New Internationalist

Haiti’s decision to rearm is an obstacle to peace, development and freedom

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Costa Rica’s former President Oscar Arias Sanchez – who was instrumental in abolishing his own country’s army – explains why.

Photo by Official US Navy Imagery under a CC Licence
With Haiti planning to re-establish its military, it soon won't just be US navy ships on the horizon. Photo by Official US Navy Imagery under a CC Licence

After the announcement this month that the government of Haiti had decided to reconstitute its army, I asked President Michel Martelly to reconsider his decision, pointing out a lesson written clearly into human history: in Latin America, the majority of armies have been enemies of progress, of peace, and of freedom.

In most of the world, and especially Latin America, it was the military that trampled the human rights of our brothers and sisters.

It was a general’s voice that ordered the arrest of students and artists, which resulted in a bloodbath. It was the hand of a soldier that shot innocent people in the back. In the best possible scenario, Latin American armies have meant prohibitive expenditures for our economies. In the worst scenario, they have been a permanent source of instability for our democracies.

The Defence and National Security bill advances a range of objectives, one of which is the presumed necessity of restoring Haitian dignity and sovereignty by restoring the army. But Haiti does not need this. It can assure itself internal security with a well-equipped and professional police force that will guarantee that the law is obeyed. A military that could never rival those of its neighbours would contribute nothing to Haiti’s national security.

In most of the world, and especially Latin America, it was the military that trampled the human rights of our brothers and sisters

Haiti, Guatemala and Nicaragua are at the very bottom of the United Nations human development index for Latin America. It is no coincidence that these countries share other features: they have, or had, powerful armies while cutting social spending, particularly on education and healthcare. The $95 million it would take to fund the Defence and National Security bill should instead be invested in education and healthcare for Haiti’s children, in strengthening its democratic institutions to guarantee a minimum of political stability, and in finally regaining the confidence of Haitians and the international community, whose support is indispensable now and for the near future.

Like Haiti, Costa Rica is a small country. Its tropical climate exposes it to hurricanes and storms and other natural disasters. And yet my country ranks 69th in the world in the human development index and a child born there today has an average life expectancy of 79.1 years. In contrast, Haiti is number 145 on the index and its life expectancy is 17.4 years lower than that of Costa Rica.

The difference between the countries’ populations lies in education: the years of school completed, the range of subjects taught, and access to information technologies and communications. The population of an educated society has far more and better opportunities for employment.

There was a period in which my country was flanked to the north and the south by dictatorships. The sound of machine guns could be heard close to our borders. Instead of arming itself, Costa Rica fought for peace in Central America. What we needed was not an army. To the contrary, it was our status as a demilitarized nation that allowed us to be seen as allies by all sides in the conflict.

The $95 million it would take to fund the Defence and National Security bill should instead be invested in education and healthcare for Haiti’s children

In 1994, after an intense debate among the various political groups in Panama, in which the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress and I actively participated, the Panamanian congress approved a constitutional amendment abolishing the armed forces. Since then Costa Rica and Panama have shared the most peaceful border in the world. And it is not by chance that they are also the most successful economies in Central America, because the money that would have gone to our armies is now spent on the education of our children and healthcare for our citizens.

In 1995, Haiti decided to demobilize its army and so end a long cycle of coups d’état. It was a decision that the world applauded. Once again, the Arias Foundation and I played a part in supporting this wise choice. For Haiti, its entry into the select group of Latin American countries without armed forces, along with Costa Rica and Panama, meant that a window of hope was opened – a window that should never be closed.

Since that time I have called on the developed world not to abandon Haiti, to forgive its foreign debt, to lend it a hand, to give it abundant and timely aid, and to ensure that indifference would never be an option. But Haiti has its own responsibilities, and one is to take wise political decisions. To reinstall the army would be an error, and that is why I cannot keep silent.

Haiti will regain its dignity when all of its children and young people view the future with hope and when the winds of the Caribbean bring good fortune for all.

Oscar Arias Sanchez was President of Costa Rica between 1986-90 and 2006-10, and was the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Copyright IPS. Reproduced with permission.

The January/February issue 2012 of New Internationalist has a special focus on Haiti.

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