A new and extensive investigation into Haiti’s human rights situation has found conditions in the country have sharply deteriorated under an interim government that replaced ousted President Jean Bertrand-Aristide in February 2004. “Life for the impoverished majority is becoming more violent and more inhuman as the months pass since the elected government’s removal,” the report concludes.
The investigation team led by Thomas Griffin, a former federal law enforcement officer and now an attorney practicing immigration law in Philadelphia, conducted its interviews and observations in Haiti during November 2004. Their 60-page report, published by the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Miami School of Law and online at the website for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org, includes documentation of masked Haitian National Police routinely committing summary executions of civilians, an outline of U.S. involvement in the current government, and graphic photos of victims of violence.
Griffin says including the stark photographs was an essential part of reporting the investigation’s findings. “Haiti is such a hotly debated political topic that it is important for the report to be as objective as possible,” he said. “The photos are necessary because they can’t be spun one way or another for political purposes. Anyone who sees these pictures will say this should not be happening to human beings anywhere, especially just a few hundred miles from Disney World.”
Among those interviewed for the report were United Nations police, who confessed to investigators their inability to stop the violence in the streets of the poorest neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital and largest city. Such poor neighborhoods are the norm in Haiti, where 65% of the population lives on less than $1 per day. One UN commander complained that all he has done in Haiti is “engage in daily guerilla warfare.”
The Haitian Army was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 after decades of brutal treatment of its own citizens in protection of the dictators who controlled the nation. But the investigators found the army to be back in force “protecting the rich and attacking the poor,” according to the report. Dozens of Haitian prisoners, many of them held after politically-motivated arrests for minor charges, were observed while locked away for weeks in cramped jail cells without access to the judicial system.
The investigation also found that the U.S. was closely involved in the effort to remove Aristide, and now is providing key support for the interim government. “Top officials (of the interim government), including the Minister of Justice, worked for U.S. government projects that undermined their predecessors,” the report states. A U.S.-backed embargo from 2000 to 2004 blocked millions of dollars in promised aid from the Inter-American Development Bank to the elected government. The U.S. now provides financial and training support for the interim government, which investigators found to be heavily influenced by Haiti’s merchant elite.
Some Bush administration opponents, including several members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, criticize the president for waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of installing democracy, all while undermining the democratically elected government in Haiti. Investigators also criticize the U.S., U.N. and Canada’s current strategies in Haiti. “No one in control can claim to have made any investment in real dialogue,” the report states. “The investments that have been made are in firepower, and the dividends have not satisfied the Haitian people’s social, economic or political needs.”
International assistance does not seem to be reaching the Haitian public health system, which the investigators found to be so deficient as to be non-existent, including dead bodies left on the street to be eaten by pigs and dogs, hospitals where wounded youths (often the victims of police shootings) are left to die untreated because of inability to pay for care, and gruesome conditions at the local morgue. “The General Hospital’s emergency room is a scene of bodies dripping blood, groans of pain from men, women and children and a nauseating odor,” the report says. “Treatment by doctors is rare, as the slightest procedure, even a bandage, requires a payment.”
Chief investigator Griffin hopes the report will attract attention to the suffering of the Haitian people. “This is a humanitarian disaster,” he said. “We need to look beyond the partisan debates to see that the very poorest of the poor are suffering in inhuman ways.”
Fran Quigley is an attorney and journalist in Indianapolis, Indiana.