Haiti after Aristide: The danger of a revived army.

by Andrew Reding

A key justification for U.S. intervention in Haiti has been to build respect for the rule of law in a country destabilized by extreme partisanship and by recourse to violence rather than dialogue to settle differences. That aim, however, is being imperiled by uneven enforcement of criminal law, and by signs pointing to a possible restoration of the country's murderous army.

During his visit on April 5 to Port-au-Prince, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States is considering a possible criminal indictment of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A day later, former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert was placed under Marine guard at the National Penitentiary after he was arrested on charges of conspiring to assassinate opponents in February, during the uprising that ousted Aristide.

But Secretary Powell said nothing about bringing to justice the criminals and human rights violators among those who overthrew Aristide - men he referred to as “thugs” just two months ago. Instead, he merely counseled the caretaker prime minister, Gérard Latortue, not to reward such individuals with government posts.

In a March 20 visit to Gonaïves, Latortue praised the rebels as “freedom fighters.” He stood beside Jean-Pierre Baptiste (alias Jean Tatoune), freed in a jail break while serving a life sentence for his role in a 1994 massacre of unarmed civilians in that city. Also on stage was Louis-Jodel Chamblain, convicted in absentia of taking part in the same massacre, and accused of participating in the assassinations of Justice Minister Guy Mallary and a businessman, Antoine Izméry, in the early 1990s.

Such crimes are not limited to the 90s. In February, two Dominican border guards were killed as heavily armed rebels led by Chamblain and Guy Philippe infiltrated into Haiti. When the Dominican government detained a rebel leader in connection with the killings, rebels kidnapped 13 Dominican visitors. Threatening to kill the hostages, they forced the Dominican government to trade the rebel leader in mid-March.

The United States is now responsible for law and order in Haiti. Yet despite the presence of almost 2,000 U.S. troops, no effort has been made to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.

Another disturbing sign is Latortue's appointment of a former military officer, Lieutenant General Hérard Abraham, as interior minister. Abraham, who promptly called for restoration of the Haitian armed forces, publicly embraced the coup leader, Guy Philippe, another former army officer.

During the four years of military rule after the first overthrow of Aristide in 1991, the Haitian Army slaughtered several thousand unarmed civilians. Though Abraham was not personally involved in those events, they have permanently sullied the army's reputation among most Haitians.

Haiti's army has not defended the country from a foreign threat in more than two centuries. Its only role has been to maintain domestic order. That, however, should be the job of police officers trained to respect rights of citizens, not soldiers trained to subdue “enemies.”

Furthermore, the military has historically been allied with the country's lighter-skinned elite, which has repeatedly prevailed on it to overthrow governments led by black populists, such as that of Dumarsais Estimé in 1950, and Aristide in 1991. That is why such a large segment of the nominally “nonviolent” opposition to Aristide is clamoring for its return.

It is also why Aristide abolished the army in 1995. He replaced it with the Haitian National Police, which got off to a good start with help from the United Nations, but later became politicized as the international community turned its back on Haiti. The challenge is to rebuild the national police as a professional, apolitical force.

General James Hill, commander of U.S. forces in Haiti, recently said: “There is no need for a Haitian Army. I was here when President Aristide disbanded it, and that was the correct thing to do at the time.” Hill's civilian bosses should heed his sound advice rather than that of the Haitian elite.

The Bush administration should also issue immediate orders to detain former soldiers, officers, and paramilitaries charged with, or convicted of, taking part in political assassinations and massacres. As it turns out, many were deported from the United States to Haiti to face justice, but were either released or escaped from prison during the revolt against Aristide.

Without even-handed justice and security policies in Haiti, trust and stability will remain sadly out of reach.

[Source: International Herald Tribune, Saturday, 17Apr04. Andrew Reding is senior fellow for hemispheric affairs at the World Policy Institute.]

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