The Haitian army was abolished nine years ago during a period of democratic transition precisely to prevent the country from falling back into the hands of military men. Now that the U.S. Marines have made the commendable decision to disarm rebel and pro-Aristide militants alike, the Haitian people desperately need the international community to ensure that it finishes the job.

Like so many Third World countries, Haiti has suffered not only from a lack of national security in the sense of borders and territorial integrity but also an ongoing crisis of human security, the right of each person to live in peace and with the guarantee of basic rights such as food, healthcare, education and citizenship. The army, long an instrument of suppressive authoritarian regimes, has historically deprived Haitians of these fundamental rights.

Predatory role

Isolated and destitute, Haitians have been terrorized not only by military violence but also by its accompanying legacy of poverty. In the late 1980s, the army consumed approximately 40 percent of the national budget even as hunger and AIDS decimated the population. Haiti could count on one soldier for every 1,000 citizens, and 1.5 doctors for every 10,000.

The 1991 coup against Haiti’s first democratically elected president was definitive proof of the army’s predatory role. Even though the 1994 agreement returning Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office called for a reduction of the army from 7,500 to 1,500 troops, a force that size was still a clear threat to democratic governance. In 1995, I visited Haiti to discuss with Aristide the benefits of doing away with the army entirely. He readily agreed that the army was a problem but doubted that he would have the political mandate to tackle it.

Since Aristide said that he could not abolish the army without the support of the Haitian people, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress commissioned an independent polling firm to gauge popular support for the idea. The results were stunning: 62 percent of Haitians were strongly in favor of abolition, and only 12 percent were against.

These figures were key in convincing Aristide that demilitarization was an idea whose time had come. He cut the army’s funding and set in motion a legislative process to have the abolition of the army enshrined in Haiti’s constitution. In 1996, when I visited Haiti for the inauguration of presidential successor René Préval, Aristide happily noted that of the 7,500-man army, the only ones still on the government payroll were 20 marching-band musicians.

Duties of civil defense

After the troops were disbanded, the next steps to consolidate the rule of law were clear: The population needed to be disarmed; death-squad leaders and army generals had to be brought to justice; and the police force required restructuring and professional training to take on the duties of civil defense. The abolition of the army was thus designed to complement larger nation-building initiatives developed in conjunction with the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. government.

But after a brief period of support after the U.S. occupation in 1994, the international community essentially left Haiti to work out its problems alone. The aid squeeze following the contested 2000 elections caused an implosion of the Haitian economy and a consequent crisis of governance.

Armed opposition groups of former soldiers reconstituted themselves both in Haiti and in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Aristide’s response to his predicament was disappointing, if not predictable. With his power threatened, he encouraged the formation of pro-government gangs. The chiméres also attacked students and peaceful demonstrators, a chilling echo of the army’s former role.

But it would be wrong to interpret Haiti’s current crisis as proof that the original decision to demilitarize was a mistake. The abolition of the army makes as much sense today as it did in 1995.

Repressive institution

It was never expected that the abolition of the army would immediately bring peace and development to Haiti. In the absence of economic development and political stability, no single reform is capable of rescuing a failing state. Nonetheless, the greatest achievement of Haiti’s first democratic government was the removal of that repressive and unjust institution.

Were the international community now to stand by as the rebels reinstated the army, it would surely destroy the seeds of peace and self-rule that have been planted with great sacrifice by the Haitian people.

Oscar Arias, a former president of Costa Rica, is the 1987 Nobel Peace laureate.