Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

A Step in the Right Direction

Brian Concannon Jr., The Miami Herald
February 6, 2001

A Step in the Right Direction

Haiti ‘s progress in consolidating democracy over the last decade is spectacular.

PORT-AU-PRINCE , HAITI- Tomorrow, Haiti President Rene Preval is scheduled to pass the mantle of power to his successor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. If he does, he will have been elected, served no more nor less than his constitutional term and relinquished power voluntarily. Such a trajectory in a more-established democracy would be routine, not worthy of note. In Haiti , it’s an accomplishment, one that none of Preval’s predecessors since independence in 1804 have managed. If present trends continue, Haitians may one day treat such an administration as routine. Haiti has struggled in its democratic transition since the departure of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986, and it continues to struggle today. Yet, viewed against the backdrop of the last 200 years, Haiti ‘s progress in consolidating democracy over the last decade is nothing short of spectacular, and is reason for profound optimism.

Preval took over five years ago from Aristide, who was Haiti ‘s first democratically elected president (his term was interrupted by the brutal 1991-1994 de facto dictatorship). Although elections last year in May and December didn’t escape criticism, for the first time ever all of the 1987 constitution’s elected posts are filled. For the first time, the local assemblies, called ASECs, will operate. Although individual ASEC members have little power, the ASEC system nominates judges and chooses the Permanent Electoral Council. The installation of a Council would preclude many of the criticisms that have plagued previous elections.

Democracy is also fighting its way into the justice system. In 1990, the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights reported that there “is no system of justice in Haiti . Even to speak of a “Haitian justice system” dignifies the brutal use of force by officers and soldiers, the chaos of Haitian courtrooms and prisons and the corruption of judges and prosecutors. Last November, the United Nations support mission to Haiti affirmed that two recent landmark trials “prove that the Haitian justice system is capable of effectively prosecuting” human-rights cases, “while respecting the guarantees of the 1987 constitution and international treaties to which Haiti is a party.”

The two trials were of the 1999 Carrefour Feuilles massacre and 1994 Raboteau massacre. Although neither was flawless, they are by far the two best judicial proceedings in Haiti ‘s history. The former showed the system’s willingness and ability to punish even top officials for police brutality. The latter showed that the judiciary could perform to international standards in a complex case, while also responding to popular demands for justice for the dictatorship’s victims.

The still unsolved murder of prominent journalist and pro-democracy activist Jean Dominique last April serves as a reminder of work undone, but even here the justice system is trying. Possibly the most-important development in Haiti ‘s democratic transition is the abolition of the army, which had historically pillaged the treasury and terrorized the population. It is impossible to over-emphasize the improvement of this measure in the lives of ordinary Haitians.

Not coincidentally, there were twice as many schools in 2000 as in 1990, although it will be years before the education system is adequate. Like many of its neighbors that are poor and unfortunately placed between cocaine’s supply and its demand, Haiti struggles with the drug trade’s corruption. But even here there is progress. The Parliament reopened in August, and ratified a drug interdiction treaty with the United States . Bills to fight trafficking and money laundering are working their way through the legislature, and the central bank has required reporting of suspicious bank transactions.

Although we in the United States have reason for pride in our democratic institutions, we need to remember that they were achieved through long, often messy struggles. Our struggles should also be a source of humility, and of perspective when we seek to judge and to assist our neighbors’ progress toward the ideal of democracy.

Brian Concannon Jr, a lawyer, works for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a group of lawyers assisting the Haitian justice system with human-rights cases.

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