Campaign for the return of democracy to Haiti
South Africans are called on to join the people of Haiti, and others around the world, in campaigning for the return of stability, the rule of law and democracy to the Caribbean state.
Haiti has been in a state of crisis since an armed rebellion forced democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office and into exile in February last year.
Despite the deployment of a United Nations ‘stabilisation mission’, there has been widespread violence and instability since the overthrow of Haiti’s constitutional government. Members of the Aristide government, members of parliament, and members and supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas party have been arrested and are being held without formal changes. It is estimated there are currently more than 1,000 political prisoners being held illegally in Haiti’s jails. Many thousands were forced into exile, and many are in hiding.
This situation has been highlighted by the grave condition of Haiti’s last constitutional prime minister Yvon Neptune, who has been on a hunger strike in a Haitian prison since mid-April. Reported to be gravely ill, Neptune has been in prison since June last year without having been brought to court -despite a constitutional requirement of a hearing within 48 hours of arrest. Neptune turned himself over to police after hearing a radio announcement of a warrant for his arrest relating to an alleged ‘massacre’ near the coastal city of St. Marc weeks before Aristide was ousted. Neptune is insisting that he be charged or released, amid reports that the interim government is trying to force him to leave the country.
A human rights investigation conducted in Haiti in November last year under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Miami School of Law found that life for the impoverished majority “is becoming more violent and more inhuman as the months pass since the elected government’s removal”.
“After ten months under an interim government backed by the United States, Canada, and France and but�tressed by a United Nations force, Haiti’s people churn inside a hurricane of violence. Gunfire crackles, once bustling streets are abandoned to cadavers, and whole neighbourhoods are cut off from the outside world. Night�marish fear now accompanies Haiti’s poorest in their struggle to survive in destitution. Gangs, police, irregular soldiers, and even UN peacekeepers bring fear. There has been no investment in dialogue to end the violence.
“Haiti’s security and justice institutions fuel the cycle of violence. Summary executions are a police tactic, and even well-meaning officers treat poor neighborhoods seeking a democratic voice as enemy territory where they must kill or be killed. Haiti’s brutal and disbanded army has returned to join the fray. Suspected dissidents fill the prisons, their constitutional rights ignored. As voices for non-violent change are silenced by arrest, assassination, or fear, violent defense becomes a credible option. Mounting evidence suggests that members of Haiti’s elite…pay gangs to kill Lavalas supporters and finance the illegal army.”
Since becoming the world first independent black republic in 1804 following a successful slave rebellion, Haiti has suffered almost two centuries of foreign interference, brutal misrule, military coups, underdevelopment and poverty. For almost three decades, the country was ruled by the Duvalier dynasty, a period characterised by corruption, human rights abuses and the increasing impoverishment of the majority. Following the fall of Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in 1986, and a succession of military governments, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in December 1990. Within seven months of taking office he was overthrown in a military coup, and was only returned to office in 1994 after a UN-authorised military intervention.
In November 2000, Aristide was re-elected president of Haiti, and inaugurated the following February. Yet, despite the disbandment of the Haitian military, armed opposition to the constitutional order continued. Alongside a sustained anti-Aristide campaign in the international – and particularly US – media, and a well-funded opposition movement, armed opposition groups and proxy ‘street gangs’ waged an increasingly overt campaign of terror against the Haitian poor. Former paramilitary leaders, some of whom had been convicted of past human rights violations, emerged as the leaders of the armed opposition forces.
This violence escalated in the months before the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence, on 1 January 2004, and set the scene for the removal of Haiti’s constitutional government barely two months later.
As the situation of Haiti’s poor worsens daily, South Africans are called upon to join others around the world in campaigning for a return to constitutionality, stability and political freedom in Haiti.
The United Nations needs to lead an international effort, with the involvement of regional bodies like the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), to ensure the unelected interim government ends the political persecution of Lavalas members and supporters, releases all political prisoners, ends all illegal arrests and summary executions, and ensures the disarmament of all illegally armed groups and individuals As an immediate step, the interim government must either formally charge or release Yvon Neptune and other political prisoners.
The constitutional order must be restored, which should include the creation of conditions for the return of all exiles, including President Aristide, and the organisation of free, peaceful and fair democratic elections.
Urgent steps need to be taken to end the brutalisation of Haiti’s population and open the way for a meaningful national dialogue towards the restoration of the country’s constitutional order. Yet this cannot happen while the remnants of Haiti’s military past are allowed by the international community to continue with their programme to silence the voices of the Haitian people.