Oxfam: Armed violence discouraging Haitians from presidential voting

By Oxfam

Fear of armed violence is discouraging Haitians from voting in the presidential elections scheduled for Tuesday 7 February, warned international aid agency Oxfam today.

Armed violence raging in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince is being fuelled by up to 210,000 weapons currently estimated to be in circulation. Most of these weapons have been supplied from abroad.

Haitian authorities have set up large centralized polling stations, where thousands will vote. This means that many Haitians will have to walk several kilometers to take part in the election, the first since President Aristide fled in February 2004. However, many people have told Oxfam they will not make the journey because they fear becoming a victim of armed violence.

"Many residents of Port-au-Prince have told us they are too scared to make the journey to vote on Tuesday. Innocent people in Haiti have endured a wave of violence in the last two years. Rape is common in Port-au-Prince and this is directly linked to the proliferation of arms," said Yolette Etienne, Oxfam's Country Program Manager for Haiti.

Oxfam Haiti is launching a national campaign against armed violence. It is helping set up a committee of national and international organizations to lead the campaign and will also be working with a thousand young people in areas most affected by armed violence.

"In Port-au-Prince the rule of the gun dominates despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. And it is the poorest people, living in slums such as Cite Soleil, who suffer the most. There is no easy solution to the violence. And there is much to be done in Haiti. But UN member states, including the United States, can play a vital role by kick-starting negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty this year, " added Etienne.

Negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty, which would ban arms sales to countries where weapons are likely to be used to violate human rights, could start this year, following a landmark UN conference on small arms controls in June.

Haiti produces no firearms except crude home-made 'Creole' guns. All of its disparate armed groups depend on weapons from abroad, most of which are smuggled in from countries in the region.

The USA has been the largest supplier of legal and illegal arms to Haiti since the 1980s. In the last two years, it has made a large exception to its 14-year-old arms embargo, providing 2,600 weapons to the police in 2004 and approving another sale in 2005 of pistols, rifles, and tear gas worth US$1.9m. The 1991 embargo allows for these exceptions on 'a case-by-case basis'.

Over the past decade several countries including Brazil, France, Italy and the UK have licensed the transfer of arms to Haiti, according to customs data in the UN commodity trade database.

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