Ottawa says sanctions will apply pressure for change in Haiti — but critics say they aren’t enough


OTTAWA—Canada intends to impose more economic sanctions on Haiti to push for political dialogue there, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says.

But while they may have some effect, critics say sanctions may not be enough to stop the violence as the country spirals deeper into crisis.

Earlier this fall, Canada sanctioned 11 Haitian individuals, including business people and political leaders, over allegations they have links to violent gangs. The latest sanctions freeze any assets held in Canada by three high-profile members of the economic elite in Haiti: Gilbert Bigio, Reynold Deeb and Sherif Abdallah.

Speaking on Parliament Hill last week, Joly argued the new sanctions are “creating the right pressure to push for political dialogue and address the question of security in Haiti,” adding she will work with her European and American counterparts on the implementation of tighter sanctions.

But experts told the Star that sanctions, although helpful, are not enough to bring immediate relief to Haitians amid the security, humanitarian and political troubles they face.

Haiti was plunged into crisis after violent gangs blocked its key fuel terminal in September, halting the transfer of gasoline and diesel fuel, and causing shortages of power, water and food. That led in turn to a cholera outbreak, and there have been reports of gang-related sexual violence and mass murder.

Haiti has not held an election since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Ariel Henry has been the acting head of state since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.

Henry’s government asked for foreign military intervention to open a humanitarian corridor that would bring relief to the country, a move endorsed by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that Canada would only consider participating in such an intervention if all of Haiti’s political parties agreed to it.

Canada’s approach has been criticized by experts and advocates who say a stronger response is needed.

“The situation there is increasingly dramatic, and inaction may not necessarily be the best course of action,” Renata Segura, a regional director of the International Crisis Group, told a parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights studying Haiti on Dec. 9.

Gédéon Jean, a human rights researcher and witness to the subcommittee, argued that the international community should intervene in Haiti under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” principle.

Teddy Samy, a professor at Carleton University who studies fragile states including Haiti, echoed that view.

“Waiting for all parties in Haiti to agree on wanting an intervention may not be such a good idea, especially if the situation escalates and puts more lives at risk,” said Samy.

The current Canadian sanctions only target individuals’ Canadian assets, so assets in other jurisdictions or assets in Canada but under different names remain unaffected, Samy noted.

“The sanctions can help cut the flow of funding to the gangs but won’t be enough,” he said. “If violence persists and the sanctions don’t have the intended effect, intervention could become necessary.”

Ottawa’s sanctions may be useful, but they won’t immediately impact the dire security and humanitarian situation, said Prof. Stephen Baranyi of the University of Ottawa, another expert with a focus on Haiti.

“Over the coming months, (sanctions) may allow the resupply of markets, hospitals etc. with petrol and other essential goods. But the situation is fluid. A UN or other security force (mostly police rather than military) intervention remains a possibility if all else fails,” Baranyi said in an email, adding the sanctions have already forced the resignations of two cabinet ministers and one businessman from Sogebank, one of Haiti’s largest banks.

“Sanctions (still) can create space for the Haitian police, with U.S. and Canadian backing, to reassert its control over zones it lost to the gangs.”

Aside from its use of economic sanctions, Canada also took diplomatic steps to respond to Haiti’s security crisis.

The Prime Minister’s Office says a team will be stationed within the Canadian embassy in Haiti to work closely with Haitian security officials, but did not specify the function or members of the team.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the biggest problem with Ottawa’s approach to Haiti is Canada’s incapacity to back up diplomacy with force.

“We’re unable to help out in Haiti in any significant way because the government has presided over the hollowing out of Canadian Armed Forces. Diplomacy without force and resources to back it up is not effective. It is simply words,” he said.

“In my discussions in Washington and in Ottawa, it was clear the Biden administration is asking Canada to play a bigger role in assisting with the security situation in Haiti,” said Chong, who attended the Parliamentary Intelligence-Security Forum hosted in the U.S. Senate this month.

“But the Trudeau government has not stepped up to the plate to do that, in part because the Armed Forces do not have the capacity to do it.”

Last month, Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s chief of the defence staff, told CTV it would be a “challenge” for Canada to launch and sustain larger scale military operations due to ongoing personnel and equipment shortages.

NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson told the Star sanctions can only do so much, and Ottawa needs to do more to address the security and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

“It’s clear the government must do better. Military intervention is certainly not the solution. Canada needs to be working to stop illegal weapons trafficking to Haiti, should increase financial support to Haitian civil society and immediately increase humanitarian assistance to Haiti,” she said.

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