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The call for tough arms controls

‘When there are guns, there are more victims. Before it was the macoutes [paramilitaries led by former dictators Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier] and former [demobilised] soldiers who had the guns. Now, it’s the people who live in your own neighbourhood who commit the violence.’ – Malya, a woman living in Martissant, a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood, November 2005

Armed violence continues to ravage the lives of many people in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, despite the presence of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Armed groups in the poor areas – some loyal to former President Aristide, some loyal to rival political factions, and some criminal gangs – have battled against the Haitian National Police (HNP) and UN military, and against each other.

In just one medical mission in Port-au-Prince, some 1,400 people were admitted with gunshot wounds between December 2004 and October 2005. ‘We’re still receiving three gunshot victims a day.
And there are more who go to the general [university] hospital – or who are killed,’ said the mission’s head, Ali Besnaci of Médecins sans Frontières. ‘This is like a war. There are always confrontations between the gangs and the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH’. Many, if not most, of the victims have been innocent civilians.

Human-rights groups have documented murders and kidnappings committed by the many armed groups, extrajudicial executions carried out by the HNP, and deaths resulting from the alleged indiscriminate shooting by UN troops. The scale of rape in Port-au-Prince is also believed to be directly linked to the proliferation of arms.

The Control Arms campaign carried out several interviews in Haiti in November 2005 and records here the voices of at least some of the people who bear the cost of the world’s continuing failure to control the arms trade.

Haiti’s armed violence is not new. After years of dictatorship by the Duvalier family, in 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. Within months, he fled to the USA after being overthrown by a bloody military coup. Some 3,000 people were killed during the ensuing military dictatorship which lasted until 1994. After he was reinstated by a US military operation, it was alleged that former President Aristide himself was supporting armed gangs in the poor areas for his own political ends. In February 2004, former President Aristide was forced out of Haiti amid an armed revolt staged by gangs formerly loyal to Aristide, and by demobilised soldiers.

The interim government lacks the strong political commitment to implement a comprehensive disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme targeting all illegally armed groups, individuals, and communities. In the meantime, the proliferation of small arms continues to cost the lives of many innocent men, women, and children. Development is also hindered by the violence generated by the presence and proliferation of arms.

Outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti has been relatively peaceful since spring 2005, when UN military rooted out armed former soldiers who had controlled several important towns and large areas of the countryside. UN military personnel have also managed to establish a permanent presence in some of the poor areas of Port-au-Prince, bringing a degree of calm. Otherwise, the rule of the gun dominates Port-au-Prince, not only killing and injuring poor people, but devastating their lives. Violence by armed groups continues, while deep-rooted concerns remain about unlawful killings by the Haitian police.

Haiti produces no firearms itself except for home-made ‘Creole’ guns which are usually crude handguns or rifles made from old ones. Most arms are smuggled into Haiti from neighbouring countries in the region, including from the USA. Over the past decade several countries including Brazil, France, Italy, the UK, and the USA have licensed the transfer of arms to Haiti, according to customs data in the UN commodity trade database.

Since the 1980s, the USA has been the largest supplier of arms to Haiti. However, following the military coup in 1991 the US government imposed an arms embargo on Haiti but allows for exceptions to be made for the authorisation of transfers of some US arms on ‘a case-by-case-basis’. Since the appointment of Prime Minister Latortue in March 2004, there have been several of these transfers, including the supply in 2004 of 2,600 weapons to the HNP, which has been implicated in human rights violations. An additional sale to the HNP of pistols, rifles, and tear gas worth US$1.9m was also approved in 2005.

The first elections in Haiti since President Aristide was ousted in February 2004 were due to take place on 8 January 2006. They have now been postponed amidst continuing insecurity. Given the fragile security situation and tense political climate in Haiti it is likely that, when they do take place, these elections will be accompanied by incidents of armed violence.

Foreign governments must act to stem the flow of weapons from Latin America, the USA, and elsewhere. The rest of the world must take responsibility for the arms that it supplies. There is still no comprehensive, legally binding international treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade, despite the suffering and poverty that international arms transfers continue to fuel.

In January 2006, a series of debates on disarmament are due to begin at the United Nations. There will be technical arguments and diplomatic negotiations between states.

A new international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), based on the principles of international law, would create minimum global standards for arms transfers. It would reduce the human cost of irresponsible arms transfers and prevent unscrupulous arms dealers finding the weakest point in the supply chain.

2006 presents a major political opportunity to begin to do this:
– The Review Conference for the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, in June and July 2006, must agree clear principles for the international transfer of these arms, based on existing international law, to prevent them getting into the hands of human rights abusers.
– The Conference’s Preparatory Committee, taking place in New York in January 2006, must set the stage for this.
– Then the UN General Assembly’s First Committee (that looks at disarmament and security issues) meeting in October 2006, must finally initiate a process to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty.

Irresponsible arms transfers still fuel atrocities in Haiti and in many other countries. Responsible arms exporters and arms-affected states must not be held back by the few states that want to impede progress. In 2006, they must begin negotiations to agree an ATT.

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