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Events of 2023

People, without running water at home, collect water from a ravine in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 21, 2023.

© 20223 AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph

In 2023, Haiti’s security, justice, political, and humanitarian crises worsened. Killings, kidnappings, and sexual violence by criminal groups increased dramatically. The state response was weak to nonexistent, and the justice system was barely functioning.

More than 40 percent of Haiti’s population experienced acute food insecurity. Access to electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation, health care, and education was severely limited. 

In October, the United Nations Security Council authorized a Multinational Security Support Mission, led by Kenya, to improve security.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry did not reach a consensus with Haitian politicians and civil society to enable a democratic transition.

Despite the dire conditions in the country, foreign governments returned more than 100,000 people to Haiti from January through August; the Dominican Republic was responsible for 94 percent of the returns.

Political Crisis

Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Prime Minister Henry, who never received parliamentary approval and thus does not have a constitutional mandate, has been ruling by decree. Parliament has been dysfunctional since 2019, when President Moïse refused to organize legislative elections. Since January 2023, the country has had no national elected officials.

In June 2023, Henry and Haitian political and civic leaders met in Jamaica, led by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Eminent Persons Group, consisting of three former prime ministers from the region, to seek a political solution to the crisis. They could not reach a consensus. Some political parties and civil society groups signed the Kingston Joint Declaration, calling for a national unity government. Nine major Haitian human rights organizations and a US diaspora group called on the international community to stop propping up those who created Haiti’s crisis and instead support the establishment of a transitional government “led by technocrats who would commit to not participating in future elections and who would work … for the organization of free, fair, and credible elections.”

Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

Haiti’s justice system is plagued by insecurity, corruption, strikes, and political interference. Criminal groups have taken over some court buildings, including the Tribunal de Paix in Cité Soleil in July 2020 and the Port-au-Prince Palace of Justice, the main justice complex in the country, in July 2022. They appear to have stolen or destroyed evidence and records that may be impossible to recover, as Haitian courts do not have digital copies of files. The courts have not been relocated.

No progress was made, as of October, in investigations into the massacres in La Saline in 2018, Bel Air in 2019, Plaine du Cul-de-Sac and Cité Soleil in 2022, and Carrefour-Feuilles in 2023.

The Conseil Supérieur du Pouvoir Judiciaire (CSPJ), the judiciary’s oversight body, refused to certify 28 judges and prosecutors in January and 12 in June, citing abuse of authority, invalid credentials, and unlawful release of detainees, among other reasons. There is no mechanism to appeal the CSPJ’s decisions.

In February 2023, Prime Minister Henry appointed eight judges to the Cour de Cassation, Haiti’s Supreme Court, to allow it to function after more than one year during which it did not have enough judges to make up a quorum. Civil society groups argued that Henry did not respect the constitutional procedure for these appointments.

As of September, Haiti’s prisons held more than three times their capacity for inmates. Most of the 11,784 detainees—84 percent of whom were awaiting trial—were living in inhumane conditions, without access to adequate food, water, or health care. From January through September, 128 detainees died, most from malnutrition-related diseases.

New penal and criminal procedure codes providing alternatives to pretrial detention are scheduled to come into effect in June 2024.

Investigation of President Moïse’s Assassination

President Moïse was assassinated on July 7, 2021. As of May 2023, 45 people were in pretrial detention in Haiti in connection with the case, including 18 former Colombian military officers, whose families complained that they lacked legal assistance and were being mistreated and held in inhumane conditions. In October, police arrested a key suspect.

United States prosecutors allege that conspirators had initially planned to kidnap Moïse but later decided to kill him, hoping to win government contracts under a successor. US judges sentenced a Haitian-Chilean businessman and a former Colombian army colonel to life in prison for their roles in the killing. A former Haitian senator pled guilty; his sentencing was set for December 19. Nine other defendants are awaiting trial in the US.

Violence by Criminal Groups

UN agencies estimate that more than 300 criminal groups controlled 80 percent of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, as of September. Many are alleged to have ties to political and economic elites as well as police officers.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded the killing of 3,156 people—including 36 police officers—and 1,284 kidnappings by those groups from January through September 2023.

Criminal groups continued to use sexual violence to terrorize the population and demonstrate control. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) reported assisting 1,005 sexual violence survivors at its hospitals in Port-au-Prince between January and May 2023, almost double the number for the same period in 2022.

Human Rights Watch documented abuses committed by criminal groups in four communes in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince, including the killing of 67 people—including 11 children and 12 women—and rape of 23 girls and women. Survivors told Human Rights Watch about being dragged off the street, gang raped, and made to watch people getting killed by machete and gunshot.

OHCHR documented dozens of sexual attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people by gang members between January and June 2022. Female victims said that criminal groups had subjected them to “corrective rapes” to “cure” them.

The Haitian government has failed to protect people from criminal violence, which has been exacerbated by a continued flow of weapons and ammunition to Haiti, largely from the US state of Florida.

Often in collusion with police, the vigilante justice Bwa Kale movement had reportedly killed more than 420 people suspected of being members of criminal groups from January through September, OHCHR reported. Human Rights Watch verified material posted to social media and news sites confirming four attacks in March and April, three of which took place in the immediate vicinity of police stations.

Criminal groups have formed their own movement in retaliation, Zam Pale. The UN secretary-general warned in July that the Bwa Kale and Zam Kale movements have “sparked a new and alarming cycle of violence” that could lead to further recruitment of children.

Attacks on Journalists

At least three journalists were killed from January through May 2023, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said. At least six media workers had been kidnapped in 2023 and others had fled their homes to escape escalating violence, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in September.

Police Conduct

Police killed 407 people from January through September, the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) said. According to that office, the prosecutors of Les Cayes and Miragoâne reportedly participated in 7 extrajudicial executions, and individuals wearing police uniforms executed at least 18 people in Tabarre.

The police internal affairs office opened cases of alleged human rights violations against 103 officers from January through September.

Sexual Abuse in Sports

In 2020, the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) Ethics Committee banned Haitian Football Federation president, Yves Jean-Bart, for life after finding evidence of his systematic sexual abuse of female players. In February 2023, the Court of Arbitration for Sport wrongly annulled FIFA’s ban. A criminal case against Jean-Bart is pending in Haiti. More than a dozen male and female survivors and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that he coerced female players into having sex with him.

In July 2022, Evans Lescouflair, a former sports minister, was arrested in Puerto Rico and sent to Haiti in connection with complaints filed by child sexual abuse survivors. He was released, pending trial, in June 2023.

Access to Abortion

Haiti has a total ban on abortion. A criminal code scheduled to take effect in 2024 will legalize it in all circumstances until the 12th week of pregnancy and at any time in cases of rape, of incest, or when the mental or physical health of the pregnant person is in danger.

Disability Rights

Although Haiti ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, its laws still include offensive terminology, and people with disabilities experience discrimination in access to health, education, and justice. Moreover, stigma places them at a heightened risk of violence.

Local advocates say that people with disabilities face significant obstacles to civic participation, including difficulty obtaining the national identification cards required for voting because the National Identification Office was inaccessible to them.

Economic and Social Rights

The security and political crises compounded a dire humanitarian situation. Heavy flooding in June and July across the country also highlighted Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters.

According to the World Bank, about 59 percent of Haiti’s population of 11.5 million lived on less than US$3.65 per day in 2023. About 5.2 million needed food and shelter assistance, a 20 percent increase from 2022; of these, 4.9 million were acutely food insecure.

As of early 2023, only one-third of Haitians had access to electricity, but only intermittently and at high prices. Only 55 percent of Haitian households had access to safe drinking water and two-thirds of the population had limited or no sanitation services, aggravating the spread of cholera. As of August, the Pan American Health Organization had reported 58,230 suspected cases of cholera, 3,696 confirmed cases, and 823 deaths since the beginning of the ongoing outbreak in October 2022.

International organizations estimate that 75 percent of the country’s health facilities have inadequate medical supplies and insufficient trained personnel. Insecurity has triggered an exodus of health workers from Haiti in recent years.

Nearly half of Haitians aged 15 and older are illiterate; in 2020, only 46 percent of children completed primary school. The quality and availability of public education is generally poor, and 85 percent of primary schools and even more secondary schools were private in 2020. High costs, attacks on schools and on children en route, and lack of infrastructure and staff have deprived 4.2 million children of their right to education, UNICEF reported.

Internal Displacement and Migration

Almost 195,000 Haitians were internally displaced by violence from January 2022 through July 2023, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said. Many others left the country, often on dangerous journeys.

The IOM reported that from January through August 2023, foreign governments returned 103,706 people despite the risk to their lives and physical integrity in Haiti and the UN’s calls to stop forced returns there. The Dominican Republic was responsible for 94 percent of returns; the US, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Cuba were responsible for most of the rest. In April, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed grave concern about increases in hate speech and racist or xenophobic violence against Haitians abroad and the use of racial profiling by law enforcement in some countries in the Americas.

Humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that Dominican authorities routinely rounded up people they suspected were Haitian nationals solely on the basis of skin color. Authorities took them to the border and placed them in cages on flatbed trucks to await processing, in sweltering heat and with little or no access to food or water, before returning them to Haiti.

In September, the Dominican Republic closed its land border with Haiti, as well as all connections by sea and air, in a dispute over a waterway. The UN designated expert on human rights in Haiti warned that this would intensify an already grave crisis, as the country imported at least 25 percent of its food, as well as medical supplies, from its neighbor.

Key International Actors

In late 2022, Prime Minister Henry asked the international community to deploy a specialized armed force, a call echoed by the UN secretary-general. In July, Kenya offered 1,000 police officers to train and assist Haitian police. Human rights groups expressed concern about the Kenyan police’s record of human rights abuses.

In October, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a Multinational Security Support Mission for an initial period of 12 months to help improve security and build conditions conducive to free and fair elections. The US pledged US$100 million for such a mission in September.

Haitian civil society called for strong accountability measures to avoid repetition of past harms from foreign interventions and urged foreign governments to stop supporting Prime Minister Henry, whom many Haitians see as heading an illegitimate government with links to criminal groups.

In October 2022, the UN Security Council approved sanctions—including asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargos—against leaders of criminal groups and others involved in violence. As of March 2023, foreign governments had sanctioned 25 individuals. In July, the EU set up its own sanctions regime on Haiti. In October, the council renewed the sanctions measures for one year and broadened the arms embargo, prohibiting all arms sales or transfers by foreign countries to Haiti as a whole, except for the UN-authorized mission and law enforcement.

In April 2023, at Haiti’s own initiative, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution by consensus, establishing a UN designated expert on human Rights in Haiti. He completed his second official visit to the country in October.

The UN appealed for US$720 million in aid for Haiti for 2023, almost double the 2022 amount. As of September, it had only raised 26 percent of that amount.