Flying in the face of a promising recovery strategy, the United States has quietly begun shipping arms to Haiti's interim government, despite a 13-year arms embargo on the Caribbean nation. The new arms are meant to brace up a shaky security force, but the reality is that they could actually undermine security by jeopardizing an innovative disarmament effort just getting under way.
The island is increasingly in chaos. Armed militia and former army soldiers terrorize the countryside and urban slums with impunity. More than 1,000 people have been killed since fighting began in late 2003, and several hundred since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted as president in February of 2004. Fiefdoms controlled by various armed factions have emerged throughout the country, reminiscent of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Large sections of the capital, already unstable, are now no-go areas, with protests regularly turning violent. The UN multinational stabilization mission has not dramatically improved the situation since its arrival last June. Hampered by a shortfall of personnel, the full contingent only arrived in December. Haiti's interim government and many bilateral donors are growing impatient. About $1.1-billion in international aid offered in July by 13 donor countries cannot be disbursed.
Guns are already omnipresent in Haiti, with illegal weapons flowing into the country regularly. A study by our Small Arms Survey identified the presence of illegal weapons from more than a dozen countries. A large number of arms is known to have been shipped in from gun dealers in Florida. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are also notorious sources of guns, and narco-traffickers who distribute weapons to intermediaries and armed gangs are known to use Haiti as a transit point for at least 10 per cent of the cocaine now entering the United States.
As troubling as illicit trafficking, however, is the leakage of weapons from national police and former army officers into the hands of criminals and insurgents. This is a result of contradictory ties of allegiance within the security sector itself. The new police force includes former army officers who are openly sympathetic to the insurgency, which is led by the onetime police commissioner of Gonaïves, Guy Philippe.
Now, the United States has provided almost $7-million (U.S.) in new weapons for the Haitian security sector. Given the instability of the interim government and its security forces, and the popularity of the rebellion in some areas, some of those weapons will undoubtedly be circulated among the population.
That would be most unfortunate.
The UN is now adopting a new and radical approach to disarming and reintegrating the many armed groups in Haiti. The program does more than just pay for weapons, giving equal attention to reconfiguring behaviour and attitudes toward weapons.
By educating people about the dangers of militarization, the UN effort aims to reshape their preferences for guns. Small-scale credit, vocational training and communal development projects, such as health clinics and schools, are possible incentives for voluntary disarmament. It is only by working with communities that the seeds of sustainable security can be sown.
The new disarmament program is built on the understanding that demilitarizing the minds of civilians is as important as collecting the weapons themselves. It is the right approach and it can succeed if given the opportunity.
That means increasing the efforts to reduce the flow of weapons into the country. The United States, Canada and its multilateral partners should step up interdiction to end illicit trafficking from U.S. shores and elsewhere. It should no longer be possible for weapons purchased in downtown Miami gun shops to reappear in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Similarly, it is damaging to disarmament efforts to supply an unstable security sector with new weaponry when we know that some of those weapons will almost certainly end up in insurgent and criminal hands. The U.S. embargo should remain in force without exception.
It is time to recognize that true peace in Haiti will not come from the barrel of guns, but from disarmament, dialogue and development.
Robert Muggah is project manager of the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.