Sunday, March 07, 2004

A word on Haiti

To the editors of the Washington Post:

Scott Wilson's assertion in his March 7th story that Aristide's government had been "willing for the first time to take on difficult human rights prosecutions -- at least against its enemies" is simply befuddling. Isn't it always easier to go after your enemies than it is your opponents? Wilson discusses the trial and conviction of former army officers and paramilitaries implicated in an April 1994 massacre in Raboteau--a massacre which happened before Aristide returned to power--as a successful benchmark for human rights.

However, a cursory review of human rights violations and their prosecution since Aristide took office in 2001 reveals a less optimistic picture. In fact, six months into the second Aristide presidency the National Council for Haitian Rights --a group featured prominently in Wilson's article-- criticized the "systematization of impunity." Also in 2001, according to Human Rights Watch, "President Aristide announced a 'zero tolerance' crime policy, stating that it was not necessary to bring criminals to court. His words were widely interpreted by Haitians as an invitation to vigilante justice and police violence. Human rights groups reported that in the months following the speech, dozens of suspected thieves were killed by mobs." Is this what Wilson meant when he referred to Aristide having instigated armed gangs to "intimidate" political opponents?

No one can deny that Aristide has great support in Haiti for his outreach to the poor and disenfranchised, just as no one can celebrate the current chaos in which notoriously thuggish former soldiers appear to enjoy free rein.

But given Aristide's dreadful human rights legacy, it would be a huge error for journalists to leave readers with the impression that the rule of law had been steadily advancing in recent years.

David Holiday

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I found a letter to the Guardian from Helen Sproas, the Haiti field representative for Christian Aid, a British NGO. She writes:

"Christian Aid's Haitian partner organisations have ample evidence of serious human rights abuses and misrule committed by Aristide and his supporters. Despite his populist rhetoric, Aristide failed to take any serious measures during his last period in office that would address Haiti's underlying problems of growing poverty, glaring inequality and the exclusion of ordinary people from any say in the way the country is governed."

A couple of days later, she penned a balanced op-ed in the same paper, which said in part:

"For Haiti to stand a chance of overcoming this cycle of terror and misrule, it must listen to the voices of its poor. The one constant factor in Haiti's otherwise turbulent political history has been the exclusion of ordinary people's concerns from affairs of state. Instead, successive presidents have used power for their personal benefit to the detriment of any lasting institutions that could work in the interests of the country and not just its rulers."

Here is a brief but thorough position paper by Christian Aid on the Haitian situation; Grassroots International has also published some analyses from some of their counterparts, as well as recent blog entries on Haiti.

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