Taking Guns Off the Street
On July 6th, just 500 miles from Miami, 27 civilians were killed or injured during a UN operation to stop gang violence. These civilians weren’t wielding guns or threatening UN soldiers. One man was shot while brushing his teeth. Another woman died from the same bullet that passed through her infant son. They were not gang members. They were innocents whose homes of tin and cardboard were no match for flying bullets.
If the Miami police killed 20 innocent people during an operation to stop gang violence, there’d be riots in the streets. Because in a country with a working democracy, authorities must explain their mistakes.
Though we Americans disagree about many things, most of us believe in democracy. U.S. leaders and U.S. citizens alike believe promoting democracy justifies our involvement in other countries’ affairs. Take, for example, Haiti.
Since the U.S. nudged Haiti’s elected President out in February 2004, Haiti has gone from a struggling democracy to a failed state. The U.S. and other countries have sent troops and aid to the UN mission there, MINUSTAH, for the stated purpose of restoring democracy. Yet despite this apparent unity of purpose, MINUSTAH is failing.
U.S. officials have criticized MINUSTAH for not using enough force to quell the violence in Port-au-Prince. They pushed MINUSTAH to take a harder line. Though MINUSTAH initially refused, it is now listening all too well. Originally hailed as the solution to Haiti’s violence, the peacekeepers are now part of the problem.
On July 6th MINUSTAH raided Cité Soleil to ferret out gang leaders it blames for Haiti’s violence. The gangs managed to hold UN troops off for seven hours, but finally one leader fell. At first the UN called the operation a success, but as accusations from eye-witnesses and human rights organizations mounted, it finally changed its tune. It now admits MINUSTAH troops killed civilians, not just gang members, during the July 6th raid.
This admission was far from an apology. The UN insists civilian deaths are an inevitable consequence of ridding Haiti of gangs. It claims these raids will create an atmosphere where democracy can exist. The problem with this thinking is twofold. First, the raids aren’t working. Cité Soleil and other Port-au-Prince neighborhoods remain under gang control. Second, fighting violence with violence is short-sighted.
In the past, the UN has used different tactics. In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, the UN successfully implemented disarmament plans that encouraged people to lay down their weapons and paved the way for permanent peace.
Long-term peace is necessary if democracy is to flourish in Haiti. The good news is that a plan for disarmament already exists for Port-au-Prince. In practical terms, disarmament means using violence as a tactic for negotiation rather than as a first resort. It means offering gang members a choice: either surrender the guns and accept the UN’s offers of immunity and rehabilitation programs, or risk being gunned down.
While disarmament might still involve some violence, it is much more likely to bring peace and a stable democracy—and not just in the short term. Many gang leaders appear ready to negotiate. By working with them, the UN can help curb Haiti’s cycle of violence instead of perpetuating it.
The hitch? Haiti’s interim government. Though Amnesty International recently called disarmament Haiti’s “most pressing issue,” the government refuses to allow it to happen. Though it’s unclear why this is so, this much is certain: All the efforts by the U.S. and the international community will mean nothing unless the interim government and MINUSTAH address urban violence with something other than brutal raids. If we’re serious about bringing a stable democracy to Haiti, the interim government must get serious about instituting disarmament.
Jessica McDonald is a student at the University of Oregon Law School and an intern for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org.