Haiti: ‘Rape has become a weapon’ for gangs, says UN

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As Haiti reels from a cascade of crises, the United Nations has released a grim report accusing the country’s powerful gangs of using rape as a tool of intimidation and control.

Large swathes of capital city Port-au-Prince are run by organized criminal groups, with one Haitian security forces source telling CNN in August that gangs control or influence an estimated three quarters of the city.

On Friday, the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in a joint document that systematic sexual violence by those gangs is going largely undocumented and unpunished – and its victims have been left to fend for themselves.

Like other violent groups in the Caribbean nation’s tumultuous history, gangs vying for control employ rape as a strategy to subjugate civilians, according to the joint report, which is based on more than 90 interviews with victims and witnesses of incidents over the last two years. It describes horrific and sometimes lethal acts including collective rapes and brutal public humiliation designed to sow chaos, enforce territorial boundaries and punish civilians for perceived disloyalty.

“Rape has become a weapon,” said Arnaud Royer, director of BINUH’s human rights arm, in a press conference on Friday.

An anonymous victim of sexual abuse poses for a photo at the Doctors Without Borders'

Clashes between rival gangs have effectively isolated whole neighborhoods, trapped between “frontlines” of street warfare and unable to go to work or access food or water. Women who seek to cross those boundaries for daily survival risk attack. Even in their own neighborhoods, women and girls are coerced into sexual transactions by gang members controlling the area, the report finds.

And although women have been the main focus of such attacks, the report notes that men and children of all sexes are also targeted, describing the attack of a 12-year-old boy during gang clashes in the Tabarre area in April 2022. “After being raped, the child was forcibly taken away by the assailants and, a few days later, his body was found, with a gunshot wound to the head, laying on a pile of garbage in an abandoned area,” it reads.

Struggling with trauma and stigma – and likely aware that justice is out of reach – those who survive sexual attacks are reluctant to come forward. Haiti, therefore, lacks data to reflect the scale of sexual violence on its streets, the report notes.

As a cruel result, it adds, victims have not been prioritized by service providers.

“We have to change our methodology,” Royer said.

Haiti has been thrown into chaos over the past year by relentless anti-government protests, financial crisis, rampant kidnappings and a recent resurgence of deadly cholera. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) this week reported there had been at least 35 deaths from the disease and hundreds of hospitalizations across the country since the start of the month.

The health care system is still struggling and hospital beds are filling up, PAHO said, adding that fuel shortages and ongoing civil unrest were “hindering emergency response operations.”

Last week, the Haitian government took the notable step of requesting military assistance from the international community – a move condemned by the country’s main opposition coalition, the Montana Group.

Haitian National Police have previously said that they are outgunned by criminals in the country. The flow of illicit weapons and ammunition into the country is “one of the main enablers of gang violence,” according to the UN report, which describes gang members in Port-au-Prince wielding military-grade sniper rifles, belt-fed machine guns and semi-automatic pistols.

On Friday, a US United Nations spokesperson told CNN that the US had circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing an arms embargo, as well as financial and travel sanctions for those creating violence in Haiti.

“Along with our close partner and co-penholder Mexico, the United States has circulated a draft resolution proposing specific measures to enable the Security Council to address the security challenges facing the people of Haiti, including a targeted arms embargo and financial sanctions and travel restrictions for those who foment violence in Haiti,” the statement read.

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced that the US is “working to increase and deploy in the coming days security assistance to the Haitian National Police to strengthen their capacity to counter gangs and re-establish a stable security environment under the rule of law.”

The US has already dispatched a high-level delegation to Port-au-Prince, and is sending a major Coast Guard cutter vessel to patrol the waters around the capital at the request of the Haitian government.

Friday’s report calls on the Haitian state, led by embattled Prime Minister Ariel Henry, to recognize its responsibility to deliver basic health care and justice for victims.

“Although the ongoing armed violence may reduce available resources, this does not exonerate the Haitian authorities from taking the necessary steps to achieving the realization of a minimum core obligations of the right to health and provide effective remedy and reparations for victims,” the report says.

But for now, as the nation flails, there appears to be little recourse for victims of sexual violence and no repercussions for perpetrators.

“Given that state authorities are not here, the gang leader is the chief, the police and the judge,” the report says, quoting victims from gang-controlled areas in the capital.

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