Sexual violence ‘largely unpunished’ in Haiti, UN says

The UN human rights office described sexual violence in Haiti as “severely underreported and largely unpunished” in a harrowing report released Thursday that documented cases of rape and forced sexual relations with gang members, as well surging levels of gang violence in the country.

The report, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), also found that more than 1,500 people have been killed by gang violence in Haiti so far this year, set to outpace the 4,451 killings in 2023, as the country slides deeper into chaos and anarchy, with heavily armed gangs battling authorities in the capital city in recent weeks.

“Corruption, impunity, and poor governance, compounded by increasing levels of gang violence, have eroded the rule of law and brought state institutions, which should be the basis of a democratic society, close to collapse,” the report stated.

The violence has caused the internal displacement of approximately 313,900 people as of December 2023, according to the OHCHR.

The gangs also continue to recruit children, who are often used as lookouts for other gang members to carry out kidnappings and robberies, according to testimonies collected by the OHCHR.

“All these practices are outrageous and must stop at once,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

The report comes two weeks after Ariel Henry announced he would resign as Haiti’s prime minister, bowing to the demands of gang leaders who had orchestrated prison breaks and attacked government offices in an attempt to overthrow Henry’s leadership.

Members of a transitional council established in Henry’s place issued their first statement Wednesday saying that they are finalizing a document that would officially form the council. Once the presidential council is formed, the statement said, it will “appoint a prime minister, with whom he will constitute a government of national unity and put Haiti back on the path of democratic legitimacy, stability and dignity.”

In the UN report, researchers found that weapons and ammunition are regularly trafficked through Haiti’s borders – despite an arms embargo. The flow of arms enables the gangs to have superior firepower to the police forces.

“It is shocking that despite the horrific situation on the ground, arms keep still pouring in. I appeal for a more effective implementation of the arms embargo,” Türk said.

The Haitian National Police face a range of other challenges including their officers being severely underpaid and understaffed, resulting in a police-to-population ratio of 1.3 officers per 1,000 citizens, the OHCHR found.

The OHCHR also reported that so-called “self-defense brigades” made up of civilians have been executing individuals accused of petty crime or suspected of association with gangs. At least 528 cases of lynching were reported in 2023, and 59 so far in 2024, mostly in Port-au-Prince, the report stated.

Haiti’s criminal justice system has remained dysfunctional as national anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms are chronically under-resourced, the OHCHR found.

“Widespread corruption and dysfunction of the justice system greatly contribute to the pervasive impunity for grave human rights violations, and they need to be addressed urgently,” said Türk.

“Accountability is paramount to restore public trust in the rule of law and the state institutions,” he added.

Police patrol a street after authorities extended the state of emergency amid gang violence that has forced thousands to flee their homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 8, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Ero/Reuters/File
Police patrol a street after authorities extended the state of emergency amid gang violence that has forced thousands to flee their homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 8, 2024. - Ralph Tedy Ero/Reuters/File

The report found a high level of self-censorship among journalists due to threats or fear of reprisals by gangs. The OHCHR documented four cases of journalists killed in 2023 with no investigations opened regarding the deaths.

The gangs have also caused extensive damage to Haitians’ property. More than 1,880 homes and businesses have been looted or destroyed since January 2023, the OHCHR found. In the Artibonite Valley, Haiti’s breadbasket, gangs have attacked farm properties and also stolen hundreds of livestock.

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