Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch

Meet the New Haitian Military ― it’s Starting to Look a Lot Like the Old One

On March 13, President Jovenel Moise appointed six individuals to the high command of the recently reinstated Haitian armed forces (FAdH). All of the appointees, now in their sixties, were majors or colonels in the former FAdH, disbanded in 1995 after a long history of involvement in coups, violent repression, and drug trafficking. At least three of the officers appear to have held senior positions within the early-‘90s military coup regime. One of them is a convicted intellectual author of a civilian massacre, and another was a member of a committee that sought to cover it up.

Ministry of Defense press release from March 13, 2018 announcing the FAdH’s new senior leadership.

The makeup of the new leadership has raised concerns among human rights organizations over the trajectory of the new force and its commitment to the rule of law.

“The appointment confirms once again that the Haitian Armed Forces, remobilized by the [ruling Tét Kale party] is a militia whose hidden mission is to have the Haitian people relive the darkest hours of bloodthirsty Duvalierism,” wrote the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in a press release, referencing the illegal arrests, forced disappearances, assassinations, and other abuses that characterized the Duvalier dictatorship.

Haitian Defense Minister Herve Denis responded that the new high-command is “clean,” and that all were vetted for involvement in human rights abuses or drug trafficking.

In 1990, an outspoken liberation theologian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected in the first democratic election in the country’s history. But within months, a group of Haitian military officers – backed by many of the country’s wealthiest families – overthrew the new government, imposing a military dictatorship that would last three years. It was later revealed that the CIA had supported certain military elements involved in the coup, and that leaders of a paramilitary group that waged a campaign of terror against Aristide supporters and other activists were on the CIA payroll.

The group, FRAPH, helped to prop up the coup regime of Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras, while also at times appearing to undermine and sabotage the official actions of Clinton administration to restore democratic government to Haiti. Thousands of Haitians were murdered under the coup regime and hundreds of thousands fled the country.

Colonel Jean-Robert Gabriel, the new FAdH’s assistant chief of staff, was the secretary of the general staff, and later a public spokesperson, for the Cédras regime.

Following the 1991 military coup, the US and the international community implemented sanctions against the regime, eventually instituting an embargo. After Bill Clinton became president in January 1993, and increasingly in 1994, the Congressional Black Caucus played a leading role in pushing for a more aggressive role against the dictatorship, and solidarity groups in the US and elsewhere also influenced policy.

In June of 1993, the Clinton administration announced individual targeted sanctions against those determined to be a part of the “de facto regime in Haiti.” The initial sanction list, published in July of 1993, named 83 individuals, including 29 military officers. Included in this initial list was Jean-Robert Gabriel.

Screenshot of the Federal Register from July 1993, listing Jean-Robert Gabriel as one of 29 military officers sanctioned for their participation in the coup regime.

In 1993, the UN mediated indirect negotiations between Cédras and Aristide (who had taken up residence in Washington, DC to lobby for his restoration to office). Known as the Governors Island negotiations for the location where they took place, the eventual accord did little to immediately overturn the bloody coup. According to official documents, Gabriel, as well as the newly appointed chief of the general staff, Sadrac Saintil, were members of the delegation, indicating their senior positions within the Cédras regime.  

List of members of Armed Forces delegation to Governors Island.

The US temporarily suspended some of the sanctions during the negotiations, but when it became clear that Cédras and his regime would not back down, the sanctions were expanded. In October 1993, the administration revoked US visas and froze the US assets of 41 officials who were determined to be thwarting a return to democratic rule and contributing to the violence in Haiti. Among the 41 individuals was Derby Guerrier, recently named as an assistant chief of staff in the reinstated armed forces ― and then a lieutenant colonel.

Guerrier held a US passport, and a New Jersey address was listed next to his name. According to press reports at the time, Guerrier was the head of the military’s anti-drug unit. Though there is little public information about Guerrier, drug trafficking took off under the military regime.

A 1997 federal indictment in Miami alleged that Joseph-Michel François, a former military officer who helped topple Aristide in 1991 and later become the police chief under Cédras, “placed the political and military structure of the Republic of Haiti under his control” in order to facilitate drug shipments from Colombia. François, by that time, was living in exile in Honduras and managed to avoid accountability.

Back in 1994, with the situation in Haiti continuing to deteriorate, and more and more Haitians fleeing the country, the US expanded its sanctions policy. Some 550 military officers were added to the sanctions list, including all of those recently appointed to the FAdH’s new high command.

In April that year, around the same time the new sanctions were levied, Haitian military and paramilitary forces descended on the neighborhood of Raboteau, where many opposition supporters were apparently seeking refuge. At least eight, and likely far more, were assassinated.

The next month a military-led commission of inquiry was tasked with investigating the allegations that a massacre had taken place in Raboteau. Cédras named Lieutenant Colonel Sadrac Saintil as one of four members, according to official documents made public as part of the Raboteau trial. Unsurprisingly, the commission found no evidence of a massacre and the FADH high command accepted the commission’s recommendation that nobody be punished.

Communique signed by Raoul Cédras, appointing Sadrac Saintil to a commission of inquiry looking into the Raboteau massacre.

But in 2000, in a landmark human rights trial supported by the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (the same organization now denouncing the new armed forces’ leadership), a Haitian court convicted 53 former officers and paramilitaries of involvement in the Raboteau massacre. Among the military officers convicted was Jean-Robert Gabriel. Though he was not implicated in direct involvement, he was charged under the theory of “command responsibility” due to his position within the top echelons of the Cédras regime.

“It’s the same type of case made against the Nazis and (Slobodan) Milosevic,” Brian Concannon, an American attorney who helped form the BAI in the early ‘90s and who worked the Raboteau case, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002. Concannon is now the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a partner organization to the BAI.

The Haitian government has pushed back on Gabriel’s involvement in Raboteau. “What I can tell you in all honesty,” the defense minister told the press, “the candidates were subjected to vetting, including Colonel Gabriel. There is nothing negative against him in the vetting with regard to human rights.”

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Haitian Government on the Defensive Following UN Welcoming of Corruption Investigation

When Donald Trump allegedly referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country earlier this year, the US Ambassador was called in to explain the comments, but the Haitian government stopped short of any type of retaliation. But since last week, the government has been up in arms after a UN mission with a mandate to support the Haitian justice system went so far as to welcome a judicial inquiry into corruption allegations. The government has recalled its ambassador to the UN in response.

The Background

In November, a Senate commission released a 650-page report on Petrocaribe-related corruption. The report implicated top officials from previous administrations in inflating government contracts, funneling money to ghost companies, no-bid contracts for projects that were never finished, and a host of other financial crimes. Even current president Jovenel Moïse was named, allegedly overbilling the government on a $100,000 contract to install solar lamps back in 2013 when he was a relatively unknown businessman.

Moïse has rejected the allegations as politically motivated, as have others implicated. And rather than follow up on their colleague’s report, the Senate has worked to bury it.

On February 8, four civil society organizations released a statement condemning the efforts to obstruct further investigation into the allegations contained in the Petrocaribe dossier. The organizations noted that the Senate had blocked a vote on the report for four months and then, in a “clandestine” session conducted once the opposition had left the building, passed a resolution condemning the report as politically motivated and sending the dossier to the Superior Court of Accounts ― a governmental body that had already signed off on the contracts in question at the time they were awarded. The civil society organizations wrote that these actions “expose the cowardice” of the Senate, and their desire to bury the report.

Anticipating the Senate’s lack of action, a private citizen, Johnson Colin ― backed by lawyer and government critic André Michel ― filed multiple cases at the Port-au-Prince Court of First Instance on January 29 and February 20. (The original filing is available here.)

The UN Statement

On February 25, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) issued a press release welcoming “the assignment of investigating judges to pursue the Petrocaribe court cases filed by private citizens.” The mission noted that Haiti is ranked near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption report.

“I welcome the initiative and the active role of Haitian citizens and civil society who are engaged in the fight against corruption and impunity. Their actions demonstrate that the population is standing up for accountability and justice,” said the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of MINUJUSTH, Susan D. Page.

The UN also expressed its regret that no investigating judge had been assigned to two cases of alleged human rights violations on the part of the Haitian police; one in Lilavois on October 12, 2017 and one, the alleged summary execution of civilians, in Grand Ravine on November 13, 2017. (The Grand Ravine operation was planned in coordination with the UN mission).

The mandate of MINUJUSTH, which took over for the previous UN mission, MINUSTAH, this past October is to “help the Government of Haiti strengthen rule-of-law institutions, further develop and support the Haitian National Police and engage in human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis.” 

Of course, as many observers have pointed out (including here on this blog), the UN has its own terrible track record in terms of avoiding accountability for its actions. The UN’s introduction of cholera has killed more than 10,000 and sickened a million while the UN continues to dodge legal accountability or properly fund eradication efforts. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving UN personnel have been identified ― however in the overwhelming majority of those cases, the perpetrators were simply moved out of Haiti and avoided prosecution. How can the UN have the moral authority to call for justice in Haiti when the UN itself has yet to face justice for its crimes there?

Yet the UN statement was not so much surprising for its content, but for going against the Haitian government. Throughout its controversial history, the UN has rarely even hinted at criticism of the Haitian government. Then again, in this case the UN simply welcomed a judicial investigation.

Given its mandate to support anticorruption efforts and strengthen the judicial system, and its creation under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, the mission was within its rights to make those comments, argued university professor James Boyard.

The UN did not express an opinion on the content of the Petrocaribe dossier, and given the current state of Haiti’s judicial system, the likelihood of the current case leading to any meaningful accountability is slim. The statement posed little threat to those implicated in the dossier (who, if they believe they are innocent, should be welcoming an investigation into the allegations rather than letting the dossier be used by politicians for political reasons).

The Government’s Reaction

The first response to the UN statement came from Haitian foreign minister Antonio Rodrigue. Reuters reported that Rodrigue “said in a statement on Tuesday that Page had exceeded her authority and that her comments reflect an ‘attitude harmful to the political and institutional stability acquired during the past few years.’”

The Haitian government, rather than address the allegations in the Petrocaribe dossier, has doubled down on this response. “The country is fighting to defend its image,” President Moïse said. “People have to speak well of the country,” he added. (The Haitian government recently hired an international PR firm to held with “media relations services.”)

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