Hours after masked protesters, some of whom were armed and dressed in police uniforms, attacked and ransacked several Haitian government ministries in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, the country’s recently installed prime minister announced an about face.
Joseph Jouthe said Haiti, which has long banned its police officers from unionizing, will allow its 15,000-member national police force to organize and form a union. The decision, he said, will be done via a presidential decree.
The files of five fired police officers involved in the unionization effort will also be reviewed, Jouthe said. The cops were fired last month after they were accused of vandalizing the offices of the Inspector General of the Police and tagging police vehicles with the logo of their union, SPNH. They also opened fire on the street.
Jouthe also said the troubled police force, which turns 25 in June, will be the subject of an audit by international and local experts, with the goal of proposing solutions to address lingering problems. Officers pushing for a union have complained about measly pay, poor working conditions and the lack of healthcare and equipment to do their job.
They have taken to the streets in demonstrations to express not just their dissatisfaction with the job, but with President Jovenel Moise’s inability to improve the situation. In many instances, the demonstrations have turned violent, with some police officers and their armed sympathizers setting fire last month to viewing stands and Carnival floats. They also got into a shootout with soldiers in the newly reconstituted army.
On Monday and Tuesday, the dangerous escalation of protests continued, with the leadership of the unionizing effort trying to distance itself from the protesting police officers who took to the street under the banner Fantôme 509. Fanning out across Port-au-Prince, they shot up government vehicles, ransacked ministries and fired tear gas in public buildings.
The group has claimed it wants to avenge the death of police officers who died in the line of duty. Protesters also demanded the reinstatement of the fired cops and better working conditions.
The decisions come as Haiti’s young police force faces turbulent times, and the government faces a poor human rights record. The State Department’s 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Haiti, released Wednesday, paints a stark picture. In addition to highlighting the lack of criminal proceedings in armed attacks against residents in the La Saline, Grand Ravine and Bel Air neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, the report said significant human rights issues including allegations of unlawful killings by police and excessive use of force by police exist in Haiti.
The report also notes that Haitians suffer from arbitrary and prolonged pretrial detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; a judiciary subject to corruption and outside influence; physical attacks on journalists; widespread corruption and impunity; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities, and sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination.
“The government rarely took steps to prosecute government and law enforcement officials accused of committing abuses. There were credible reports that officials engaged in corrupt practices, and civil society groups alleged widespread impunity,” the report said.
Following Tuesday’s violence, the Supreme Council of the National Police, which is chaired by the prime minister and includes the head of the police, inspector general and ministers of justice and interior, held an emergency meeting. Jouthe, who was installed as prime minister a week ago, said the council “deplores” what it considers to be “terrorists actions” by demonstrators “trying to attack the very foundation of our Republic.”
“Yesterday, the building of the official residence of the prime minister was attacked,” he said, noting that the army’s headquarters was also attacked weeks earlier. “The finance ministry, the justice ministry, the social affairs ministry were also attacked today and considerable damage was done.”
Three individuals, he said, were arrested.
Internal police regulations do not allow organizing of the force, which has been trained by the United Nations and continues to be funded by the U.S., and others in the international community. The matter has divided members of Haitian society. Some note that Haiti’s 1987 constitution allows for freedom of association. Others argue that such a move would open an already weak and volatile Haiti up to the possibility of police strikes and deeper insecurity when demands for pay and improved working conditions cannot be met.
In hopes of quelling tensions, Moïse had announced several measures last month. They included access to loans from a pension program, government-built police housing and an increase in the allocation on a debit card given to officers, from $50 to $100 a month. The money, the president said, would be available on March 1.
But a source following the police saga said that as of Wednesday, the money still had not been disbursed and the government had not communicated why there was a delay.
Jouthe had held the job of acting finance minister before he was tapped last week by Moïse, who is ruling by decree, to be his fifth prime minister in three years.