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Haiti: The Past Is Prologue


Monday, Mar. 01, 2004

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, president of Haiti until yesterday, has ceded power. Pressed to resign by the U.S. and French governments, and facing a threatened rebel assault on Port-au-Prince, Aristide was flown out of the country early Sunday morning.

By the end of the day, the U.S. had already sent the first military troops of a planned multinational force to restore order to Haiti. It marked the third time in less than a century that the U.S. has intervened there militarily.

The last such U.S. intervention, just under than a decade ago, is worth recalling now. There is the striking symmetry, to begin with: In 1994, the United States sent troops to Haiti to facilitate Aristide's return to the presidency; now, it's sending troops because it convinced him to leave.

But there is another symmetry, as well, that merits examination. In 1994, the U.S. had little use for efforts to bring justice to the victims of violent human rights abuses committed under military rule. Rather than assisting in the prosecution of human rights crimes, it preferred to placate the perpetrators: to overlook violence rather than to confront it. Indeed, in several different ways, the U.S. directly impeded efforts to prosecute past human rights crimes in Haiti.

Why is this history relevant now? Because the authors of those past abuses are back. Louis Jodel Chamblain, a former paramilitary responsible for countless atrocities under the military government that ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994, is a leading commander in the insurgent coalition that fought to oust Aristide. Jean-Pierre Baptiste, a less prominent paramilitary from the same period, is also among the rebel forces.

And a large number of the insurgents -- perhaps the main body of their forces-- are former officers and soldiers of the Haitian army. Responsible for killings, rape, torture and other violent abuses during military rule, the army was disbanded in late 1994, a thoroughly discredited institution.

The Recycled Paramilitary

Louis Jodel Chamblain is, beyond any doubt, the most shocking figure to have reemerged among the rebels. A sergeant in the Haitian army until 1989 or 1990, Chamblain was one of the founders in 1993 of the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH). As FRAPH's second in command, and its operational leader, he had a reputation for violence and action.

"I was never paramilitary chief," asserted Chamblain in a recent interview with the New York Times. "I was the leader of a political organization. FRAPH helped people and brought the Haitian people together."

FRAPH's repressive activities, in fact, helped lead nearly 100,000 Haitians to flee their country. At least 3,000 people were killed during military rule, and many thousands more suffered torture, rape, beatings, extortion, arbitrary detention and other abuses.

The U.S. Role in Impeding Justice

But in 1994, when U.S. forces entered Haiti, they allowed FRAPH members, notorious military officers, and other perpetrators of human rights crimes to escape unhindered into exile. Indeed, the U.S. government pushed hard for the passage of a broad amnesty law that would have officially barred the prosecution of the countless crimes committed under military rule. Failing in that effort, it impeded the prosecution of such crimes by refusing to return incriminating documents that it had seized from military offices, and by granting Emmanuel Constant, an infamous FRAPH leader with CIA ties, protection from deportation in the United States.

Chamblain himself escaped to the Dominican Republic after the U.S. intervention, as did other former soldiers and paramilitaries. Although he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for a 1993 murder and a 1994 massacre, he never served a day behind bars for his crimes.

Chamblain's case, unfortunately, is rather more paradigmatic than exceptional. Although the Haitian government took some steps to achieve accountability for the abuses committed under military rule, including prosecuting some of the leaders of an infamous massacre, the demands of justice went largely unmet.

The army was disbanded but never fully disarmed, and its worst abusers remained free. Demobilized soldiers organized into groups to defend their interests, and became increasingly alienated, resentful and dangerous. In recent years, as conditions in Haiti worsened, a group of former soldiers began mobilizing near the border of the Dominican Republic in the central part of the country. That group, joined by reinforcements, laid the groundwork for the armed uprising of this February.


So now that Aristide is gone, what can be expected next? Guy Philippe, the leader of the rebellion that led to Aristide's ouster, has already stated that he expects his men to be part of the new government. And it would not be surprising for Philippe to pressure that government to issue a broad series of pardons to benefit men like Chamblain.

But if the United States wants stability in Haiti, it should recognize that impunity encourages violence and unrest. In 1994, by letting Chamblain and his ilk off the hook, the U.S. helped sow the seeds of the current crisis. Now that the U.S. is back in Haiti for another round, it should not make the same mistakes twice.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. Her last FindLaw column on Haiti discussed the controversial 2000 legislative elections.

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