From the moment Haiti announced in November that its army would be reinstated, there has been pushback from certain parties. Some of that apprehension is understandable, some not.
But it is important to note that for the past 22 years, Haiti has been a nation without an army and that for 14 of those years, until October 2017, it was a country that forfeited a key component of its sovereignty to the United Nations by allowing a U.N. peacekeeping force to perform the functions of an army.
The origins of Haiti’s military disbandment lie with our complex and, at times, troubled history with the armed forces. Between 1986 and 1994, Haiti was subjected to several coups at the hands of the military, and some members within its ranks committed indefensible human-rights abuses and criminal acts. It became an intolerable situation. But Haiti’s military history extends well beyond those eight years — in fact, the army delivered our national freedom from the French and it has been, for the better part of our history, a revered body.
These painful lessons taught us not to repeat the same mistakes, and it’s important to recognize that past experiences do not preclude our country from exercising certain basic sovereign rights that are in our national interest. After all, Haiti is far from being the only country with a checkered military history, including multiple coups, yet those other countries have remained entrusted with armies.
Haiti’s stability and respect for the rule of law has come a long, long way in recent decades. Haiti has been transformed into one of the safest countries in the Caribbean through the joint efforts of the Haiti National Police, which today is one of the most highly rated police institutions in all of the Americas, and the U.N. peacekeeping force. The peacekeepers’ recent exit, however, left a void that the national police could not fill.
The army is needed to secure Haiti’s maritime and land borders and to lead response efforts in the face of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. There also are army medical teams and a corps of engineers being dispatched to support communities. That same corps of engineers is trained in disaster readiness — to repair roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure following storms.
Many arguments support the decision to reinstate the army, including the fact that all presidential candidates who stood in the 2016 election advocated for it, indicating clear national consensus on the subject, regardless of political leanings — a rarity. But perhaps the most fundamental argument is this: Haiti must have control of its borders — to prevent illegal migration and the import of contraband, as well as to keep our country protected, as countries all over the world expect and are expected to do.
Perhaps it is hard to imagine what creating an army from scratch after more than two decades would entail. Recruiting the right top brass and ensuring that the new, young army is led by highly experienced people with hands not sullied by the past was no easy feat, but these criteria were non-negotiable.
All candidates went through extensive vetting that included investigations — led by a skilled third party — examining possible past human-rights violations, illicit trafficking or other wrongdoing. As a result, many highly experienced individuals were disqualified. For others, the vetting — with the tools, technologies and impartiality — resulted in unequivocal exoneration from decades-old allegations of wrongdoing.
Part of truly moving forward as a country requires accurately placed accountability. We will allow the facts, and only the facts, to determine who is innocent and who is guilty of past crimes. Those who are guilty will not taint our new army.
While the military is still popular among more than 80 percent of the population, according to recent international and state polling, there is work to be done to demonstrate that the army will indeed shake off its toxic past. The new army will put safeguards in place to prevent abuses of power. It will have an inspector general. There also will be human-rights and gender-equity divisions. Additionally, the Haitian government requested technical assistance from the Inter-American Defense Board, a Washington-based body dedicated to helping countries reform their defense and security systems, which produced a series of recommendations that are being followed.
Haiti’s new army is composed of hundreds of young officers already at work on infrastructure projects, delivering medical services and monitoring our borders. They will continue to prove wrong those who doubt their intentions.
You have not seen this movie before.
Hervé Denis is Haiti’s minister of defense.