Kenyan Court Blocks Deployment of Police Force to Haiti

A Kenyan court on Friday prohibited the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti, jeopardizing a multinational security force charged with stabilizing the chaos-hit Caribbean island nation before it even got off the ground.

The force, which is backed by the United Nations and financed by the United States, had been stalled since October, when Kenyan opponents of the mission challenged it in court, calling it unconstitutional. The High Court upheld those arguments on Friday, throwing into doubt the latest international effort to rescue an impoverished country that is spiraling ever deeper into violence and instability.

“An order is hereby issued prohibiting the deployment of police officers to Haiti or any other country,” Justice Chacha Mwita said at the conclusion of a judgment that took over 40 minutes to read.

The international force was meant to help break the grip of the armed gangs that control most of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and that have turned Haiti into one of the world’s most dangerous nations. Haiti’s government has pleaded for foreign military forces to be sent in to restore order, but the United States and Canada have been unwilling to commit their own troops.

Kenya agreed last summer to lead the mission, with backing from Washington, which pledged $200 million. The force was intended to eventually increase to 3,000 security officers.

But just a handful of Caribbean nations have stepped forward to contribute troops, and the court order on Friday threw the mission even further into doubt. The Kenyan government is expected to appeal the decision.

The daunting task facing any mission to Haiti was highlighted by the latest violent eruption in the capital last week.

Flaming barricades sprang up across Port-au-Prince as police officers clashed with armed gangs, sending the city into lockdown as residents retreated into their homes, seeking shelter. About 24 people were killed — not an unusual toll in a country of fewer than 12 million people where about 5,000 people died violently last year, twice as many as in 2022, and about 2,500 were kidnapped, the United Nations said this week.

Haiti’s political system is teetering on the verge of collapse. Calls have been growing for the resignation of the interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, who has been in charge since the assassination in 2021 of President Jovenal Moïse.

In advance of Friday’s ruling, a spokesman for Kenya’s police declined to answer questions about the composition of the force. But Western officials briefed on the force said it was intended to initially comprise up to 400 officers drawn mostly from Kenya’s Border Police Unit and the paramilitary General Service Unit — officers whose work normally involves fighting Islamist militants, border smugglers and cattle rustlers.

All of that is now in doubt, even though the Kenyan Parliament approved the mission in November.

The ruling represents yet another sharp rebuke to Kenya’s president, William Ruto, by the country’s courts, which have blocked or stalled several major policy initiatives in the past six months.

Those decisions have visibly angered Mr. Ruto, who publicly hin ted in recent months that he might defy the courts, stoking worries about a wider clash between Kenya’s government and its fiercely independent higher judiciary.

In his ruling on Friday, the judge said that Kenya’s National Security Council lacked the authority to deploy a police mission to Haiti. Under the law, it could only take place if a “reciprocal arrangement” was in place with the Haitian government, he said.

The prohibition is also a major challenge for Mr. Ruto’s relationship with the United States, which is almost entirely funding the proposed mission to Haiti.

In September, soon after Kenya agreed to lead the international mission to Haiti, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, accompanied Mr. Ruto on a tour of major Silicon Valley firms like Apple, Google and Intel, hoping to attract investment in Kenya. (Ms. Whitman was previously the chief executive officer of eBay and Hewlett-Packard).

For the Biden administration, calming the waters in Haiti has advantages in an election year, especially when the wave of migrants seeking asylum has become a political and humanitarian crisis. The number of Haitians immigrating to the United States has more than doubled in the past two years, with more than 160,000 people arriving in 2023, according to U.S. data.

In recent months, United Nations and American officials have been coordinating closely with Kenyan police leaders at training centers near the capital, Nairobi, as they prepared for the expected deployment to Haiti.

Still, many Kenyans had questioned the merits of a dangerous mission in a distant country. Although Kenya forces have participated in several U.N. and regional peacekeeping missions, the public is highly sensitive to casualties.

The deaths of Kenyan soldiers deployed to neighboring Somalia to fight Al Shabab militants often stirs vocal public opprobrium. Any further deaths from a Haiti mission could stoke criticism of Mr. Ruto’s government, which is already grappling with a severe economic downturn.

Financial problems were also a worry. The $200 million in American support, about half from the Defense Department, would pay for equipment, advisers and medical support to the Kenyans, as well as help with planning, logistics and communications, a State Department spokeswoman said.

But Kenyan officials said that much more was needed. Addressing the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, Kenya’s ambassador, Martin Kimani, appealed for other nations to bridge the mission’s “substantial resource gap” with contributions of money, equipment and logistical support.

There was no immediate reaction to the court ruling in Haiti, where it was early morning when the decision was announced.

Haitians have long been wary of international interventions. In 2010, a United Nations peacekeeping force brought cholera to the country as poor sanitation at a base camp sent sewage downriver, leading to over 9,000 deaths. Sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and aid workers has been documented repeatedly, and researchers say it resulted in the births of hundreds of children.

Still, Haiti’s increasingly desperate security crisis has left many Haitians open to another international intervention. Armed gangs regularly abduct passengers from buses, to be held for ransom. Six nuns were released on Wednesday, six days after they were kidnapped.

At a waiting room in a health clinic in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, patients said that they would support the effort if the Kenyans were willing to try. None of the patients agreed to be named, saying they feared they would be killed for speaking out.

But several predicted that an international force could succeed only if it were backed by a heavily armed pro-government militia, and not the discredited national police that the Kenyans were expected to be working alongside.

Some communities banded together last year to form vigilante groups that fought back against gangs, sometimes committing atrocities of their own. That movement largely fizzled out.

Jeff Frazier, a former United States paratrooper who runs a nonprofit in Haiti and has been lobbying Washington for a stronger intervention, said that a Kenyan-led mission was the best option in dire times.

“Are there alternatives? Sure, but they’re a mess,” said Mr. Frazier, who spent 43 days in captivity last year after being kidnapped by a gang. The Kenyans’ focus, he said, should be to rescue desperate Haitians from “vicious gangs that kidnap women and send torture videos of them with bloodied faces and cigarette-burned backs to their loved ones.”

As a motivation for undertaking such a dangerous mission, Kenyan officials have cited their country’s longstanding ties with the Caribbean, going back to Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta. Financial considerations may play a role too: Many developing nations have viewed United Nations peacekeeping missions, often in Africa, as a way to subsidize or reward their security forces.

Andre Paulte contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.