A Decade of Impunity in Haiti

Vol. 8, No. 7 (B), September 1996


Bay kou bliye. Pote mak sonje.

The one who delivers the blow forgets.
The one who bears its mark remembers.


Haiti’s turmoil over the last decade demonstrates the insidious effect of impunity for violent human rights abuse. Despite repeated official promises of justice and untold opportunities to fulfill those vows, prosecutions for human rights crimes have been rare. As each new military leader took up residence in Port-au-Prince’s sparkling Presidential Palace, the unmistakable lesson of the past was that there would be no serious price to pay for political violence. Getting away with murder was the rule.

Haiti’s two democratically elected governments have struggled under the weight of entrenched impunity, making tentative steps toward ending the legacy of failed justice. Today, conditions are better than ever for breaking Haiti’s pattern of impunity. Unfortunately however, Haiti’s government, by failing to make ending impunity a top priority, is letting the opportunity to establish accountability slip away. And the U.S. government, to its great shame, has erected its own roadblocks to truth and justice in Haiti.

The duty to prosecute and punish human rights violators is solidly grounded in international law. The Haitian government’s obligation also arises directly from the suffering of tens of thousands who faced death, torture, rape, or arbitrary detention at the hands of Haitian troops and their allies. Haitian victims are thirsty for justice and deserve their government’s and the international community’s best efforts to provide an accounting of their ordeal and those responsible for it. Beyond truth-telling, the Haitian government should also make every effort to prosecute the perpetrators of human rights violations, to the full extent of the law and with full due process protections. General amnesties, such as those encouraged by the U.S. government in Haiti but ultimately rejected by the Haitian parliament, are anathema to a society that is respectful of human rights, since they seek to deny individual victims the right of redress for their suffering. Of even greater danger to Haiti today is the prospect of a de facto amnesty through multiple failures to embrace a comprehensive policy against impunity.

Human Rights Watch/Americas recognizes that amnesties and other measures designed to preclude the transparent establishment of responsibility for human rights crimes frequently are embraced in the name of avoiding “insecurity” and “instability.” But as Haiti’s tumultuous history amply shows, a government’s decision to forsake accountability for political expediency only encourages further abuse and instability. Only the establishment of the rule of law offers the prospect of breaking the cycle of abuse and amnesia that has condemned Haiti to the deadly pattern detailed in this report.

Under Haiti’s military rulers, in the absence of the rule of law and an official moral order against which to stigmatize abusive officials, efforts to establish the truth were half-hearted and unsuccessful. The few show trials did little to illuminate the workings of past repressive governments and produced few convictions. Investigative commissions either whitewashed the army’s role in abuse or dissolved without a trace. More commonly, repressive military leaders were simply sent into exile as a substitute for justice and full exposure of their crimes.

Persistent impunity also contributed to periodic spasms of vigilante violence and summary revenge. Seeing no prospect of justice in the Haitian courts, the Haitian people periodically took matters into their own hands. This vigilante violence reinforced the army’s determination not to relinquish power and undermined the difficult, painstaking work of building the rule of law.

For most of the past ten years, the U.S. government by far the dominant external force in Haiti pursued a strategy of placating the very forces that were ruthlessly suppressing the democratic aspirations of the Haitian people. Washington’s readiness to overlook official violence stemmed from its willingness to oversee a superficial “transition to democracy” on the cheap. Convinced that the right combination of persuasion and enticement could convince the army and its violent allies to tolerate civilian rule, Washington resisted pressing to bring the military authors of past abuses to justice. Illustrative was the U.S. government’s hard push for a broad amnesty for the Haitian military officials who were responsible for the three-year reign of terror following President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster in September 1991. Washington’s reasons ranged from a misguided belief that the army was the only institution capable of securing order in Haiti to a realpolitik calculation that the army was necessary to keep leftist political forces in check. The U.S. also contributed to the formation of organizations that were later responsible for severe human rights abuses, including the National Intelligence Service (Service d’Intelligence Nationale, hereafter SIN) and the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (Front pour l’Avancement et le Progräs d’Haãti, hereafter FRAPH), and then downplayed abuses to justify denying terrorized Haitians refugee status.

This year, for the first time, one freely elected Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has handed the reins of power to another freely elected president, René Préval. The restoration of Aristide to power on October 15, 1994, and the peaceful transition to Préval, on February 7, 1996, represents Haiti’s best opportunity to take a firm stand against impunity. As political repression has diminished, civil society has flourished. More the statesman after three years in exile, Aristide during most of his sixteen months back in office repeatedly and insistently preached the need to avoid the popular killings that had marred his first year in office and that so often stymied past efforts to establish justice. “No to violence, yes to reconciliation” became his mantra. But while Aristide and Préval regularly urged reconciliation and justice, they failed in large part to follow through on their rhetoric. The government prosecuted a handful of minor actors in some of the most prominent human rights violations, but for the most part, impunity remained the rule and human rights victims were left thirsting for justice.

The Haitian government made other efforts to establish accountability, but all of these have been half-hearted. For example, President Aristide backed the formation of a truth and justice commission in 1994. After stumbling for several months, the commission gathered sufficient funds, conducted field research, and ultimately prepared a lengthy report on human rights violations under the military government. While the Préval government released the commission’s recommendations, the remainder of the commission’s 1,200-page report has not been published and remains shelved in the Justice Ministry. President Aristide also opened complaint offices (bureaux de doléances) for human rights victims, but these were mismanaged, underfunded, and then closed, with little effort to transfer files to local prosecutors. Scores of victims who had come forward to give their testimony on abuses during the military government to representatives of the truth commission or complaint bureaus, or who had reported abuses to human rights observers with the International Civilian Mission of the Organization of American States and the United Nations (Mission Civile International en Haãti, OEA/ONU, hereafter MICIVIH), wrongly presumed that their cases would be investigated further, that they might receive reparations, and that their abusers would face criminal penalties. The justice minister declared in June 1996 that an earlier promise to use a portion of the ministry’s budget for reparations could not be fulfilled because the funds had never been allocated. Scores of victims who presented criminal complaints in Haitian courts met similar inaction in most cases.

Nonetheless, the successful prosecution of even a few human rights offenders demonstrated the possibility that when the government chose to do so, it could make genuine progress against impunity. While the government’s rhetorical commitment to end impunity was applauded at the outset, its failure to follow through and provide justice, or even truth, for victims of the military government called into question its determination to tackle this fundamental problem.

Haiti’s return to democratic government was made possible by a substantial international presence. However, Washington and the international community seemed content to settle for the arrival of elected government with little regard for establishing accountability for past human rights violations. The multinational forces leading the intervention routinely detained suspected human rights violators, but released them without turning them over to the Haitian legal system. Even today, as Haiti’s army has been effectively dismantled and an international military presence has at least temporarily pushed abusive forces aside, Washington’s apparent belief that democratic institutions and the rule of law can be built without accountability for the atrocities of the recent past continues to jeopardize Haiti’s future. As noted, the U.S. government continued to support the adoption of a broad amnesty as Aristide returned to Haiti.

More troubling still, the U.S. government directly impeded the prosecution of human rights crimes in Haiti by refusing to return documents seized from FRAPH and Haitian military headquarters and by reaching a secret settlement with FRAPH’s leader, Emmanuel Constant, which allowed Constant to remain in the United States with a work permit while evading deportation to Haiti and criminal prosecution for human rights abuses there. The U.S. government’s cover-up of the crimes of FRAPH, which was founded by Constant while he was allegedly on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll, suggests that the U.S. government is trying to prevent revelation of its own complicity in violent abuses in Haiti. For example, U.S. officials who were negotiating with the Haitian government regarding the return of the FRAPH documents, while conceding that the material belongs to the Haitian government, have maintained that U.S. citizens’ names must be redacted from the materials before they are returned to Haiti. Removing names would conceal whether U.S. citizens were themselves party to human rights crimes in Haiti. By delaying the return of these materials to Haiti for almost two years, the Clinton administration has denied the truth commission and Haitian prosecutors an extremely rich source of information on recent human rights abuses, including the critical question of chain of command.

Furthermore, while the U.S. government made significant contributions to institution building in Haiti, Washington apparently did not consider accountability a top priority. Washington’s multimillion dollar aid package for the new government included only $50,000 for the truth commission, and this sum was offered only a month before the commission’s mandate expired and for materials previously provided by other donors. The U.S. funded a five-year $18 million program for the administration of justice that the U.S. ambassador called Washington’s most significant contribution to ending impunity. However, this program was poorly conceived and poorly administered in its first year, and did not dedicate resources directly to the prosecution of past human rights violations. At the end of the first year, the U.S. government had replaced several staff members. It is too soon to tell whether this program will make an effective contribution against impunity in Haiti.

Haiti’s democratic governments’ failures to hold past human rights violators accountable for their actions once again has raised the spectre of insecurity in Haiti. Having never faced prosecution for human rights abuses, demobilized Haitian soldiers and former paramilitary troops find few impediments to continuing criminal acts. This impunity has undermined historic steps taken by Haiti’s democratic government. Aristide dismissed virtually the entire military leadership (every officer above the rank of major), abolished for a second time the post of section chief and, despite the Clinton administration’s desire to maintain a military counterbalance to popular rule, effectively dissolved the army. Yet, the lack of prosecutions and trials of soldiers dismissed from the security forces, and the failure to disarm them, left an alienated, disgruntled, and dangerous opposition to civilian rule that has already plagued the fledgling elected government and may contribute to greater problems once international troops depart.

Haiti’s experience illustrates the dangers of ignoring accountability for past violent abuse in the haste to secure a transition to democracy. Each time a supposedly reformist regime took power, Haitians were asked to forget the past, to look forward to a new era. But rather than build the rule of law, sooner or later this impunity emboldened reactionary forces to resume political killing. It is time for this official indulgence of political killers to end.




As a first step toward establishing accountability, the government must make known all that can be reliably established about gross abuses of human rights. For this reason, we urge the prompt public release of the report of the Commission for Truth and Justice, Si M Pa Rele (“If I Don’t Cry Out,” from a familiar Haitian proverb highlighting the need to speak out about injustice).

The president should provide full support for the prompt initiation of criminal proceedings against alleged perpetrators of serious human rights abuses named in the truth commission report. Given the number of cases, the government should establish special criminal court sessions in all departments or a special tribunal to handle criminal complaints, as recommended by the truth commission. Those human rights violations that the commission described as crimes against humanity should be prosecuted as a matter of utmost urgency.

The president should persist in seeking the return of documents that U.S. troops seized from FRAPH and Haitian military headquarters in the fall of 1994.

The government should provide a staff, financial backing, office space and full support to the committee headed by former truth commissioner and justice minister René Magloire to ensure adoption of the truth commission recommendations.

Similarly, the Office of Citizen Protection, under the direction of Louis Roy, should be given sufficient resources to assist citizens complaining of human rights abuses.

The government should act promptly to ratify both the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Urgent steps should be taken to establish accountability for sexual violence committed by the military government and paramilitary agents. The government’s ratification this year of the Inter-American Convention for the Elimination of Violence against Women is an important step that should be followed by: the enactment of legislation to redefine rape as a crime against the person rather than a crime against morals; steps to improve victims’ access to forensic examinations; the devotion of sufficient resources to train and sensitize judicial and police personnel on documenting sexual violence; and a campaign to publicize prohibitions of sexual violence.

A comprehensive policy against impunity is needed to overcome a weak judicial system plagued by minimal material resources and a history of corruption; infrequent criminal court sessions; and poor investigative capacity. The government should devote sufficient resources to building the independence of the judiciary; increasing the number and efficiency of prosecutors; ensuring that legal proceedings are fully understandable to those who speak only Haitian Creole; mobilizing police to prevent acts of popular violence; and modernizing Haiti’s archaic legal codes to enshrine full due process protections for all defendants.

As the government faces the challenge of prosecuting past human rights abusers and trying to establish the rule of law in Haiti, it should ensure that full due process protections are available to all defendants. We urge the Justice Ministry to take steps to prevent the issuance of arrest warrants with insufficient justification, as has occurred in several cases. The Justice Ministry also should make special efforts to ensure the security of victims, witnesses, and judicial authorities.

More frequent criminal court sessions are desperately needed, since the enormous delays between sessions now contribute to lengthy pre-trial detentions and long delays in concluding criminal cases.

Abusive members of the Haitian National Police rarely have been brought to trial. We recommend that the Justice Ministry adopt a vigorous and public posture against ongoing police abuse and prosecute each case to the full extent of the law. It is also important to commence criminal prosecutions in all cases of vigilante violence.

We urge the government to issue arrest warrants and invoke extradition agreements to secure custody of indicted defendants. The government should request the extradition of Col. Michel François (the former Port-au-Prince police chief) and Franck Romain (the former mayor of Port-au-Prince who was implicated in a 1988 massacre) from Honduras and should submit a revised extradition request for FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant to the United States government.


We urge the U.S. government immediately to return to the Haitian government all materials that were seized from FRAPH and Haitian military offices in the fall of 1994, without any redaction of information or U.S. citizens’ names. The return of these materials would assist the Haitian government in prosecuting abusive former Haitian soldiers and members of FRAPH.

We urge the U.S. government promptly to deport FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant to Haiti, where he is wanted for human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial execution. The U.S. government should offer full collaboration to the Haitian government to ensure Constant’s safety and right to a fair trial. Meanwhile, the details of any settlement or agreement between Constant and the U.S. government should be made public, particularly any details regarding Constant’s relationship with the CIA.

The U.S. government must examine its own involvement in human rights abuses in Haiti. The Clinton administration should launch a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations that agents or units funded by the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) were involved in serious human rights violations. The findings of such an investigation should be made public and disciplinary or criminal action taken where appropriate. U.S. government documents regarding human rights violations committed by the SIN (the National Intelligence Service) and FRAPH should be declassified to allow informed public debate about U.S. policy towards Haiti.

The U.S. government should, at a minimum, demonstrate support for the truth commission by offering the Haitian government sufficient funding for the publication and distribution of the text and annexes of the report.


International funding is urgently needed to support the Haitian judicial system. A primary focus of this assistance should be the establishment of regular criminal court sessions throughout Haiti (the last one in Gonaãves was held in 1991), as well as special criminal court sessions or the creation of a special tribunal for the purpose of prosecuting human rights abuses.

Known perpetrators of serious human rights violations, such as Col. Michel François and Franck Romain have fled criminal prosecutions in Haiti. François and Romain first sought refuge in the Dominican Republic and then were granted political asylum in Honduras. Like FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant, who remains in comfortable exile in the United States, these notorious human rights violators should be returned to Haiti to stand trial.




  The Twenty-Nine Year Duvalier Dictatorship Ends with
    Jean-Claude Duvalier’s Flight, February 7, 1986
  The National Governing Council, under Gen. Henri Namphy,
    Assumes Control, February 1986
  Gen. Henri Namphy’s Assumes Full Control, June 19, 1988
  Gen. Prosper Avril Assumes Power, October 1988
  President Ertha Pascal Trouillot Takes Office, March 13, 1990
  Jean-Bertrand Aristide Assumes Office as Haiti’s First
    Democratically Elected President, February 7, 1991
  Gen. Raul Cédras, Lt. Col. Michel François, and
    Gen. Phillippe Biamby Lead a Coup d’Etat
  Forcing President Aristide into Exile, Sept. 30, 1991


  The Haitian Commission for Truth and Justice Report Held Hostage
  Human Rights Cases in the Haitian Courts
  Activist Claudy Museau
  Aristide Supporter Antoine Izméry
  Justice Minister Guy Malary
  April 1994 Massacre in Raboteau, Gonaãves
  United States Government Impedes Accountability in Haiti
  FRAPH and Haitian Military Documents Remain in U.S. Possession
  FRAPH Leader Emmanuel Constant’s Release and Non-deportation
  Other Actions on Impunity





Human Rights Watch      September 1996      Vol. 8, No. 7 (B)

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