As the interim Iraqi government and Coalition members seek to disarm the insurgents in Sadr City, a country just off our shores struggles with a similar problem.
Although the exact number of guns in Haiti is unknown, it is clear that they are contributing to lawlessness, chaos, and death. Since the forced removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February, key cities throughout Haiti remain under the control of armed insurgents. Former members of the Haitian army – disbanded in 1994 – have regrouped and pronounced themselves the country's new security force.
Aristide supporters have played their role in the violence, beheading three police officers earlier this month. Furthermore, economic desperation – worsened by this year's natural disasters – has bred violence and criminal activity, making possession of a gun necessary for protection and survival.
Dangerously, the beleaguered and outmatched Haitian police have yielded public security functions to the insurgents, former soldiers, and prison escapees in a number of Haitian towns and villages. Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who previously embraced the insurgents as "freedom fighters," is rapidly losing control of the country.
Unfortunately, disarmament efforts in 1994 and 1995 – following Aristide's restoration to power after he was first forced from office – were never completed. And since then, economic development has been nothing short of a miserable failure.
The Latortue government set a Sept. 15 deadline for armed rebels, former soldiers and Aristide supporters to turn in their guns without facing charges. But that deadline came and went. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), whose mandate includes disarmament, has claimed that it does not have enough troops to disarm these groups, shifting responsibility to the Haitian police. In response, the Haitian government has said that its police force lacks the capacity to undertake disarmament and argues that MINUSTAH must lead these efforts.
Both actors must assume joint responsibility for disarmament if they intend to bring security to Haiti. To advance disarmament efforts:
The U.N. must extend MINUSTAH's mandate and increase the number of troops in the country. MINUSTAH was established with a six-month, renewable commitment, set to expire on November 30, 2004. The mission promised to bring with it more than 8,000 peacekeepers (troops and civilian police officers), but thus far has produced only about 3,200. More troops, albeit inexperienced in disarmament, are reportedly on their way. But without the resolve that comes with a long-term and fortified commitment, the peacekeepers have given the Haitians little incentive to turn over their weapons.
The peacekeepers and Haitian police must prevent more arms from entering the country. Currently, dangerous weapons enter the country across the Dominican border and through ports controlled by non-state actors. Drug trafficking helps to finance the purchase of the weapons. With the support of peacekeepers, the Haitian government must prioritize regaining control of port cities. Furthermore, the United States should continue to be judicious in providing weapons to the Haitian government to arm the police, ensuring that the police are properly trained and the weapons carefully guarded.
The Haitian government should develop a plan to disarm and prosecute the most dangerous individuals. Haitian law allows citizens to own guns, so it is impossible to demand full disarmament. Although there are many ways to devise a disarmament strategy, the Haitian government must develop a clear plan for taking the most dangerous individuals and their arms off the streets. MINUSTAH should make its expertise and personnel available in designing and implementing the plan. Finally, the interim government must not use internationally-backed disarmament initiatives as part of a retribution campaign against its political enemies.
The Haitian government must end impunity and apply the law in an impartial way. Acts of political violence, drug smuggling, and other crimes go largely ignored by the Latortue government. According to Amnesty International, although authorities have moved swiftly to arrest Aristide supporters, they lack the same commitment to arresting the insurgents that ousted the former president. Prosecuting all criminals would send a clear message to the Haitian people: the government is committed to restoring order to the country, and no one has immunity.
With the support of the international community, the Haitian government must provide relief aid and deliver economic growth. Living amongst dangerous individuals, many ordinary Haitians rely on weapons for protection and for making a living. Additional peacekeepers will help to alleviate the need for those weapons by ensuring that relief aid makes it to the most insecure parts of the country hardest hit by Hurricane Jeanne. For its part, the United States must promise a long-term commitment to Haiti to ensure that disarmament now is not compromised by poverty and strife later. The solution must include more than low-paying factory jobs that merely benefit the economic elite. Only by filling the void of weapons with good jobs and sustained income will a disarmament program have positive, long-lasting results.
Nicole Mlade is Senior Policy Analyst for National Security at the Center for American Progress.