The death last weekend of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier cut short a historic court case that could have brought him to justice for human rights crimes. But Duvalier was not the only defendant charged with human rights crimes that include torture, disappearances, and political killings committed under his regime. These prosecutions should continue, and the victims need more support in seeking swift and fair justice.
I was there when Duvalier appeared in court in February 2013, along with the nervous victims who were certain the former dictator would never bend to the court’s will and appear. What struck me then was not that he showed up, but the absence of representatives from influential countries, who are typically ever-present in most aspects of Haiti’s affairs.
The Haitian government shoulders some of the blame for the failure to bring Duvalier to justice; it sent the wrong signal by inviting him to public events where he got to shake hands with President Michel Martelly and President Bill Clinton, among others. But other countries could have done more to ensure that victims and judges had protection, and that authorities had the means to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. They could have made positive statements about pursuing justice under difficult political circumstances. They didn’t.
Instead, Haiti, with a bit of support from the United Nations, was left on its own to piece together the most significant case in its history just a year after the earthquake had left the country in shambles. In the months after Duvalier was charged, I ran around Port au Prince trying to find remaining archives with evidence of his crimes – a quest that proved largely fruitless. Many archives were in rubble, and documents in those that stood were often crumbling or illegible.
Countries like the United States, however, have digitized (and often classified) records dating to the time of Duvalier. That information was not provided to the Haitian authorities while Duvalier was alive, but could still be valuable to victims and for the prosecution of other defendants. It is not too late; Duvalier's victims' rights to justice and truth did not die with the man.