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Weekly Report - 08 July 2021 (WR-21-27)

Moïse assassination plunges Haiti into fresh turmoil

In the early hours of 7 July unknown assailants broke into the private residence of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse and shot him dead in an attack which left his wife seriously wounded. Moïse was deeply unpopular, having faced mass protests throughout much of his mandate, which began in February 2017. His assassination, however, has shocked Haiti and the international community alike. There is uncertainty over who will take charge, as well as the fate of the 26 September presidential and legislative elections which the international community had heralded as a way out of the country’s political and constitutional crisis. A descent into violence and political instability is a very real threat.

Interim prime minister and foreign minister Claude Joseph announced President Moïse’s assassination on 7 July, promptly declaring a 15-day state of siege, with Haiti’s borders and the country’s main airport Toussaint Louverture also closed. Joseph said the security situation in the country was under the control of the national police (PNd’H) and the armed forces (FAd’H). Hours later PNd’H chief Léon Charles announced that four of the suspected assailants had been killed and two others arrested, following a gun battle with police. Few details were provided. Joseph described the attackers as “foreigners who spoke English and Spanish”. Haiti’s ambassador to the US, Bocchit Edmond, told a news conference that the killing was carried out by “well-trained professionals, killers, commandos”, who had falsely identified themselves as agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

It is unclear who orchestrated the assassination, but Moïse had no shortage of enemies. His unpopularity stemmed initially from alleged corruption and spiralling inflation, but more recently insecurity and perceived authoritarianism. Moïse had ruled by decree since January 2020 after legislators’ terms lapsed and October 2019 elections failed to materialise. He also faced major questions about his legitimacy, amid claims by the opposition and legal experts that his term ended in February, and his insistence on pushing forward with a contentious referendum on a new constitution, to replace the 1987 carta magna drawn up after the fall of the Duvalier dynastic dictatorship (1957-1986). Moïse favoured empowering the executive branch, and was critical of the constraints imposed on it, even though these were built into the constitution to try and preclude the return of an authoritarian regime; he also earned the enmity of senators by advocating that a new constitution disband the senate and create a unicameral legislature.

With Haiti’s legislature inoperative and judiciary barely functioning, it leaves a power vacuum at the top of the executive. Joseph has taken control both of the domestic situation and dealing with the international community. He met the Core Group, which comprises the Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union, and the US, among other foreign representatives. In a statement released following the meeting, he declared himself as the head of the government. He also held a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in which he pledged to hold elections.

But there are doubts over Joseph’s legitimacy. Two days prior to his death, Moïse had named Ariel Henry, a cabinet minister under Moïse’s predecessor Michel Martelly (2011-2016), as his seventh prime minister since taking office. Joseph had held the post on an interim basis since April when Joseph Jouthe quit over the ongoing security and political crises [WR-21-16]. While Henry had not been sworn in at the time of Moïse’s death, he has already indicated his unwillingness to relinquish his new post. In an interview with the national daily Le Nouvelliste, he was clear that he had been named prime minister by Moïse; that Joseph was holding the post on an interim basis; and that, as far as he was concerned, Joseph was no longer prime minister.

The 1987 constitution itself offers little guidance as to who should take over. A 2012 amendment to Article 149 states that if the presidency is left vacant, the executive power is assumed by the council of ministers, presided over by the prime minister until another president is elected. However, if the vacancy occurs from the fourth year of a presidential term, parliament (which is currently inoperative) should elect a provisional president to see out the mandate.

Yet experts have pointed out that the constitution was changed in French but not Creole (also an official language), raising questions over which is valid. The original version stipulates that if the executive is left vacant, the supreme court president should step in. But Haiti’s supreme court president René Sylvestre died on 23 June after testing positive for coronavirus (Covid-19) and has not been replaced. The 1987 constitution adds that in the absence of the supreme court president, the vice president or in his/her absence the judge with the highest seniority should be invested. However, the court itself has been mired in crisis, a situation exacerbated by Moïse’s retirement in February of three top judges, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, Yvickel Dabrésil, and Wendelle Coq Thelot, who reportedly appeared on a list of possible choices to head up a transition government. At the time, Moïse’s move was slammed as illegal by judges’ associations and criticised by the OAS and the US [WR-21-07].

Existing uncertainty

Beyond the immediate questions of who will take over, Moïse’s assassination comes as the country was already facing significant uncertainty. The decision to name Henry as his new prime minister was in line with recommendations by the five-member OAS mission which visited Port-au-Prince last month to facilitate a dialogue that would “lead to free and fair” elections [WR-21-24], as a way out of the political and constitutional crisis. The date of 26 September was set for presidential and legislative elections, along with the controversial referendum on a new constitution.

In its report presented on 30 June, the OAS mission, which met various political and civic leaders, recommended three goals that it believes can “contribute to a way forward”, the first of which was the “prompt appointment of a prime minister and cabinet that will have the confidence of the people, no later than mid July”. Yet it is worth pointing out that Henry’s appointment failed to impress key opposition groups like Secteur Démocratique et Populaire, Organisation du Peuple en Lute (OPL), and Pitit Dessalines, which maintain that Moïse’s term had expired and therefore the appointment was unconstitutional. Further casting doubt on its legality, the appointment lacks ratification by the legislature (a constitutional requirement) which again is not possible.

A second goal named by the OAS was the need to replace the electoral authorities (CEP) responsible for staging the elections. The CEP remains deeply discredited after the supreme court opted not to swear in its new members in September 2020 due to its representation and mandate, which included organising the controversial referendum. In a letter co-signed to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 29 June a group of US legislators also echoed these concerns warning that while general elections “are the only way out of the impasse…as of today, the conditions for free and fair elections clearly do not exist” but a “good step towards restoring credibility of elections is reconstituting the [CEP]”.

Security crisis

The final goal cited by the OAS mission as necessary for a “way forward” was the need for “urgent steps to re-establish a climate of security”. Moïse’s assassination looks like the ultimate manifestation of the security crisis facing the country, with kidnappings surging and high-profile crimes, such as the murder in August 2020 of a prominent lawyer, professor and head of the Port-au-Prince bar association, Monferrier Dorval [WR-20-35], going unpunished.

  • Kidnappings

According to a 12 June report of the UN Secretary General there was a 36% increase in the number of kidnappings in Haiti in the first four months of 2021, with 171 abductions reported, compared with 110 in the last four months of 2020. The number of intentional homicides increased by 17%, with 525 cases reported from January to April, compared with 436 in the last four months of 2020. Of note, police officers were increasingly targeted by gangs in reprisals, resulting in 18 officers being killed and 35 wounded.

Human rights groups have also accused his Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK) government of being complicit. Most recently, in April 2021, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH), a local organisation, claimed that three massacres which took place between 2018-2020, in which at least 240 civilians were killed, were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity. Last year two human rights groups, Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) and La Fondasyon Je Klere (FJKL), accused the government of collusion with criminal gangs active in neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince where there is strong anti-government sentiment. A March 2019 report by the UN Secretary General claims that five armed gangs carried out attacks in La Saline, a Port-au-Prince neighbour, with the alleged complicity of the state.

Indicative of the deteriorating situation, on 1 July the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that between 22 and 29 June, confrontations between rival gangs in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area continued unabated. It warned “an unprecedented situation is currently unfolding in the metropolitan neighbourhoods of Martissant, Bas-Delmas, Cité Soleil and Croix-des-Bouquets”. With the government having set up a task force to manage the population displacement situation, the OCHA notes that over the span of four weeks, 14,700 people have been displaced amid the current surge in violence, more than 80% of the 18,100 total displacements triggered by the ongoing crisis. As of 1 July, 1.5m people from the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area and the Sud Department have been affected by the crisis.

International reaction

It was against this backdrop that Moïse was assassinated. The last assassination of a Haitian president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, in 1915 led to an invasion by the US, which did not leave until 1934. The baleful history of foreign intervention in Haiti, often justified as a means of averting a civil war, is long, and the installation of provisional governments, tasked with restoring law and order, has been unpopular. The US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, deflected a question on 7 July on US intervention in the country and whether there was “any appetite for a return”, saying that “Haiti is a partner, and that is how we will treat this relationship”.

The UN Security Council is due to hold an emergency meeting to address the situation in Haiti as we go to press. Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary General, condemned Moïse’s assassination in the “strongest terms” and called for the perpetrators of the crime to be brought to justice.

Terrorist attack

In what the government described as a “terrorist attack”, on 29 June armed individuals fired on at least 20 people in Port-au-Prince, killing 19 and wounding the other. The government said it was carried out by Fantômes 509, an association of current and former PNd’H members previously described by government officials as a “terrorist group”. Those killed include radio journalist Diego Charles and political activist and radio broadcaster Marie Antoinette Duclair.