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Special court can right Haitian wrongs

by Cesar Chelala

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Known as the “Perle des Antilles” at the time of its independence in 1804, Haiti has gone through several periods of upheaval and terror that have stymied a once promising future. Human rights violations are widespread, and justice is nonexistent in the country today.

In 1804, after a slave revolt against the French, Haiti became the first independent republic in Latin America, and the world’s first black republic. In response to the colony’s revolt, the French imposed a commercial embargo, and the United States refused to recognize the new republic until 1862. Since independence, France and the U.S. have continued to exert influence on politics in Haiti.

In 2000, Jean Bertrand Aristide was re-elected president and assumed power in 2001. Aristide was unable to establish a working relationship with the opposition. Amid accusations of widespread government corruption and tainted parliamentary elections, the U.S. redirected economic aid from the government to nongovernmental organizations.

Haiti has the worst health-status indicators in the hemisphere, and it is the only country that is considered among the least developed. Life expectancy of Haitians is only 53 years old. Infant mortality is 76 per 1,000 live births, and the maternal mortality rate is 523 per 100,000 live births. The figures compare with 29 and 180, respectively, in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Half the population has no access to potable water and 65 percent live in poverty.

On Feb. 29, Aristide resigned under strong pressure from France and the U.S. He first went to the Central African Republic and then to South Africa, from where he still influences events in his country.

Haiti’s present ruler, Gerard Latortue, chosen by a group of U.S.-approved Haitian “wise persons,” is a transitional caretaker with almost no power to govern his country or restrain his own police force from carrying out acts of violence.

The situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate as the government intimidates, arrests and kills member of Lavalas, Aristide’s party, as revenge for similar killings carried out by Aristide’s government.

Last October, the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince called the Ministry of Health demanding emergency vehicles to remove more than 600 corpses that had been deposited there, the result of killings that had taken place in the previous weeks.

On Oct. 28, the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights expressed concern over the arbitrary arrests and detentions of former members of Aristide’s party, as well as other acts of violence and intimidation carried out against human rights advocates and journalists, including the murder last September of Moleste Lovinsky Bertomieux, the host of a daily program on Radio Caraibe.

Adults are not the only targets of police violence. Child welfare workers say the rate of beatings and killings of street children has increased five times since the ouster of Aristide. These murders are carried out by the police, death squads and the military.

Michael Brewer, director of Haiti Street Kids Inc., has described how groups of men who belong to military patrols in Port-au-Prince kill street children “for sport.”

Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of National Coalition for Haitian Rights, indicated to me, “Lack of justice is the most critical issue in Haiti today.”

During my stay in Haiti I heard a similar feelings expressed. Haitians are desperate to live in peace and security and to lead normal, productive lives. That is why the main task is to establish the rule of law, including finding a just solution for the more than 1,000 detainees currently awaiting trial.

With the judiciary all but destroyed, a possible solution could be to create a special court of justice along the lines of that established in Sierra Leone. A Haitian special court should develop out of an agreement between the government of Haiti and the United Nations. And, unlike the Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia Tribunals, which are composed exclusively of international judges elected by the U.N. General Assembly, Haiti’s special court should comprise both international and Haitian judges, prosecutors and staff.

Haiti is a vibrant country cursed by its own political elites and repeated foreign interventions. The establishment of civil justice is a condition for peace in the country, which continues to be ravaged by almost daily acts of violence. Peace must precede efforts to stimulate Haiti’s tattered economy. The establishment of a special court could bring a measure of accountability in Haiti, and would let the victims of significant human rights abuses and their families know that justice will finally prevail in their country.