South Florida Sun-Sentinel
April 23, 2005
Despite Embargo, US Allows Arms Shipments to HaitiArms Transfers to Brutal Police Force Could Undermine UN Disarmament Program
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Reaction from human rights groups, activists and analysts ranged from concern to condemnation one day after US officials admitted the government supplied the much-questioned Haitian police force with thousands of weapons and is considering approval of another major arms deal.
Officials at the State Department and US Embassy acknowledged Thursday that the US government gave 2,657 weapons in August 2004 to bolster Haiti’s police despite allegations of human rights abuses and a more than 13-year-old arms embargo. An official at the State Department confirmed that the US government was considering a request by the Haitian government to approve the sale of an additional 1.9 million dollars in weapons this year from a private US-based arms dealer.
“Giving guns to the Haitian Police is throwing gasoline on a fire,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, an organization representing victims of alleged summary executions by police. “Every report that has examined police conduct in the last year has concluded they are routinely executing civilians, and giving the police more guns just allows them to execute more people.”
Human rights observers have documented widespread abuses committed by the 4,000-member Haitian police under the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who assumed office in March 2004 after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power amid an armed revolt.
Many of the abuses – which include killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and illegal searches and detentions – have taken place in the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince where support for Aristide runs strong. A team of UN peacekeepers is investigating a summary executions allegedly committed by the police and a prison crackdown in which at least ten detainees were killed.
According to a US Embassy official, “any Haitian national police officer who is a weapons recipient would have to be vetted for past human rights offences, trained appropriately and overseen by the US and the international community.”
A State Department official said the government had transferred 1,916 .38-caliber revolvers, 493 9-millimeter pistols, 204 “training revolvers,” 23 .45-caliber pistols, 13 M-14 rifles and eight submachine guns for use by the Haitian police force. The official said 400 of these weapons have been given to new recruits who have graduated from the police academy, and the rest remain in the control of the U.S. government.
UN civilian police spokesman Dan Moskaluk defended the arms transfer as a means of standardizing and keeping track of the police force’s weapons.
“Things aren’t being given out in the back of a pick up truck. There are a lot of conditions,” said Moskaluk. “There is a hodgepodge of different weaponry [in the police] and so one purpose of this is to equip them properly and standardize the issue.”
But some observers warn that importing more arms could undermine a disarmament program that the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti is planning to launch in the coming weeks pending negotiations with the government.
“The key question is how can we know that these arms will stay in the police force,” said Gerardo Ducos, who monitors Haiti for Amnesty International. “Unless there is a reform within the national police to keep control of their arms, there is a real danger that these arms sooner or later will be circulating freely in Port-au-Prince and Haiti.”
While the UN civilian police is charged with monitoring and training their Haitian counterparts, they are rarely seen in Haitian police stations or on patrols. Some observers have warned of the influential role former soldiers are playing in the police force. Aristide disbanded the notoriously corrupt and brutal military in 1995, and former soldiers led the revolt that ousted him in February 2004.
Hundreds of former soldiers have been incorporated into the police under Latortue, and many top-ranking officers are members of the former military, including the chief of police and the head of the unit charged with investigating police abuses. The unit has not taken action against any police officers for rights abuses since Latortue assumed office.
“It’s quite clear in the last year there’s been a kind of militarization of the police which is quite worrying,” said Ettore Di Benedetto, an analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group who is based in Haiti. “Of course the police is under pressure to combat armed groups and you cannot avoid that. But it’s not just a question of weapons. It’s a question of how you will rebuild the police force and there is the problem of lack of supervision. You cannot just give weapons without a serious reform of the institution.”
In Miami, activist Marlene Bastien, director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami [HAITIAN WOMEN OF MIAMI], was shocked when she learned about the arms transfer. She said Latortue should invest in clean water, healthcare, food and education for Haiti’s poor.
“This is unconscionable that the government is spending money on arms while they should spend money to save precious lives,” said Bastien. “People are dying of hunger. The poor have suffered enough.”
US officials on Thursday refuted allegations of a massive 7 million dollar shipment of arms and ammunition to Haiti in 2004.
A report issued earlier this month by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based organization financed by the Swiss government, states that 5,435 military-style weapons, 4,433 handguns and some 1 million assorted rounds of ammunition, valued at 6.95 million dollars, allegedly entered Haiti from the United States in 2004 for use by the Haitian national police.
US officials called the report “false.”
Robert Muggah, an internationally known arms control expert who wrote the report, declined to give more information on the alleged 7 million dollar arms deal to Haiti. The report does not provide any evidence substantiating the claim, and cites only “informants on the ground.”
The US arms embargo against Haiti, which went into effect after a 1991 military coup that ousted Aristide from his first presidency, allows for “exceptions … on a case-by-case basis.”
An official at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince said that no commercial sales of arms had been approved, but based on this provision allowing for exceptions, requests by the Haitian government and US arms exporters were being considered.
“The Haitian government is seeking about 3,000 .38-caliber pistols, several hundred rifles and shotguns, ammo and non-lethal weapons, such as tear gas grenades and launchers,” said a State Department official. “The value of this order is about 1.9 million dollars.”
Latortue has publicly complained that the international community has blocked the purchase of arms, which he has said are necessary to combat armed anti-government groups.
“If they persist in maintaining the arms embargo … I will buy arms you know where,” he told reporters last month, referring to the possibility of buying arms on the black market.
A South Florida-based arms dealer said Latortue tried to buy arms from him late last year.
Haitian-American Joel Deeb said Latortue and his nephew and security advisor, Youri Latortue, contacted him in November 2004 in hopes of helping the Haitian government purchase $533,333 worth of weapons, including M-16s, handguns and ammunition. He said the government wanted to buy 1 million to 2 million dollars worth of weapons, but it didn’t have the money.
Deeb, of Pembroke Pines, said the Latortues deposited the fund on Dec. 31 into a bank account in his name. But he said the deal has stalled because they failed to provide him with an end-users certificate, guaranteeing any weapons sold would be used only for lawful purposes.
“I don’t have the end-user,” said Deeb, who was arrested by the FBI in 1983 for exporting weapons and in connection with the bombing of public buildings in Port-au-Prince. “There’s no way I can file this with the U.S. State Department.”
He blamed the arms embargo for stalling the deal.
Deeb would not specify whether the bank account was open in Haiti or the United States. He said the money has been frozen, but declined to explain who has issued the order.
“I have to give it back. It’s not mine,” said Deeb. “But it’s frozen; nobody can touch it.”