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Kenyan-led forces will arrive in Haiti to help combat gang violence

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Haiti is getting some international security support after months of gang violence and chaos. An advanced delegation of Kenyan officers arrived there this week. They're leading a United Nations-backed multinational force. And their job is to assess whether the infrastructure is in place to support the foreign police forces set to deploy to Haiti and to set a timeline for their arrival. We're joined by William O'Neil - he's the United Nations' independent expert on human rights in Haiti - to discuss this. Welcome to the program.

WILLIAM O'NEIL: Thank you. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So how bad are conditions in Haiti right now? I mean, what are these Kenyan officers arriving to, especially in the capital, Port-au-Prince?

O'NEIL: The capital and the region around it are facing a catastrophic human rights situation caused almost entirely by the presence of various gangs - armed groups who basically kill, rape, torture, kidnap and hold for hostage their own fellow citizens. It's a reign of terror. They control the main roads in and out of the capital. They control the bay - the west side of Port-au-Prince's water. And people were trying to move by boat, but that was stopped when the gangs started to hijack boats. And until yesterday, the airport in Port-au-Prince had been closed to commercial traffic. A plane finally did land yesterday from Florida - a commercial flight - so that's a good sign. But the situation is extremely dire.

FADEL: Now, we did hear yesterday from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Haitian police have taken back control of the Port-au-Prince airport, another critical infrastructure. Is that the case? And how prepared is this multinational security force to deal with the gangs? As you described, they have so much control there.

O'NEIL: Yes. The airport has been under the - is now under total control of the Haitian National Police and its - and the army. The problem was around the airport, the gangs had occupied houses that had several floors, and they would shoot down into the tarmac. But the government successfully demolished a lot of those houses and moved the gangs out and away from the airport.

The issue is also how to get control of the maritime port because humanitarian aid basically has been totally stifled for two months now. Most groups use ships to bring their much-needed assistance into the country. And so the objective will be to get control of the maritime port and then key roads and intersections that allow people to move and goods to move, which the gangs now control. They have checkpoints. They extort money. They will steal what's...

FADEL: Yeah.

O'NEIL: ...On - in the vehicles or they'll kill and, as I said, rob. I think the Kenyans are quite prepared. The police they're sending, many of them have worked in Somalia, where they faced al-Shabab, which is a very serious - you know, suicide attacks, IEDs. Thank goodness the Haitian gangs don't do that, at least up until now. So I think they are well prepared, well trained. They've been carefully vetted for their human rights records in the past. So I'm hopeful this is going to have a big impact - and fast.

FADEL: Now, Haiti has a complicated relationship with foreign assistance. It hasn't always gone well. How welcoming are Haitians to this foreign presence coming into the country?

O'NEIL: Well, if you talk to Haitians, as I do, who live in the gang-controlled areas, they are overwhelmingly for this intervention.

FADEL: OK.

O'NEIL: In fact, they asked me, what's taking so long? When are they coming? They will use the same words - we need to breathe. We need to live again. We need to get the gangs off our necks. So for those folks, it can't come soon enough. There's some people who are against it, and they have their various reasons - many in the diaspora. But I think if you were to do a poll - there have been polls done in Haiti - you'll find an overwhelming majority support this. I wish it were otherwise, but the situation has gotten to be so desperate that there's no other answer right now.

FADEL: And why is it that Kenya's leading this security force? I know it's with other - several other countries participating.

O'NEIL: In August, President Ruto made an announcement that the U.S. - the - sorry, the U.S. had been looking for countries to lead this mission, and Kenya said, we'll do it. I don't - there are probably a mix of reasons. Kenya actually feels quite a connection to its diaspora in the Caribbean. In fact, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Diaspora (ph). So I hope they will succeed. And as you said, many other countries are also going to contribute. And Haiti needs it now more than ever.

FADEL: William O'Neil is the United Nations' independent expert on human rights in Haiti. Thank you so much for your time.

O'NEIL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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