Amid growing controversy over Washington’s role in persuading Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide to go into exile, human rights groups are strongly criticizing the Bush administration for returning hundreds of fleeing Haitians back to the capital over the weekend.
Rights groups are also warning the administration against any move to empower armed rebels whose three-week-old insurgency against Aristide advanced another step Monday when their leader, Guy Philippe, and his followers rode into Port-au-Prince.
Members of the civic opposition, which until now had denied any links with the rebels, reportedly met with Philippe and two of his top aides, Jean Tatoune and Louis Jodel Chamblain, in the capital Monday morning.
Tatoune and Chamblain, leaders of a notorious death squad that killed hundreds of Aristide supporters in the early 1990s, have both been convicted of murder. Philippe, a former army officer who led a failed coup against Aristide in 2001, has professed an admiration for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and earned a reputation for brutality as police chief of Cap Haitien.
In a statement issued Monday in London, Amnesty International called on the U.S.-led Multinational Interim Force (MIF) that landed troops in Haiti over the past two days to carry out “the disarmament of both rebel forces and pro-Aristide militias” and arrest “notorious human rights offenders with pending sentences for human rights convictions.” The group named both Chamblain and Tatoune, whose real name is Jean Pierre Baptiste, in that connection.
Amnesty also called for the international community to “ensure that under no circumstances are those convicted or implicated in serious human rights abuses given any position of authority, whether in a transitional government or among the security forces.”
Human rights groups are especially worried about statements by Philippe and some members of the civic opposition in favor of reconstituting the Haitian Army. Aristide, who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president in 1990 only to be overthrown by the Army less than year later dissolved it after he was restored to power with the help of 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994.
The rebels’ actions and intentions added a new layer of concern to an already-uncertain situation on the ground in Port-au-Prince, where the presidential palace has been in the hands of U.S. marines since Sunday.
Bush administration spokesmen strongly denied allegations voiced by Aristide in an interview with CNN Monday and in telephone conversations with U.S. lawmakers and associates that he was forced to leave Haiti aboard a U.S. aircraft against his will. He was reportedly flown to the Central African Republic after the South African government declined to invite him.
Aristide also told CNN that a resignation statement that was published in his name had been altered and that he had not actually resigned as president, despite the swearing-in Sunday of the head of the Haitian Supreme Court as interim president shortly after Aristide’s departure.
“He was not kidnapped,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell, who ironically played a key role in restoring Aristide in 1994. “We did not force him on the airplane. He went on the plane willingly.”
For most of last week Powell tried to broker a power-sharing agreement between Aristide and the civic opposition. While Aristide agreed to the proposed accord, the opposition adamantly refused to discuss it until Aristide resigned. As the rebels took over more towns and hundreds of Haitians began fleeing the country on rickety boats, Washington changed its position and urged Aristide to step down.
Amid signs of a possible exodus, Bush himself warned early last week that Washington would not permit Haitian “boat people” to reach the United States. Indeed, Coast Guard vessels were already deployed off the Haitian coast. They intercepted and repatriated more than 800 “boat people” last week, an action strongly denounced by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Tuesday.
“Given the violence and disorder reigning in Port-au-Prince, the Haitians should never have been returned there,” said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of HRW’s Americas Division. “With people being shot dead in the street by gangs of criminal thugs, it was unconscionable for the United States to dump entire families into this danger zone.”
She noted that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had issued a formal statement last Wednesday recommending that neighboring countries suspend all forced returns to Haiti and grant fleeing Haitians temporary protection. Oxfam International has joined the clamor against returning Haitians, particularly because insecurity has aggravated food shortages in some regions.
HRW said temporary protection should be continued “at least until conditions allow Haitians to return safely and their individual claims for refugee status have been fully heard.”
The arrival in Port-au-Prince of armed rebels and their possible demands for a role in an interim government or in the security forces have, if anything, compounded the insecurity. There were reports Monday of revenge killings against pro-Aristide gang members and others.
“The situation is so dangerous and unpredictable that no one is necessarily safe: neither Aristide supporters, nor opposition members, nor Haitians who are merely caught in the midst of rampant violence and a humanitarian crisis,” said Mariner.
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