BINUH ‘not here forever’ it says as Haiti looks for a path to elections


Mass protests. Deadly explosion of gang warfare. An overburdened judiciary and a barren legislative branch where some representatives remain in the vacant seats of former colleagues.

For many years, these were the conditions of life in Haiti. And for a long time, the missing point in this dark picture was the elections – the long-delayed vote that leaders repeatedly promised could replace the government and finally restore the world’s first Black republic on a fully democratic path.

“Before the end of this year, we will put the country in electoral mode,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry told the country on Monday, though stopped short of setting a date.

Henry, who previously postponed a planned general election amid criticism of the then electoral council, also felt compelled to defend the delay. “To all the rumors circulating that I intend to retain power, I say that is not true,” he added.

The election is long overdue. The last time Haitians elected their own political representatives was in 2016. Parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019 were never held under then-president Jovenel Moise, nor were general elections after then.

The Caribbean nation was ruled by decree for three years, first under Moise until his shocking assassination last year, and now under Henry, his appointed successor.

On either side of the men is the United Nations Joint Office in Haiti. Known as BINUH, this political mission will mark its third anniversary of operations this October – but faces increasing challenges as time goes on to hold a vote.

Helen Meagher La Lime, the head of BINUH and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Haiti, told CNN that her focus is to help Henry’s government reach a consensus among opposition and civil society leaders to start organizing elections. The process began last year after Moise’s assassination and has proven very slow so far.

“We have a lot to do going into the election, we need to establish this consensus to have an electoral council. They need to do some work on the Constitution, changes or rewriting of the Constitution needs to take place. And then the elections have to go well,” La Lime said last month, in his first interview since the UN Security Council’s renewal of BINUH’s one-year mandate.

Much of Haiti’s opposition has said they do not trust Henry to hold elections, instead calling for a transitional government to take over running the country first. Some also view La Lime and other outsiders with skepticism, in a country where imperialism, occupation and even intervention have a long and brutal history.

“Henry should not be allowed to use his support from the international community to continue to concentrate all power under his exclusive – and failed – leadership,” wrote Jacques Ted St Dic, a member of the coalition group of Montana advocates for a transitional government, in an op-ed published last week by Just Security.

“Without legitimacy and public confidence in the electoral process, any elections held will be called into question and new leaders will lack popular support to enact the necessary reforms. This is the cycle that locked Haiti in paralysis for a dozen years,” he also wrote.

La Lime declined to discuss the possibility of a transitional government, telling CNN, “Those are the ideas that Haitians need to discuss, and a consensus that Haitians have reached.”

Instead, he praised the simple power of shared lunches, provided by BINUH at a local hotel, for bringing political voices together in Haiti. On the basis of such talks, he predicted that the country could possibly reach elections in 2023 – and even suggested that BINUH itself might not be needed after that.

“Let’s finish the next elections to see what level of stability we have at that point. And then BINUH will think of leaving,” said La Lime. “We’re not here forever.”

The current backdrop of violent unrest in the capital city of Port-au-Prince makes organizing elections difficult to imagine, even for those most desirous of change.

Brutal gang battles in parts of Port-au-Prince this summer have ignited entire neighborhoods, uprooting thousands of families and trapping others in their homes, afraid to leave even in search of food and water. Hundreds were left dead, injured or missing. Criminals still control or influence parts of the country’s most populous city, and kidnappings for ransom threaten residents’ daily movements.

Part of a larger ecosystem of UN entities and NGOs operating in Haiti, BINUH’s operations are largely limited to consulting and assisting the Haitian government and National Police (HNP). Its regular reports are authoritative and detailed, documenting in clear language the state of civil society, politics and human rights in the country.

Recognizing the security crisis, BINUH is including several dozen officers as advisors within the police, and the UN has also announced a new “basket fund” to support the police, aiming to raise 28 million in next two years. But that money is aimed at long-term goals such as funding recruitment and training, increasing the representation of women on the force, and improving infrastructure and police stations, La Lime said.

“The UN cannot fix anything,” La Lime told CNN. “The UN can work with the Haitian government and Haitian institutions to produce an improved outcome.”

Impatience grows. In recent weeks, demonstrators in several cities have called for Henry’s resignation in the face of high fuel prices, rising inflation and rampant crime. Henry on Monday acknowledged the popular anger, calling for calm – but also announced he would raise gas prices, sparking further protests.

And in August, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, criticized international actors, labeling the efforts of the international community in Haiti as “one of the worst and most obvious failures implemented and carried out in within the framework of any international cooperation.”

La Lime immediately recognized the critics. “Yes, the results are not what they should be,” he told CNN.

However, his job is not to take responsibility for the past – or even to shoulder much of it now, he implies.

“I think what we need to do is look at the lessons of what we need to work on differently. I don’t think we put enough emphasis on partnership. In other words, what does the Haitian side need to do to make is the effort more sustainable?”