If Haiti’s rebel forces carry out their promised attack on the capital Port-au-Prince, the civilian population must be spared, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

“A rebel attack on Port-au-Prince could lead to widespread bloodshed and indiscriminate destruction of civilian property,” said Joanne Mariner, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division. “Given the past atrocities of some rebel leaders, and the violent propensities of pro-government gangs, we’re gravely concerned for the protection of the Haitian population.”

The 5-page backgrounder details the history of the armed insurgents, from the dubious human rights record of rebel leader Guy Philippe, a former police commissioner, to the bloody past of Louis Jodel Chamblain, a former paramilitary.

As the backgrounder explains, former members of the disbanded Haitian Armed Forces (Forces Armées d’Haiti, FAd’H) have been mobilizing for about three years near the border of the Dominican Republic in central Haiti. In that region, over the past year, bands of 30 to 100 men have been harassing police, killing government supporters, taking over towns temporarily, and recruiting supporters. On July 25, 2003, they reportedly killed four members of a Ministry of Interior delegation that visited the area.

Human Rights Watch also described tensions within the rebel coalition, which suggest possible power struggles to come. In Gonaïves, for example, local gang leader Butteur Métayer shares power with former paramilitary Jean Tatoune, the man who led a 1994 massacre targeting Métayer’s family.

The reemergence of Tatoune underscores disappointing aspects of the U.S. military intervention in 1994, Human Rights Watch said. While a few steps were taken in the wake of the intervention to achieve accountability for the thousands of killings and other abuses that occurred under military rule, the victims’ demands for justice were largely unmet.

The United States, notably, showed little enthusiasm for the prosecution of past abuses. Indeed, it even impeded accountability by allowing notorious abusers to flee Haiti and by giving safe haven to paramilitary leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant.

In describing the roots of the current crisis, the Human Rights Watch backgrounder strongly criticized the Haitian government’s violations of human rights. Human Rights Watch called attention to the need for a future program of institutional reform in Haiti to guarantee respect for human rights and the rule of law.

“Underlying the current violence are deep and chronic deficits in human rights and democracy,” Mariner said. “Until these institutional problems are dealt with, one can hardly be optimistic about Haiti’s future.”