In responding to Haiti’s worsening violence, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should ensure that the country’s security forces respect international human rights standards on the use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said today.

An estimated 50 people have been killed in the past week as armed uprisings swept the country. Members of the Haitian police are reportedly among the dead, as are bystanders to clashes between police and armed gangs.

A number of Haiti’s cities and towns, including Gonaïves and St.-Marc, are now under the control of armed rebel factions. While these groups do not appear to be linked to the political opposition, their emergence reflects the failure of the country’s democratic institutions and procedures.

“The violence in Haiti is threatening to spiral out of control,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division. “President Aristide must take immediate, constructive steps to reestablish the rule of law and rebuild the country’s democratic institutions.”

Under international standards, the intentional use of lethal force by law enforcement officials is permissible only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

In early January, the term of the Haitian legislature expired. Legislative elections should have taken place last year, but a political stalemate blocked the creation of the necessary electoral institutions. The stalemate dates back to the 2000 legislative elections, which were marred by serious electoral fraud.

Mass protests, a staple of the Haitian political landscape in recent years, gained momentum in January. In some protests, opposition demonstrators and bystanders have been attacked by police and militant government supporters. On Thursday, government supporters blocked roads and threw rocks at opposition demonstrators, derailing a planned protest march in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

What has sparked the current crisis, however, is the takeover of several cities and towns by armed criminal gangs that refuse to recognize the Haitian government’s authority. The rule of law in Haiti, already precarious, has been seriously weakened over the past week.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of the violence. In Haiti’s northern regions, around Port-de-Paix, Cap Haïtien and Fort Liberté, violence has prevented food convoys from reaching the population. The poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti can ill afford this disruption of humanitarian aid.