateral and bilateral partners (Canada included), face some hard choices about how to conceptualize – and engage with – the next phase of police reform. First, key tensions continue to persist between advancing ‘Western policing standards’ and fostering national ownership of the reform process. It is not at all clear, for example, how much political will exists among senior police or political leadership in Haiti in support of ‘institutionalizing’ community policing at the heart of Haiti’s police service (as one recent iteration of the HNP Development Plan phrased it), or how firmly outsiders should push this agenda in the absence of domestic support. Second, international discomfort with confronting the political dimensions of policing has led – in Haiti as elsewhere – to a preference for dealing with police reform as a technocratic exercise in capacity-building. Yet given the continued volatility of Haiti’s political environment, and the legacy of the last Aristide presidency – when the politicization of the police led to the near-collapse of the HNP – striking the right balance between appropriate oversight and inappropriate interference continues to present an unresolved challenge facing Haiti’s police reform agenda, even as it presents a political minefield for donors. Finally, given the widely-recognized importance of improved state-society relations to Haiti’s ongoing democratic transition – and the central role of the HNP domestically as the public face of the Haitian state – finding ways to scale up (with the support of Haitian partners) recent experiments in police-community ‘rapprochement’ also represents a crucial longer-term challenge.

Ultimately, then, while Haiti’s latest political crisis underlines the need for appropriate international engagement with Haiti’s stabilization process, on the security side it seems clear that the next generation of international assistance will need to place as much emphasis on the more subtle ‘software’ of police reform as on standard training and hardware. Canada and other international partners should also be careful about being seen to endorse a problematic electoral process, its potentially contested outcome, and the equally complicated performance of the police in that context. Principled multilateral diplomacy will be required to protect – and ultimately consolidate – the achievements of stabilization, police reform and wider development in Haiti at this critical juncture.


Stephen Baranyi, CSG Senior Fellow, is an Associate Professor with the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Timothy Donais, CSG Senior Fellow, is an associate professor in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he teaches in the area of peace and conflict studies, and a CSG Senior Fellow.