Biden Thanks Kenya for Leading Haiti Mission; White House Says No US Troops Will Join

by Braxton Taylor

President Joe Biden thanked his Kenyan counterpart in a phone call on Tuesday for agreeing to lead a multinational mission to intervene in Haiti, a day after the United Nations Security Council voted to endorse the effort.

But the Biden administration still has not detailed what its $200 million in pledged assistance would do to support the mission, telling McClatchy and the Miami Herald that it could take weeks to coordinate with other nations who will bring what resources to bear. The Herald has identified at least a dozen countries from the Caribbean and Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe that have pledged to assist the mission by either sending personnel, providing equipment or funding.

The White House said that Biden spoke with Kenyan President William Ruto “to thank him for answering Haiti’s call to serve as the lead nation of the Multinational Security Support mission” that will “bring relief to the people of Haiti, who have suffered for far too long at the hands of violent criminals.”

The U.N. resolution, penned by the United States and Ecuador, made repeated mentions of the effects of the violence on Haiti’s children, hundreds of thousands of whom have been unable to go to school because gangs or people displaced by them have taken over the facilities. On Tuesday, the U.N.’s lead child welfare agency, UNICEF, said the unchecked violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, is spreading and intensifying in the Artibonite Valley, the country’s breadbasket.

Children are being terrorized and their livelihoods destroyed amid unprecedented hunger, malnutrition and a resurgent cholera epidemic. More than 100 schools have shut down due to the violence and only one in four health facilities across the region remains accessible. Roughly a third of the population, nearly half of them children, now require humanitarian assistance.

The violence, mirroring that seen in Port-au-Prince, has forcibly displaced families and disrupted rice and other agricultural production, a lifeline for the economy. More than 22,000 people were displaced as of June, up from less than 10,000 in April. Most have sought refuge in other communities, while hundreds have sought shelter in precarious makeshift spaces with little access to basic services or protection from the armed groups.

“No human being, and certainly no child, should ever have to face such shocking brutality, deprivation and lawlessness. The current situation is simply untenable,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “The humanitarian system, including UNICEF, is delivering and scaling up the response, but we need support from the international community in order to reach Haitian children and families who desperately need help right now.”

The combination of escalating violence, restricted access to essential health, water and sanitation services, and cholera pose particularly lethal threats to malnourished children, UNICEF said. At least 115,000 children in Haiti are expected to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition this year, an increase of 30% over last year. In the rice-growing Artibonite Valley, the number of children who are estimated to need lifesaving treatment more than doubled since 2020.

For nearly a year the U.S. and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres struggled to find a country to lead a security mission, after Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, requested the international community’s help after a gang takeover of the country’s main fuel terminal. Kenya finally volunteered after efforts by the U.S. to get Canada to take the lead failed.

Critics have questioned why Kenya offered to lead such a risky endeavor in a country with which it doesn’t share a language or culture. Ruto, who last month urged the world to help Haiti during his address to the U.N. General Assembly, has faced deadly anti-government protests at home as Kenyans protests rising costs.

Andrew C. Cheatham, a Kenya expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said he isn’t surprised by Ruto’s decision to take a lead on helping Haiti put down gangs. Though the mission to Haiti isn’t technically a U.N. mission, the country has broad experience in sending police officers to promote peace and security in places like Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

“They have a history of this. They have a role to play within the U.N., although this isn’t a U.N. mission,” said Cheatham, a senior adviser at USIP who spent a decade working for the U.N.

Kenya has been active in peacekeeping missions in Africa, he said, and “they’re known as a major part of the system and the international community. “

Due to problems in the Horn of Africa involving Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, Kenya has also emerged as a major security and diplomatic partner of the United States in the region, Cheatham added.

“I think the chaos has made the U.S. and Kenya grow closer. The deal to support this Multinational Security Support mission includes broader security cooperation between the U.S. and Kenya,” he said. “And of course, the U.S. has been looking since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse to try to figure out what they can do to help out on their back door here. The Haiti problem is a huge one.”

He also noted that the Kenyan police who will be deployed to Haiti come from “a highly elite border security force” that have been trained by a USIP unit and has experience in confronting violent extremism and the forces of al-Shabaab, the Sunni Islamist military and political group that is active in East Africa and is involved in the Somalia civil war.

“Kenyans are thought of as some of the best trained and best equipped, best highly skilled peacekeepers in the world within the African Union Mission in Somalia,” he said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute, who has done a close study of Kenya’s involvement in neighboring Somalia, said people have been surprised by Ruto’s willingness to send his forces into Haiti and she believes it’s become “a pet project” of the president.

Washington, she said, “seized on the idea when it struggled to persuade other countries like Brazil and Canada to lead.”

“It’s much more personal idiosyncratic rather than any kind of great deal for something that’s strategically important,” she said. “It was surprising to his own government officials.”

Felbab-Brown said there are human-rights worries about Kenya’s forces, especially in light of how they police slums like Kibera, in the capital of Nairobi, and in neighboring Somalia.

“Kenya is not the worst, but it’s also not a good record. Its own policing efforts in places like Kibera have often been very inadequate,” she said. “They often look like highly violent invasions of the slums, where the Kenyan police afterwards struggle to sustain any security presence, or the security presence was quite minimal. And its record in its mission in Somalia is even more problematic.”

Felbab-Brown said the U.S. is “walking into a world of enormous challenges that can easily lead to all kinds of problematic developments.”

The Kenyan-led forces, she said, once deployed into Haiti might become involved in violent clashes with. gang leaders, or if they venture into areas like Cité Soleil, the capital’s largest slum where gang clashes has left hundreds dead in the last two years.

“Or conversely the force does very little. That is very bad too and would discredit the forces,” she added.

She believes that despite the challenges, the U.S. agreed to the risk “partially because no one else was stepping up.”

On Wednesday, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, said there are few countries in the world that have not had at one point or another issues with police violence.

“We see it north, south, east and west. What is important, and it’s stated in the resolution that all police and others that are deployed respect the human rights policies,” he said. “The secretary-general did not choose Kenya. The secretary-general and the Haitian government put out an appeal and Kenya stepped forward.”

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, addressing the criticism about Kenya’s security forces, said the U.S. would be holding the Kenyans responsible should anything go wrong in the Haiti mission.

“That’s what the resolution calls for…. We’ve added this strong language of accountability, the strong vetting language, the strong language on transparency and on human rights,” she said after the vote. “And I can assure you that the U.S. will engage on these issues very, very aggressively, and we will work with member states to hold any personnel involved in these types of actions accountable.”

The administration has said the State Department and Defense Department has each pledged $100 million in support of the mission. But details of where that money would go were not immediately clear.

A senior White House official said that there are no current plans for that funding to include the deployment of U.S. personnel to Haiti.

“The U.S. military will provide some enabling support,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told reporters at a White House briefing Tuesday. “I suspect it’ll be mostly in the realm of logistics and sustainment, maybe some transportation and that kind of thing. And there are no plans right now to put American troops inside the support mission.”

Daniel Desrochers of the Kansas City Star contributed reporting.

©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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