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Haiti: the Damage Done

March 14, 2007

Haiti: the Damage Done

Part I of an Interview with Brian Concannon

by Darren Ell

The 2004 coup reversed years of progress in Haiti. Photo: Joseph Wenkoff

Brian Concannon is the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). He founded IJDH after the 2004 Canada-US-France coup d’état that ousted Haiti’s democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Concannon formerly co-directed the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) , the most prominent legal group prosecuting human rights cases in Haiti, and worked for MICIVIH, a UN human rights mission in Haiti. Darren Ell interviewed him in the offices of the BAI in Port-au-Prince on February 28, 2007, the third anniversary of the 2004 overthrow of democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For a timeline documenting Canada’s involvement in Haiti since 2000, read this.

Darren Ell: Why did you create the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti?

Brian Concannon : We started the IJDH because -- despite painstaking progress made by the Bureaux des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the UN and the Haitian justice system from 1995 to 2004 -- when the US, Canada and France threw out Haiti’s elected leader, they also threw out all our progress: everyone we had convicted was let out of jail; they packed the courts with new judges; appointed new prosecutors; put pressure on existing judges; and then systematically reversed everything else. Good judges and prosecutors were pushed out and replaced with people willing to do what the regime asked them to do.

It became clear to me that there was no point in painstakingly constructing a justice system if powerful nations in the international community -- like the US, France and Canada -- could just throw it all out the window, which is what they did in February 2004. I then felt that after nine years in Haiti, my place was in the US, trying to make the US, France and Canada safe for democracy in Haiti. So the role of the IJDH is really to carry the fight for justice in Haiti to the international community.

Talk about the importance of the BAI in Haiti.

Between 2004 and 2006, they were the only group standing up for victims in court. Their success at getting people out of jail at the time was not great. That’s the nature of a dictatorship. We only saw real progress after the Latortue dictatorship was voted out of office [in 2006]. Despite the initial failures, however, Mario Joseph’s [manager of the BAI] work gave activists the knowledge that someone would be there for them when they got arrested. Many activists have since told us that BAI’s presence helped them stand up for democracy. It gave people more confidence to go out and vote in 2006. Although it didn’t reverse the oppression, it limited it because the interim government knew that if it went beyond a certain point, BAI would represent people in court, get the word out, [by connecting] with groups like the Canada-Haiti Action Network and solidarity groups in the US that bring pressure to bear in their own countries. It didn’t reverse the coup, but it was part of the solution.

You’re trying to ensure that criminal regimes know they will be pursued once out of power.

That’s a lot of the work we were doing from 1996 to 2004: trying to break the cycle of coup d’états. In 2000, we thought we had succeeded with the Raboteau Massacre Trial, where we convicted all the top military and paramilitary leadership. They were all given life sentences. Three of the members of the high command were deported from the US, including a major-general, the highest ranked soldier ever deported from the US to face human rights charges. So it looked like we had finally established a deterrent. Then the US, France and Canada overthrew the government and all these people got out. But we continue to put in people’s minds that there is a cost to this. Gerard Latortue, for example, has some very well founded worries right now. He will soon be in legal trouble. We are using the International Tribunal on Haiti and pressuring the UN. We filed complaints with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against Latortue and the UN. Unfortunately, they aren’t taking a lot of the cases. However, a lot of law students in the US are working on ways of going after MINUSTAH [UN mission in Haiti] and the political leaders. We won’t stop until there is accountability and justice.

Anything you want to add about the legal and judicial impact of the 2004 coup d’état?

The reversal of developments within the justice system will have an impact for years. The judges were appointed illegally. Until now, Préval [current president of Haiti] has not chosen to legalize the judges. This is very problematic. Latortue named half the Supreme Court on his whim. Many people continue to be in place for reasons other than their ability to impartially decide a case. That will be there for a long time, and it sets a horrible precedent. The fact that people can take power illegally impacts the justice system. Many lawyers said during the Latortue regime that it was the worst time for the Haitian justice system since well before the Duvaliers, because not even the Duvaliers would go so far as to fire half the Supreme Court. [Francois Duvalier and later his son Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled Haiti by dictatorships that were known for violence and corruption. Jean-Claude was overthrown during a popular uprising in 1986]

But there’s another legal problem now at the level of the Constitution. One of the things Haiti is missing is a tradition of regular legal transfers of power. During the democratic interlude from 1994 to 2004, Haiti began developing that tradition. We saw in 1996 the first ever transition from an elected president to another elected president. 2001 saw the first time an elected president had ever served out his entire term in office and left voluntarily at the end. There were still problems in the legislature with contested elections, but you finally had one branch of government doing the types of things Canadians and Americans take for granted. People in Haiti finally felt like we do; that no matter how little you like a government, you will have the chance to vote them out. You cannot overestimate the benefits of this to Haitian stability. Ministers could finally make longer-term plans for the country. This is what Haiti needs in order to develop economically.

This was all thrown out the window in 2004, returning the country to the old precedent of “might makes right.” As before, once the president gets into power -- and this is happening with Préval -- his opponents do what they can to shorten his term. He spends a lot of time and energy fighting this, energy he isn’t putting into providing clean drinking water, food and education for Haitians. I think this return to the precedent of “might makes right” could in the long-term be more damaging than the legal issues. It has happened so often in Haitian history that there is a proverb for it: “Constitution, c’est papier; baionnette, c’est fer.” [Constitutions are made of paper and bayonets are made of steel.] That was reinforced three years ago today.

In the press, we’ve heard the term “dictator” used to describe Aristide and the Duvaliers. But we’ve never heard it used in the press to describe Latortue.

Aristide was the first person in Haiti’s history to leave voluntarily at the end of his term, yet he was called a dictator. The press was so free in his term that in the lead up to the coup d’état of 2004 you had the press openly calling for the overthrow of the government. In the US, that would not be tolerated. That would be beyond free speech. My expectation is that it would be illegal in Canada as well. There was immense freedom of assembly. There were assemblies that would definitely have been controlled in the US or Canada because they were violent and illegal. But because they were done by the opposition, the Aristide government didn’t touch them. So it’s curious that someone like that is called a dictator.

Then you get someone like Latortue who was a dictator in a very real sense. He had no parliament. He abolished what was left of it. He took over the justice system, completely illegally naming people to it. Aristide never did that. He named people by the regular channels through a fair process.

And then Latortue's violent attacks on Artistide's party, Lavalas.

That was the worst of it, the police killing people. There were hundreds of political prisoners, which you never had with Aristide. There were some arrests that looked political and some spent a week in jail without respect for their rights. It shouldn’t have happened and we denounced it at the time, but there’s no comparison between a couple of people spending a week in jail and hundreds of people spending two years in jail. Then there’s the thousands mowed down by police and their paramilitary allies.

Talk to us about the international connection to justice issues in Haiti. What should concerned people living in the countries that pulled off the coup – Canada, the US and France -- be thinking about?

They should consider that Haiti should be given the same chance as their own countries to develop a justice system. No country becomes independent then immediately has a great tradition of justice. In the early stages of the US, there were problems even though there was time to develop it, even though the transfer to independence was relatively peaceful compared to what happened in Haiti.

Canadians should be worried about wasting their money. I believe it was in 1996 when the Canadian government started building really nice courthouses all over the country. It made a difference. It allowed the justice system to function much better than it previously had. All those courthouses were burned down in 2004 with the coup. Canada and the US invest a lot of money into the administration of justice, into filing cabinets and training, which are all good and necessary. But it’s an absolute waste of money if you’re going to defy the constitution and replace the government when you don’t like it.

But there’s something more important, and I say this as someone who has worked with the UN, worked within the justice system on behalf of victims, worked side-by-side with people from the US and Canadian embassies and the UN: everyone keeps telling people in the Haitian justice system, “You need to respect the rule of law. You need blind justice.” But it’s very hard for judges to rule correctly when their lives are being threatened. It’s hard for them to pass up bribes – they don’t have enough money to live – if you yourself aren’t setting a good example yourself. You have also to convince them that they’re working for something sustainable. In the Raboteau Massacre case, we convinced judges to do a fair job, to not take money and to rule based on the facts. Those judges got beaten up after the coup d’état. It’s very easy for a Canadian or an American to go in and say, “You have to obey the rule of law.” But they’re going to reply, “Where were you three years ago when our constitutional government was overthrown, when we got beaten, when the good judges got kicked out?” That’s a very good question. The Americans, Canadians and French have very low credibility telling Haitians they have to sacrifice when they wouldn’t stand up for Haiti in its hour of need.

Are there precedents in place for the prosecution of government officials from foreign governments involved in coup d’états? I’m thinking of officials from Canada and the US.

We filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against the Dominican Republic, the Interim Government and the United States for the overthrow of democracy in Haiti. We were working with some Canadian lawyers to get a similar complaint against Canada, but before we could file the Canadian complaint, the IACHR threw the case out. The problem is that the wealthy countries don’t sign onto human rights treaties that can hold them accountable. It’s something the human rights movement is starting to recognize. Groups like Amnesty International have traditionally pursued human rights abusers in poor countries, which is very important, but in many cases, such as Haiti, the strings are pulled by wealthy countries. Amnesty didn’t stand up for democracy in Haiti, but I’m confident they will do a better job next time. This is what the solidarity movement needs to do; ensure there are structures in place so that when the next coup d’état is being planned – it’s already happening in Haiti and other countries may already be planning to remove Préval – so when that process comes to light, we need to have structures in place to stop them.

You’re talking about a deterrent. I’ve discussed impunity with people, but you’re talking about stopping crimes before they happen.

We’re not there yet, but there are promising historical cases like Germany, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Chile. Now there are also cases against Rumsfeld in Germany and the US. We’re exploring options for Haiti.

And Rumsfeld just lost his job. It didn’t take years to pursue him, only a few months.

This is a great development. Historically, we waited 10 or 20 years before going after the guy. The time for pursuit has shortened. We haven’t convicted Kissinger or Rumsfeld yet, and even Pinochet sort of got away with it. But at least he was legally harassed until his death. That is the next step; going after these people. It’s not easy because they made the rules, but we’ll find a way.

Read Part II of this interview

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