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Trudeau to deploy navy vessels to Haiti for intelligence gathering

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NASSAU, Bahamas -

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a slate of new supports for Haiti in the Bahamas on Thursday including humanitarian aid and some naval vessels to help with surveillance.

But he stopped short of proposing the kind of military force its de facto prime minister is asking for, as experts urge him to put the brakes on growing discussions of foreign intervention.

Trudeau told a meeting of 20 Caribbean Community leaders that Canada will provide $12.3 million in new humanitarian assistance for the crisis-torn country and $10 million for the International Office on Migration to support migrants in the region.

"Our fundamental objective is to ease the suffering and empower Haitians to chart their own future," he said.

"We need to continue to work and put the Haitian people at the centre of everything we do."

Trudeau also promised to send Royal Canadian Navy vessels "in the coming weeks" to gather intelligence and maintain a presence off the Haitian coast, following surveillance flyovers earlier this year and an existing plan to send more armoured vehicles.

Ottawa will redeploy HMCS Glace Bay and Moncton from West Africa, said a senior government official who spoke on background pending an official release from the Defence Department. The official would not say whether Canadian military members would simply observe or be empowered to intervene.

And Canada is sanctioning two more Haitians, ex-interim president Jocelerme Privert and former political aide Salim Succar, adding to a list of 15 elites already barred from economic dealings in Canada because of alleged ties to the gangs that have taken over Haiti. Trudeau said he is pushing allies to step up and do the same.

Trudeau said he had a "constructive" conversation with de facto Haitian leader Ariel Henry this morning, who is acting as the country's prime minister but was not elected to the role. National security adviser Jody Thomas was in the room and taking notes, as were Bob Rae, Canada's ambassador to the UN, and Sebastien Carriere, its ambassador to Haiti.

Henry took power after the 2021 assassination of former president Jovenel Moise.

During brief remarks open to media, he insisted to Trudeau, speaking in French, that he urgently wants the country to work toward transparent elections despite the deteriorating security situation.

Gang activity has ground Haiti's economy to a halt and hastened a resurgence of cholera. A United Nations report last week detailed "indiscriminate shootings, executions and rapes." Police have failed to contain the widespread violence.

Henry wants an external security force to quell the chaos, and the United States and United Nations have signalled their support for one, with Washington suggesting Canada could play a leading role.

Some Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and the Bahamas, set the stage for the Nassau meetings by publicly committing to contribute to a force if one is established.

But the people of Haiti themselves have not asked for such a thing, said Jean Saint-Vil, a Haitian McGill University researcher. They suspect it would inherently be an "imperialist" intervention, he said.

"It consists of an illegal request, because the person who made that request himself is an illegal entity," Saint-Vil told The Canadian Press in a French interview, noting that Henry stands accused of involvement in his predecessor's assassination -- a charge he has denied.

"The Haitian state has been taken hostage."

Mario Joseph, the managing attorney of the Bureau des avocats internationaux based in Port-au-Prince, said in a November letter to the Caribbean Community that an international intervention would "prop up the unconstitutional, corrupt and repressive de facto government and stifle legitimate dissent."

Joseph said that the last major UN stabilization mission in Haiti, which ran from 2004 until 2017, "set the stage for today's spectacular rebound of gang violence" and left Haiti less democratic than when it arrived.

"We do not want our (Caribbean Community) sisters and brothers to come with guns to help powerful countries impose a repressive regime on us."

The International Crisis Group organization argued in a recent report that the collapse of the Haitian state and the severity of the humanitarian emergency increasingly justifies preparations for a mission.

"But its deployment should hinge on adequate planning to operate in urban areas and support from Haiti's main political forces, including their firm commitment to work together in creating a legitimate transitional government," the December report said.

Rae told reporters in Nassau Wednesday evening that a solution has to come from within Haitian society and be executed by Haitian police, though Canada has a role to play, including by supporting police and pushing to stem the flow of illegal arms into the country. Trudeau announced Canada will spend $1.8 million to "strengthen border and maritime security" in the region.

"We have to come to grips a bit with the history of large military interventions, where basically you're just pushing aside all of the Haitian institutions and saying, 'We'll do this,"' Rae said.

Rae and Carriere said the current regime must play ball on the opposition's demands for a truly fair election. "A broader political consensus would greatly help restore people's confidence in their institutions, including (the police)," Carriere said.

A foreign intervention remains "highly unpopular" in Haiti, said Brian Concannon, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

"The troops who go down there are going to be fighting the people that they were sent to protect. And neither the Canadian nor American governments want that on the news, that their mostly white soldiers are shooting at Haitian civilians," said the former UN official and human rights lawyer.

"So they're trying to get somebody else to be the face of that mission."

The public largely sees the unelected government as responsible for the disarray, Concannon said. Though he conceded that it makes sense to liaise with current officials on humanitarian aid, he said it's time for the international community to stop inviting Haiti's leadership to the table on a security solution.

During his visit to the Bahamas, Trudeau also met one-on-one with its prime minister and the leaders of Barbados and Jamaica. They discussed issues beyond Haiti, including climate change. Trudeau promised to spend another $44.8 million to respond to the Caribbean's climate crisis.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2023.

-- With files from Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa.

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