Two Decades After Disbanding Its Army, Haiti Recruits for a New One

by The Editors · August 14, 2017.

This report first appeared in World Politics Review, 20 July 2017, and has been republished with their permission. 

Haiti began recruitment this week for a new army, an institution that was disbanded in the mid-1990s under then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The recruitment drive comes as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti is being replaced by a smaller mission focused on rule of law. In an email interview, Geoff Burt, executive director of the Center for Security Governance and editor-in-chief of Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, describes the Haitian army’s troubled history and the challenges to making the new one both effective and apolitical. 

WPR: Why was Haiti’s army disbanded in 1995, and what security threats or other factors are prompting the government to create a new one?

Geoff Burt: Haiti’s armed forces were disbanded for two main reasons: their history of abuse as a tool of repression by Haiti’s ruling elite and their continual interference in Haiti’s political process. The fact that Haiti, a country located on an island with only one neighbor, faces few external threats made that decision easier to make, but the logic behind disbanding the army was based on the harm that it caused domestically. Proponents of reinstatement usually make some version of the following argument: If an army is not needed in Haiti, why were there thousands of soldiers in the armed contingent of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti? The counterargument is that the Haitian National Police (HNP)—one of the better-performing institutions in the country—could be augmented to perform any of the tasks earmarked for the army. From this perspective, reinstating the armed forces is a dangerous and unnecessary distraction from the more important task of rebuilding the HNP. The cynical view is that the armed forces are being reinstated for domestic political purposes. Many in the international human rights community fear that the army will eventually be used in the same way it has been in the past: to repress political opponents and assert control over the country. To avoid this outcome, the key issue is how the new armed forces are governed. If the army can be accountable, apolitical—in particular, delinked from the personal politics of the presidency—and subject to oversight, it could make the kinds of contributions envisaged in the Ministry of Defense’s plans. For instance, it could secure the country’s borders, assist in disaster recovery through military engineering, and provide employment opportunities for Haiti’s youth. The need for governance is what makes initiatives like the Defense White Paper process—which brought together a group of Haitian and international experts to establish a shared vision for Haiti’s defense sector—so important. 

WPR: How successful has security sector reform been in Haiti so far, and what are the obstacles to forming an impartial, apolitical and professional army?

Burt: With the notable exception of the HNP, Haiti’s security sector reform process has had limited success. The HNP has received the most resources and international attention of any institution in Haiti’s security and justice sector. It has grown in size and effectiveness, and its mechanisms of planning, budgeting, oversight and accountability have improved. Other key institutions like the courts and prisons have not demonstrated much improvement in either effectiveness or governance. Haiti’s dysfunctional politics is at the core of this lack of progress in security sector reform more generally, and will be a key challenge in establishing an impartial, apolitical and professional army. Another obstacle is the lack of resources. Haiti’s key bilateral donors and the U.N. have chosen to remain on the sidelines and focus their attention on rebuilding the police force. Without their support, Haiti’s government will struggle to adequately fund the reinstatement process. Building up the capacity of institutions like the Ministry of Defense to plan, budget and maintain discipline over the army requires resources and should not be ignored. A more immediate danger is what could ensue if Haiti’s newly trained soldiers end up not being paid. 

WPR: Given Haiti’s budget constraints, how do donors and voters view the government's decision to invest in a new army?

Burt: Haiti’s scarce resources are one factor that has caused international donors to keep their distance from the new armed forces, but not the only one. The institution’s history of repression and abuse is also a central consideration. The closeness of the present Haitian regime to controversial paramilitary figures like Guy Philippe makes international donors understandably nervous. The key question here is whether it is better to keep one’s distance, or to engage with the process in order to attempt to influence its outcome. Some international institutions like the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Defense Board have chosen engagement, and have supported initiatives like the development of the Defense White Paper. How Haitian voters view reinstatement is a trickier question to answer. The current president, Jovenal Moise, was elected on a pro-army platform, but the vote had serious irregularities and voter turnout was low. There is not a particularly strong political mandate for reinstatement. At the same time, the issue is seen by many in patriotic terms and is popular with certain segments of the population who view the army as a symbol of Haitian sovereignty.