Rebel forces are advancing on Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, sparking fears of widespread bloodshed. Among the leaders of the insurgency are such notorious figures as Louis Jodel Chamblain, a former paramilitary responsible for countless atrocities under the military government that ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994. The reemergence of such violent and lawless men is a worrying portent for Haiti’s future.
The armed groups that have joined forces to oust President Aristide include disparate elements. With a solid core of former officers and soldiers of Haiti’s disbanded army, the rebels also comprise gangs that supported the government but that have now turned against it. Guy Philippe, a former police commissioner with a dubious human rights record, claims the leadership of these forces, together with his ally Chamblain. But there are strained alliances in the insurgent ranks. In Gonaïves, the northern port city whose takeover precipitated the crisis, local gang leader Butteur Métayer shares power with former paramilitary Jean Pierre Baptiste (alias Jean Tatoune), a man who once led a massacre targeting Métayer’s family. The unlikely nature of such partnerships suggests possible power struggles to come.
The Haitian government is institutionally weak and badly defended. With a small and demoralized police force plagued by desertions, the government has largely put its defense in the hands of armed civilian supporters, many of whom are criminals known for violence and abuses. On February 26, as an attack on Port-au-Prince seemed imminent, hundreds of these supporters began building defensive positions in front of the National Palace. Others manned intermittent road-blocks around the capital, stopping cars and, in some instances, robbing motorists.
In this situation of impending turmoil, basic human rights concerns are paramount. Given the poor record of the main players in Haiti, and the worrying potential for future abuses, Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned for the protection of the civilian population.
I. Roots of the Crisis
The current uprising began on February 5 with the rebel capture of Gonaïves. Underlying the violence, however, are deep and chronic deficits in human rights and democracy.
When elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994 after the U.S. military intervention, there were high hopes that institutional reforms would guarantee respect for human rights and the rule of law. But as the years went by, and the expected reforms failed to take hold, these hopes faded. The justice system, in particular, remained weak, and the police slowed devolved into a brutal, politicized force. While the Haitian government took some steps to achieve accountability for the thousands of killings and other abuses that occurred under military rule, including bringing to justice many of the leaders of the notorious Raboteau massacre (see below), the victims’ demands for justice went largely unmet. The United States, notably, showed little enthusiasm for the prosecution of past abuses. Indeed, it even impeded accountability by removing to the U.S. thousands of documents from military and paramilitary headquarters, allowing notorious abusers to flee Haiti, and giving safe haven to paramilitary leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant.
President Aristide, who returned to office for a second term in February 2001 (following the presidency of René Préval), is credibly accused of responsibility for serious human rights abuses. During his tenure, police and pro-government thugs have committed numerous forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions; the Haitian National Police have lost their residual political independence; judges and prosecutors have been threatened, and a network of government-linked political gangs has used violence to repress demonstrations by the political opposition and intimidate the independent press.
The November 2000 presidential election that returned Aristide to office was boycotted by credible opposition candidates. The opposition boycott resulted from the government’s failure to remedy the deeply flawed results of legislative and local elections held in May 2000, a factor that also led the Organization of American States (OAS) to refuse to monitor the balloting. During meetings with U.S. Special Envoy Anthony Lake in December 2000, then President-elect Aristide committed to addressing the country’s problems. The reforms he promised—which included remedying the results of the May 2000 elections, professionalizing the police and judiciary, and strengthening democratic institutions—were urgently needed. But while Aristide repeated these promises, in varying form, during later negotiations with the OAS, he has made little serious effort to follow through on them. In response, the international community suspended direct aid to the Haitian government.
As the government has failed to keep its promises, the political opposition has become more intransigent. The opposition has also been the target of violent attacks, notably in December 2001, in which buildings associated with opposition parties and leaders were burnt down by pro-government gangs. Witnesses reported that the police refused to intervene to prevent the attacks.
Now an umbrella coalition known as the Democratic Platform of Civil Society and Political Parties, the non-violent political opposition has three main components. First among them is the Democratic Convergence (Convergence Démocratique), which consists of a number of political parties that condemned the May 2000 legislative elections as fraudulent. The Democratic Convergence has refused, despite multiple negotiation efforts by the Organization of American States, to compromise with President Aristide. Its members have long been seeking Aristide’s resignation.
The second and perhaps most influential element in the Democratic Platform is the Group of 184 (G-184), a coalition of civil society and business organizations that emerged in 2002. The G-184 includes university and high school activists, victims of a government-backed pyramid scheme, trade unionists, and teachers, as well as business associations that involve some of Haiti’s richest people. It is the wealth of this latter group that helped finance several radio campaigns, as well as a “Caravan of Hope” that toured the country in 2003 proposing a “new social contract.” The best-known leader of G-184 is Andy Apaid, Jr., a factory owner born in the United States.
The third factor in the political opposition are organizations that are generally to the left of the G-184, including anti-globalization groups, feminists, and a national peasant movement. It was only in December 2003, after government-sponsored attacks on protesting students, that these groups endorsed calls for Aristide’s resignation.
II. The Violent Uprising
Since early February, the mobilization of the non-violent political opposition has been eclipsed by the appearance of armed insurgents. While the rising tide of dissatisfaction with Aristide’s leadership may have given the rebels an opening, it is firepower and military experience that has brought them close to taking power.
The insurgents did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, former members of the Haitian Armed Forces (Forces Armées d’Haiti, FAd’H) have been mobilizing around the border of the Dominican Republic in central Haiti for about three years. In general, ex-soldiers resent President Aristide for having dismantled the army in 1995, and for, they claim, failing to provide them with the salary and pension benefits they were due. A group of former military officers announced themselves in November 2002 in the tiny town of Pernal, near Belladere on the Dominican border. Over the course of the following year, bands of thirty to 100 men harassed police, killed some people linked to the government, took over towns temporarily, and began recruiting supporters. On July 25, 2003, they reportedly killed four members of a Ministry of Interior delegation that visited the area. Along with unseating Aristide, the main goal of these forces is to reestablish the army.
In Artibonite, a group known as the Cannibal Army (which now calls itself the Artibonite Resistance Front) took root. Based in the poor seaside Raboteau neighborhood of Gonaïves, this originally community-based organization coalesced in the late 1980s. During the 1991-1994 military rule, the Raboteau group, and its charismatic leader Amiot Métayer, was the target of several bloody attacks. Most notoriously, in April 1994, the army and paramilitaries attacked the area, killing least fifteen people. The case, which became known as the Raboteau massacre, finally went to trial in 2000. A jury convicted sixteen former soldiers and paramilitaries of involvement in the massacre, and thirty-seven other defendants in absentia.
Under pressure from the international community to address violence against the political opposition, the government had Métayer arrested on July 3, 2002. Métayer was alleged to have participated in the killing of a security guard at an opposition party headquarters in Gonaïves in December 2001. He claimed to have received arms and funding from the government. His supporters broke him out of prison on August 2, 2002, and in the subsequent months he shifted position several times between support for and opposition to the government. While in support of the government, the Cannibal Army harassed and threatened independent journalists, and in November 2002 it partially destroyed a Gonaïves radio station and drove seven reporters into exile. But when Amiot Métayer was found murdered on September 20, 2003, his followers turned definitively to calling for President Aristide’s resignation. Led by Amiot’s brother Butteur Métayer, they launched the current insurrection in February.
The international community’s response to the crisis has been weak. The United States, critical of Aristide’s presidency, has shown a demonstrable reluctance to take the necessary steps to ensure the success of the international mediation effort. While France and Canada have raised the possibility of sending peacekeeping forces, neither has seemed eager to do so. On February 26, the U.N. Security Council declared its willingness to approve an international force to restore order in Haiti, but only if the government and opposition first reached a political settlement.
Clearly one of the primary U.S. concerns is avoiding an influx of refugees. On February 25, President George W. Bush urged Haitians not to flee their country, warning that refugees would be returned to Haiti. The following day, the U.S. Coast Guard acknowledged that it had intercepted about a dozen small boats from Haiti in the past three or four days, carrying over 500 fleeing Haitians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on February 26 that since the outbreak of violence in Haiti, thirty Haitians have sought asylum in Cuba, sixty-two in Jamaica, and up to 300 in the Dominican Republic. UNHCR expressed concern about the likelihood of increased refugee flows if the situation in Haiti continues to deteriorate. A U.S. policy of returning fleeing refugees no matter what harms they might face upon return would violate well-established international law rules.
III. The Insurgent Leaders: A Human Rights Scorecard
The most disturbing figure in the rebel leadership is Louis Jodel Chamblain. He is reported to have led the insurgents’ attacks on Central Plateau towns, including the regional capital of Hinche.
Chamblain was a sergeant in the Haitian army (FAd’H), and a member of the elite Corps des Leopards. He left the army in 1989 or 1990 and reappeared on the scene in 1993 as one of the founders of the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (Front révolutionnaire pour l’avancement et le progrès haïtien, FRAPH). Known as its number two leader, he had a reputation for violence and action (in contrast to the better known and more media-friendly Emmanuel “Toto” Constant). In the report of Haitian Truth and Justice Commission, there is a statement by Emmanuel Constant that explains that FRAPH’s central committee was composed of himself, Chamblain, Mireille Durocher-Bertin, a lawyer who was murdered in 1995, and Alphonse Lahens (a prominent Duvalierist).
Chamblain was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the 1993 murder of businessman and activist Antoine Izmery, as well as for involvement in the 1994 Raboteau massacre. He is also implicated in the assassination of Justice Minister Guy Malary, who was ambushed and machine-gunned to death with his body-guard and a driver on October 14, 1993. According to a 1993 CIA Intelligence Memorandum obtained by the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights, “FRAPH members Jodel Chamblain, Emmanuel Constant, and Gabriel Douzable met with an unidentified military officer on the morning of 14 October to discuss plans to kill [Justice Minister Guy] Malary.”
Chamblain escaped to the Dominican Republic in 1994, after the U.S. military intervention in Haiti, and returned to the country in late 2003 or early 2004.
The leader of the insurrectionary forces, Guy Philippe, age thirty-five, trained by the United States as an army officer in Ecuador. He was integrated into the new Haitian National Police in 1995 and his first command post was in Ouanaminthe, on the northern border with the Dominican Republic. Later, in about 1997 to 1999, he served as police chief for Delmas, a large urban district on the north side of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. During his tenure there, the UN/OAS International Civilian Mission learned that dozens of suspected gang members were summarily executed, mainly by police under the command of Inspector Berthony Bazile, Philippe’s deputy.
On October 18, 2000, Haiti’s prime minister announced that Philippe and other officers were plotting a coup d’etat. Before they were arrested, however, the men escaped over the border to the Dominican Republic.
When the Cannibal Army broke into Gonaives prison in August 2002, they released some 150 prisoners, including Jean Pierre Baptiste, alias “Jean Tatoune.” Tatoune was serving a sentence of life imprisonment for participating in the 1994 Raboteau massacre. He had led anti-Duvalier mobilizations in Gonaïves in 1985 and was honored for years as a key figure in the uprising that forced Duvalier out. But during the 1991-1994 military government he became a local FRAPH leader. Tatoune now belongs to the Artibonite Resistance Front.