What took place in the Caribbean nation of Haiti this past weekend marks perhaps the regional nadir of diplomacy for the international community that helped bring it about, and perhaps the worst single day for the country’s fragile democracy since a 1991 coup derailed its first democratic government.
Following a dispute centered on alleged government-sponsored fraud in elections to find a successor to outgoing President Michel Martelly, the president’s mandate expired on 7 February and, after cutting a deal with parliament, he stepped down to clear the way for the selection of a provisional president tasked with forming a new electoral council and holding a new vote.
It was believed the Martelly, a former star of Haiti’s konpa music scene who went by the name of Sweet Micky, intended to appoint Jules Cantave, the chief of Haiti’s Supreme Court, as his successor, even though the latter’s mandate had expired late last year. The chief of the Supreme Court has traditionally been the head of interim governments during Haiti’s often-fraught periods of transition, including in 1990-91 and 2004-2006.
Haiti’s parliament, which has technical approval over the appointment and which itself was elected in August elections so full of violence and fraud they had to be cancelled in some municipalities, had other ideas, though. The senate – after announcing that candidates would have to pay $8,300 for the privilege of applying – selected its own president, Jocelerme Privert, to run the country until elections are held in April and a new president inaugurated in May.
Privert, currently affiliated with the INITE party of former president René Préval, has served as a senator since 2010. During his tenure in parliament, he has been praised by the international community as a flexible pragmatist willing to work out deals with various political factions and the international community. Before he entered parliament, though, Privert served from 2002 to 2004 as the Minister of Interior, in charge of internal security, for the second government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown in February of the latter year after an armed rebellion and massive street protests against his rule.
This is where things grow murky.
Between 2001 and 2004, I spent many days in the Cité Soleil slum of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the largest such neighborhood in the Caribbean and then a stronghold of pro-Aristide armed groups, referred to in Haiti as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon. Though Cité Soleil is far from just a gangland and the majority of its residents are hardworking people simply scrambling to survive, that the leaders of these irregular armed groups – whose existence violated Article 268 of Haiti’s constitution whereby the national police were the only body with the right to distribute and circulate weapons in the country – were in close contact with the Aristide government was beyond doubt. They were frequently hosted by Aristide at the National Palace (sometimes these meetings were even broadcast on state television) and they showed me what they said were the personal cell phone numbers of such individuals as Hermione Leonard, then police director for the department including Haiti’s capital, and of Privert himself, whom they witheringly referred to as Ti Jocelyn (Little Jocelyn), on their own mobile phones. I was not the only one to observe this. Similar groups existed throughout the country.
Privert and Aristide’s connections to these armed groups are relevant because, as the regime sputtered to its sanguinary dénouement in late 2003 and early 2004, these groups were among the state-allied actors who carried out a series of killings in the Haiti’s Artibonite region.
In late 2003 a rebellion against the government erupted in the northern city of Gonaïves after the killing of Amiot Métayer, the leader of a pro-Aristide gang in the city called the Cannibal Army. The gang blamed the crime on Aristide, swore revenge and set about fighting pitched battles with pro-government security forces [They would be joined be joined in a few weeks’ time by former members of Haiti’s disbanded army and others crossing over from the Dominican Republic).
During October 2003, while Privert was serving as Interior Minister, government security forces killed over 20 people during raids into the Cannibal Army’s stronghold in the slum of Raboteau, many of them uninvolved civilians including mother of five Michelet Lozier, Josline Michel and a month old baby girl.
These incidents, however, paled in comparison to what befell the resident of the northern town of Saint-Marc four months later.
On 7 February 2004, an armed anti-Aristide group, the Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint-Marc (Ramicosm), based in the neighborhood of La Scierie, had attempted to drive government forces from the town, seizing the local police station, which they set on fire.
Two days later, the combined forces of the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH), the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN) — a unit directly responsible for the president’s personal security — and a local paramilitary organization named Bale Wouze (Clean Sweep) retook much of the city. By 11 February, Bale Wouze – headed by a former parliamentary representative of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas political party named Amanus Mayette – had commenced the battle to retake La Scierie. Often at Mayette’s side was a government employee named Ronald Dauphin, known to residents as “Black Ronald,” often garbed in a police uniform even though he was in no way officially employed by the police.
When the photojournalist Alex Smailes and I arrived in the town, we found the USGPN and Bale Wouze patrolling Saint-Marc as a single armed unit. Speaking to residents there — amidst a surreal backdrop of burned buildings, the stench of human decay, drunken gang members threatening our lives with firearms and a terrified population — we soon realized that something awful had happened in Saint-Marc.
According to multiple residents interviewed during that visit and a subsequent visit that I made to the town in June 2009, after government forces retook the town — and after a press conference there by Yvon Neptune, at the time Aristide’s Prime Minister and also the head of the Conseil Superieur de la Police Nationale d’Haiti — a textbook series of war crimes took place.
Residents spoke of how Kenol St. Gilles, a carpenter with no political affiliation, was shot in each thigh, beaten unconscious by Bale Wouze members and thrown into a burning cement depot, where he died. Unarmed Ramicos member Leroy Joseph was decapitated, while Ramicosm second-in-command Nixon François was simply shot. In the ruins of the burned-out commissariat, Bale Wouze members gang raped a 21-year-old woman, while other residents were gunned down by police firing from a helicopter as they tried to flee over a nearby mountain. A local priest told me matter-of-factly at the time of Bale Wouze that “these people don’t make arrests, they kill.”
Nor were Alex and I the only journalists to document what was happening. The Miami Herald’s Marika Lynch wrote of how the town was “under a terrifying lockdown by the police and a gang of armed pro-Aristide civilians called Clean Sweep” and that “the two forces are so intertwined that when Clean Sweep’s head of security walks by, Haitian police officers salute him and call him commandant.” Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune wrote of how “residents also saw piles of corpses burning in an opposition neighborhood and watched as pro-Aristide forces fired at people scurrying up a hillside to flee.”
According to a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited Saint-Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered there between 11 February and Aristide’s flight into exile at the end of the month. Her conclusion was supported by the research of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), a Haitian human rights organization. Survivors of the massacre and relatives of the victims formed a solidarity organization, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES).
Following Aristide’s overthrow, several members of Bale Wouze were lynched, while Privert and Neptune turned themselves over to the interim government that ruled Haiti from March 2004 until the inauguration of René Préval in May 2006.
Held in prison without trial until their 2006 release, a May 2008 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Haitian state had violated the American Convention on Human Rights in the detentions, though stressed that it was “not a criminal court in which the criminal responsibility of an individual can be examined.” Weighing in on the release of Neptune and Privert releases, Human Rights Watch noted that “the La Scierie case was never fully investigated and the atrocities that the two men allegedly committed remain unpunished.”
Days later, after being jailed for three years without trial, Amanus Mayette was also freed from prison. Haiti’s RNDDH denounced the release as “arbitrary” and a move that would “strengthen corruption” and “allow the executioners of La Scierie to enjoy impunity.” Arrested in 2004, Ronald Dauphin subsequently escaped from jail, was re-arrested during the course of an anti-kidnapping raid in Haiti’s capital in July 2006 and fled prison again after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake destroyed the jail. Despite several chaotic public hearings, to date, none of the accused for the killings in La Scierie has ever gone to trial.
Frustratingly for the people of Saint-Marc, far from being supported in their calls for justice, the events they experienced have become a political football among international political actors.
The United Nations independent expert on human rights in Haiti, Louis Joinet – who visited the site of the killings only briefly – in a 2005 statement dismissed allegations of a massacre and described what occurred as “a clash”, a characterization that seemed unaware of the fact that not all among those victimized had any affiliation with Haiti’s political opposition. Thierry Fagart, then the head of the UN Human Rights Commission in Haiti, while getting many of the details of the timeline of the violence wrong, also made similar claims. RNDDH referred to the attitude of the international community to the case as “a scandal”
In a heart-rending June 2007 letter to Louis Joinet, AVIGES coordinator Charliénor Thomson asked the judge “who cares about our case?” before going on to recount some of the horrors that had been visited upon Saint-Marc in February 2004 and continuing
The victims of these horrors live under the constant threat of criminals who were all released under pressure, in particular, from some agencies of international civil society…Today, what justice should we expect? Who can testify freely while the assassins are free and can circulate with impunity? The majority of inhabitants in Saint-Marc are afraid. Even those who have been direct victims of acts mentioned above are scared. The victims want to flee the city and the witnesses to hide…When will we enjoy the benefits of justice we claim? In the current circumstances, what form does it come?
As the citizens of Saint-Marc fought their uphill battle for justice, rather than supported, they were actively undermined by some in the international community, especially, perhaps not surprisingly, those so-called human rights organizations with deep financial and personal links to the Aristide regime. The U.S.-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), for example, wrote fawningly of Black Ronald as “a Haitian grassroots activist, customs worker and political prisoner,” and talked of the work of Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), IJDH’s partner organization in Haiti, as Ronald’s attorney in a “legal analysis” of the case made available to supporters. Ira Kurzban, one of the IJDH’s founders and former head of its board of directors, serves as Aristide’s personal attorney in the United States, while the BAI’s Mario Joseph serves as one of a coterie of attorneys in Haiti defending the former president from various investigations related to his time in office. The people of La Scierie unfortunately have never had such deep-pocketed champions. All they ever asked for was a trial, but perhaps they will never get one.
The question now remains, having ascended to the highest office of the land, what is exactly the game Privert is playing? At his inauguration, which was attended by the foreign diplomatic corps, as well as Aristide’s wife, Mildred, and Maryse Narcisse, the presidential candidate for Aristide’s party (who officially came in fourth in the disputed results), Privert spoke of “dialogue.” and “reconciliation” as the way out of Haiti’s political crisis. Privert’s assumption of the presidency was loudly praised by the United Nations, the so-called Core Group (Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, the US, the European Union and the Organization of American States) and, individually, by the ambassadors of the United State and France. One group of opposition politicians, on the other hand, known as the G8, denounced the process as a “parliamentary coup.”
To be sure, Martelly was no angel. He surrounded himself with a coterie of highly suspect individuals who were serially accused of everything from drug trafficking to murder, and was often gruff and confrontational with his critics. But the elections, compromised as they may have been, were cancelled only under the threat of violence with apparently little thought as to what would come next.
The scenario that is being painted by some Haitian politicians now – the exclusion of Jovenel Moïse, the candidate of Martelly’s Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale from the second round of presidential elections – is one that would disenfranchise thousands of voters and undoubtedly only lead to further conflict.
The policy of the international community, and especially that of the United States, over the last few years in Haiti, as much as any policy at all can be discerned, appears to be to mutely accept any excess of depredation all the while bankrolling a process doomed to fail. Rule by decree? No problem. Summarily replace over 140 mayors with people loyal to a party apparatus? Fine with us. Have a man accused of involvement in gross human rights abuses extra-constitutionally assume the presidency and oversee new elections? Tout bagay anfom.
All those years ago, RNDDH called the attitude of the international community towards the killings that took place in La Scierie a scandal. It continues to be so, as it continues to be a symbol of the hardcore of impunity that no elections in Haiti have ever seemed able to vanquish. It is a system that allows journalists, human rights workers, priests and politicians to be killed and the intellectual authors of the crimes to never even be tried, let alone convicted. Neither the UN mission, the US Embassy or any other foreign presence in the country seems to care much about the killings of a bunch of poor nobodies more than a decade ago. And so they stand and applaud, each clap pushing a chance for justice – whatever that might look like – ever farther away.
At a reception at the National Palace for Privert’s investiture, where Lavalas die-hards swilled champagne, one such activist crowed to a Reuters journalist that “Lavalas and Aristide are back in the palace. We are back in power and we won’t let it go.”
Amid the diplomatic pomp and popping champagne corks, one thinks of the dead of La Scierie, still turning in their unquiet graves.