February 21, 2024

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 police officers, and the court order on Friday raised questions about whether the mission will deploy anytime soon.

While Kenya’s military has participated in numerous U.N. peacekeeping missions to countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan, the court ruled Kenya’s government has not followed correct procedure in authorizing the police mission to Haiti — although it also appeared to leave room for the mission to still go ahead.

The Kenyan government said it would appeal the decision.

There was no immediate reaction to Friday’s ruling from the government in Haiti, although a day earlier the country’s foreign minister, Jean Victor Geneus, pleaded for the mission to deploy as quickly as possible. “The Haitian people cannot take any more,” he told the U.N. Security Council.

For the Biden administration, calming the waters in Haiti is important in an election year in which 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.

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 Jovenel Moïse.

Western officials who had been briefed on the plans for the Kenyan 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 also represents another rebuke to Kenya’s president, William Ruto, from the country’s fiercely independent higher courts, which have blocked or stalled several major policy initiatives in the past six months. (A separate court ruling, also issued on Friday, confirmed that citizens should not pay a contentious housing levy that Mr. Ruto sought to introduce.)

Those decisions have visibly angered the Kenyan president, whose prominent global image contrasts with his sinking popularity at home. He has publicly hinted that he might defy the courts, stoking worries about a wider clash between his government and the judiciary.

In his ruling on Friday, the judge said that Kenya’s National Security Council was not authorized to deploy a police mission to Haiti — something that could only happen 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, the Haiti mission’s main sponsor.

Since he came to power in 2022, Mr. Ruto has developed a strong relationship with the United States ambassador, Meg Whitman, a former chief executive officer of eBay and Hewlett-Packard. In September, soon after Kenya agreed to lead the international mission to Haiti, Ms. Whitman accompanied Mr. Ruto to California on a tour of major Silicon Valley firms like Apple, Google and Intel, hoping to attract investment in Kenya.

The Haiti mission ran into legal trouble in October when a Kenyan opposition politician brought a court challenge that resulted in an order freezing the deployment. But even as judges considered the case in recent months, the Kenyan police pressed ahead with preparations at training centers near the capital, Nairobi.

In explaining their motivations to undertake a dangerous mission in a distant country, Kenyan officials cited their country’s longstanding ties with the Caribbean stretching back to their founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. Financial considerations may have played a role too: Many developing nations view international security missions as a way to subsidize or reward their security forces.

Still, many Kenyans questioned if the mission was worth it. The Kenyan public is sensitive to casualties and 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.

The American commitment of $200 million, about half from the Defense Department, was intended to pay for equipment, advisers and medical support, as well as help with planning, logistics and communications, a State Department spokeswoman said. But Kenyan officials insisted that much more was needed.

Many other Haitians, though, have grown 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.

Despite that, the country’s increasingly desperate security crisis has left many people 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 had 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 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.”

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