The Haitian government and the United Nations mission in Haiti must ensure that the long-awaited elections pave the way for political stability, Human Rights Watch said today.
Parliamentary and presidential elections, which have been postponed four times due to security concerns and logistical difficulties, are scheduled for tomorrow. They will be Haiti’s first elections since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from the presidency in 2004. For the past two years, the country has had an interim government backed by a United Nations force that currently numbers 9,000 troops and civilian police.
“It is crucial for the elections to be credible in the eyes of the Haitian people,” said Joanne Mariner, Haiti expert at Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise, instead of advancing much-needed stability they could trigger yet another crisis.”
In the past, elections in Haiti have often been marred by violence, disorganization, and fraud. The deeply flawed 2000 elections aggravated political and social tensions and exacerbated political polarization.
Human Rights Watch said that in the run-up to the February elections, neither the government nor the U.N. stabilization mission have managed to resolve the country’s formidable human rights and security problems.
In the capital, Port-au-Prince, criminal gangs continue to terrorize people living in urban slums, while in Haiti’s provinces armed groups of former soldiers exert de facto authority in the absence of functioning government institutions. Although more aggressive tactics by U.N. troops have led to a decrease in violence since last summer, some areas remain too dangerous even to hold a vote. For example, no polling stations have been set up in Cité Soleil, one of the most violent slums in the capital.
Another worrisome factor is the thousands of illegal arms that circulate in Haiti. In a setback for security, disarmament and demobilization programs have so far failed to reach the majority of urban and rural armed groups.
Little has been done to address one of Haiti’s most pressing problems – utter impunity from prosecution for perpetrators of past and present abuses. During a 2005 mission to Haiti, Human Rights Watch found that the understaffed and poorly trained Haitian police failed to investigate the majority of crimes, and that the judicial system was barely functional. The efforts of the U.N. stabilization mission to address these problems, including the abuses perpetrated by the police themselves, have so far been largely unsuccessful.
The lack of commitment to accountability is best illustrated by the fact that several presidential candidates are implicated in past human rights abuses. Among them are Guy Phillippe, a former police chief for Delmas and one of the leaders of the 2004 rebellion against the Aristide government, and Franck Romain, a high-ranking army officer during the Duvalier dictatorship. During Phillippe’s tenure as police chief, dozens of suspected gang members were summarily executed, according to the International Civilian Mission run by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Romain, who was mayor of Port-au-Prince for a time, is implicated in a 1988 massacre that took place during his mayoralty.
While many observers are concerned that the volatile security situation and technical problems may undermine the electoral process, recent opinion polls suggest that the majority of Haitians support the upcoming elections. All agree, however, that elections will be only a first step in the long path toward political stability and the rule of law. The new government will enjoy continued credibility only if it immediately addresses Haiti’s long-standing political, economic and social problems.
“Even a successful election will not instantly put an end to violence and impunity,” said Mariner. “There must be rapid measures to provide security to the population, as well as profound institutional reforms.”
The international community has been heavily involved in planning and organizing Haiti’s elections. The European Union in October unblocked 72 million euros in aid to support the electoral process; the OAS managed the process of voter registration, and the U.N. mission pledged to ensure the security of polling stations.
Human Rights Watch said that the Haitian government will need continued support from the international community to address the complex task of reconstruction. It urged the U.N. Security Council to renew the mandate of the U.N. stabilization mission, which expires on February 15, 2006. The renewed mandate must reflect the lessons learned so far in Haiti, and should take a more proactive approach toward policing, disarmament, and justice.
“The international community should not assume that its task is over once the polling stations close on election-day,” said Mariner. “Sustained international involvement will be essential in helping Haiti to recover from the current crisis.”
Facts about the 2006 elections in Haiti:
• 34 candidates are running for president; 312 are competing for 30 senate seats, and more than 1,000 for 89 seats in the Chamber of Deputies;
• Most parliamentary candidates belong to the Haitian Social-Democratic Fusion Party (Parti Fusion des Sociaux-Democrates Haitiens), but Lavalas, Lespwa, and a number of smaller parties are also participating;
• According to the Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP), 3,533,430 of Haiti’s eligible voters (4,448,065 citizens aged 18 and over) are registered to vote. The Haitian government has also reported that 88 percent of Haiti’s 3.5 million registered voters (i.e. 3,099,291 people) have already received voter registration cards;
• More than 800 voting centers have been set up throughout the country. On January 25, 2006, Haiti’s election authorities announced that no voting stations would be placed in Cité Soleil. Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, is home to over 250,000 inhabitants, of whom 60,800 are reported to be registered voters;
• Up to 200 international observers from all over the world will monitor the elections;
• If none of the candidates wins a majority (51 percent of the vote) in the first round, a second round must be held between the two top candidates. Presidential and parliamentary run-off elections are scheduled for March 19, 2006.
• Municipal and local elections are scheduled to take place on April 5, 2006.
• The presidential inauguration is scheduled for March 29, 2006.