Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s Former Dictator Must Face Justice (Ottawa Citizen)

Andrew Thompson and Alex Neve, Ottawa Citizen
Monday, September 26th, 2011 9:02am

Frequent Delays Have Cast Doubt Over Whether Former Haitian President Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier Will Pay for His Crimes.

Supporters of former Haitian president Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier demonstrate in Port-au-Prince in January. A trial against Duvalier, while immensely challenging, could greatly assist efforts to rebuild and reform.
Photograph by: Hector Retamal, AFP/Getty Image

Ultimately it is in everyone’s interest, not just Haitians, that justice be served. By their very nature, crimes against humanity are so heinous that they shock our collective global conscience.

Even measured against Haiti’s turbulent history, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s sudden and unexpected return to Haiti in January of this year, after 25 years in exile, was a particularly bizarre moment for the country. Rumours about his motivation and his sanity ran rampant. What we said at the time is that it was incumbent upon Haitian authorities — with active support from Canada and other countries — to ensure that he faces justice.

A trial against Duvalier, while immensely challenging, could greatly assist efforts to rebuild and reform.

Few reports missed the cruel irony of the situation — that the man who was responsible for so much hardship during his 15-year rule insisted that he had come home to “show solidarity” with his fellow Haitians in their time of need as they continued to struggle in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

At the time, no one would have imagined that the former strong man of Haiti would be back in the country, facing charges of embezzlement and crimes against humanity. But sometimes life is stranger than fiction. For that is exactly what happened. Charges were laid. And it gave Haitians a sense of hope that they might finally see accountability for those years of terrible abuses.

But many months later, that hope is fading. The prosecution has become stalled, partly because there was no prosecutor in place for many weeks. As well, Haiti currently has no justice minister because of a standoff between the country’s new president, Michel Martelly and parliament. Meanwhile reports abound that Duvalier is enjoying the good life, attending music concerts and dining out. And just Friday, Duvalier’s lawyers attempted to break up a press conference in Portau-Prince in which Amnesty researchers presented a new report detailing the systemic human rights violations that occurred during the former president’s time in office.

It is time for this to move ahead. Canada must press the Martelly government to get down to the business of justice. The human rights case against Duvalier is compelling. While in power from 1971 to 1986, the Duvalier regime was responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations that included executions, torture and forced disappearances.

For too long, including during the terrifying Duvalier years, Haiti has suffered from a culture of impunity. Trying Baby Doc will represent a major step forward, not only for the thousands of victims, but also for the country as a whole. It is long overdue. Haiti still struggles with the legacy of 29 years of abuses under Baby Doc and his father, and further serious human rights violations during 25 post-Duvalier years. The international community has both the obligation and an opportunity to assist Haiti with the effort to hold Baby Doc accountable for his crimes. And Haiti will need help. The January 2010 earthquake decimated a justice system that was already weak. A trial against Duvalier, while immensely challenging, could greatly assist efforts to rebuild and reform.

A trial would, of course, have the potential to be highly polarizing. The Martelly government will undoubtedly face considerable internal pressure, particularly from the country’s elites, to dismiss the charges. A strong showing of external support would go a long way toward bolstering the resolve of Haitian officials.

Help is needed in other ways as well. Much of the existing evidence against Duvalier resides not in Port-au-Prince, but around the world. Amnesty International has already handed over to Haitian authorities more than 100 documents from its archives that contain information about rights violations during this period. Governments, including Canada, should do so as well. They must do so even if the records contain incriminating information about their own relations with the regime.

Ultimately it is in everyone’s interest, not just Haitians, that justice be served. By their very nature, crimes against humanity are so heinous that they shock our collective global conscience.

A trial against Baby Doc would reverberate beyond Haiti’s borders. It would mark one more step forward in the struggle to dismantle the entrenched impunity that has protected legions of presidents and prime ministers who have orchestrated massive human rights violations while in power.

The list of cases in which there has been some effort to bring former leaders to justice is growing, including Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, the former Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian Charles Taylor. But these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most former leaders retire comfortably, and are never held to account. That perfectly describes the life Baby Doc led in France for the last quarter century.

Prosecuting Duvalier would further strengthen the critical international norm that no one is above the law when it comes to being held responsible for serious human rights violations. Just maybe, this will cause other former (and even current) heads of state to be a little more nervous about their own fates. The bottom line: the prosecution needs to commence.

Andrew Thompson is an adjunct assistant professor of political science and the program officer at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. Alex Neve is the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada in Ottawa.

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