In Haiti, the once fragmented gangs of Port-au-Prince have forged an alliance. Under the leadership of a former police officer, Jimmy Cherizier, nicknamed ‘Barbecue’, the gangs have unleashed terrifying levels of kidnapping, murder and even massacres across the country. Human rights organisations report coordination between the gangs and senior government and security officials. And the violence is not always indiscriminate. At times, it is clearly directed at those who oppose the government. It appears the state is coordinating with the gangs, who are becoming a quasi-militia, utilised to subdue protest and resistance to an increasingly authoritarian regime.[i]
The Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, recently reported with alarm the dramatic increase in human rights violations.[ii]
A lesser reported factor is the enforced recruitment of children and young people who are coerced to carry out atrocities. Courageous human rights defenders in Haiti have shared with the Defend Haiti’s Democracy Campaign (DHD) evidence of that recruitment – and the terrible implications for the vulnerable children and young people involved.
The human rights defenders[iii] told us: “We have been helping a group of children and young people, who were trafficked into armed gangs, to try to gain their release. We were made aware of 14 cases of children and young people, aged 17 to 23, who come from high-risk areas of Haiti, where families are living in extreme poverty and where human rights violations are common. They were kidnapped by gangs and then forced by their traffickers to take part in criminal activities. They were told that if they refused, their families would be harmed.
“Although we were successful in protecting some of the young people, two were killed. One refused to participate in crime and was murdered by gang members. The other did participate in gang activities and, while involved in kidnap for ransom, was killed by the local community. Four other young people are missing to this day”.
Whilst the gangs are clearly involved in horrific crime, it would appear that at least some members are unwilling participants, who have been kidnapped and coerced into criminal activity.
As UNICEF says, “Children become part of an armed force or group for various reasons. Some are abducted, threatened, coerced or manipulated by armed actors. Others are driven by poverty, compelled to generate income for their families. Still others associate themselves for survival or to protect their communities. No matter their involvement, the recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.”[iv]
There is an urgent need for the Haitian authorities to address gang violence and, in particular, to put in place measures to protect children and young people from being recruited into armed groups. They are victims in need of protection.
As Virginia Gamba, Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, states, these children are “boys and girls with stolen childhoods and shattered dreams, and there are families and communities torn apart by violence and suffering.” These children and their communities “hope for peace, a better life and a better future. We must rise to meet that expectation. We can do this by engaging all parties to ensure a better protection for conflict affected children, by pleading for their immediate release and by assisting them in their reinsertion back to normal life.”
In Haiti, this can only become a reality if there is an end to violence and human rights abuses and a restoration of democracy and the rule of law.
[i] For more information see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/haiti-moise-coronavirus-barbecue/2020/08/14/2554fce4-cf4d-11ea-8c55-61e7fa5e82ab_story.html ; https://www.miamiherald.com/article230380739.html ; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-haiti-violence-feature/haitian-slums-descend-into-anarchy-as-crisis-sparks-worst-violence-in-years-idUSKBN1YE2RX ; https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1208 [ii] https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/01/1082462 [iii] The human rights defenders are anonymous to protect them from harm [iv] https://www.unicef.org/protection/children-recruited-by-armed-forces