'Electoral Cleansing' in Haiti
Violates Human Rights and Democracy
by Brian Concannon
Americas Program, International
Relations Center (IRC) Jr., October 17, 2005
Haiti is in the midst of a comprehensive
program of electoral cleansing.
Its ballots are being cleansed of political dissidents, its voting
rolls cleansed of the urban and rural poor. The streets are being
cleansed of anti-government political activity.
This cleansing violates the fundamental human rights guaranteed
by the charters and other instruments of the OAS and the UN. It
also violates the electoral standards that are applied in other
countries, and that were applied to elections run by Haiti's constitutional
governments. The persecution and disenfranchisement of political
opponents is being conducted openly, notoriously, and under the
eyes of the international community. The persecution is not the
result of a government unable to assure adequate security, but
of a deliberate and multifaceted campaign against opponents by
Haiti's Interim Government. This government's primary benefactor
is the American taxpayer.
Haiti's ballots have been cleansed by prohibiting or discouraging
political opponents, especially supporters of the ousted constitutional
government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In some cases this has been
done by the application of rules that appear neutral on the surface,
but have a targeted impact. For example, all presidential candidates
were required to register in person by September 15, but only
Lavalas candidates could not meet this requirement because they
were in jail. Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, widely believed to be the
most popular potential candidate, was arrested without a warrant
two months ago, on July 21. He has been held since then on trumped-up
charges, despite a call for his release issued by twenty-nine
members of the U.S. House of Representatives led by Rep. Waters
and echoed by Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and hundreds
of religious, community, and human rights leaders throughout the
Yvon Neptune, Haiti's last constitutional Prime Minister, has
been in prison since May 2004. U.S. Ambassador James Foley, in
his last address before leaving Haiti in August, called Mr. Neptune's
detention "a violation of human rights, an injustice, and
an abuse of power." He aptly contrasted Prime Minister Neptune's
treatment with the expedited release of death squad leader and
convicted murderer Jodel Chamblain at the same time. Although
formal charges were finally announced against Mr. Neptune on September
19, the charges resulted from a long process packed with irregularities.
Less prominent dissidents have been imprisoned explicitly for
being "close to the former regime." All these arrests
directly limit the arrestees' political activities, but more important,
each political arrest dissuades many others from participating
While the most likely Presidential candidate has been excluded,
an unlikely 54 candidates from 45 parties have filed. This is
a sign not of confidence in the elections, but a widespread belief
that the vote may be so undemocratic that almost anyone might
win. The announced candidates include top officials of past dictatorships,
a paramilitary leader identified as a drug trafficker by the United
States, and an American citizen and Texas resident running despite
bars in two independent clauses of the Constitution.
The Haitian government has also cleansed electoral rolls by discouraging
voters through political persecution and by imposing hurdles that
disproportionately affect poorer Haitians. With the end of the
third prolongation of the registration period approaching, only
about 2.4 million of Haiti's 4.5 million eligible voters have
This low registration rate -- despite non-electoral incentives
including making voter registration a requirement for obtaining
a national ID card, passport, or driver's license -- has resulted
in grand part from a lack of coverage of electoral services in
the nation. Whereas Haiti's democratic governments provided over
10,000 voter registration offices and polling places for elections,
the Interim Government plans to install only 424. This figure
is worth comparing to Los Angeles County, which has a slightly
larger population than Haiti but only 37% of the land area and
infinitely better private and public transportation. L.A. County
expects to have about 4,400 polling places for its November elections
-- over ten times what Haiti expects.
The insufficiency of polling and registration offices, like most
burdens in Haiti, falls heaviest on the urban and rural poor.
By mid-July, half-way through the registration period, there were
three registration offices in Petionville, an upscale suburb,
and three in the entire Central Plateau department, a large rural
district. To this day, there is not one registration office in
Cite Soleil, a poor, urban neighborhood of 300,000 inhabitants.
Similarly Bel-Air, another poor neighborhood, currently has only
one registration office.
Public spaces have also been cleansed of anti-government political
activity through a combination of explicit government policies
and brutal police attacks. On September 17, the Interim Government
issued an order prohibiting all demonstrations until October 2.
This order is as unconstitutional in Haiti as it would be in the
United States. It is a general hindrance to organizing for the
elections, but it is particularly targeted at a large demonstration
previously announced by government critics for next Friday, September
30, to commemorate the anniversary of the first coup d'etat against
President Aristide in 1991.
Over and over again, the Haitian police have responded to legal
anti-government demonstrations with lethal force. On May 18, 2004
the police violently closed down a demonstration on the grounds
that they had not been notified -- pretext they were forced to
retract a few days later. On February 28 of this year, police
shot into a peaceful demonstration in full view of the international
press and United Nations Peacekeepers.
The August 20 soccer massacre in the Grande Ravine neighborhood
is illustrative of both the Haitian police's brutality and the
futility of trying to reform the Haitian government by feeding
it guns and money. Police accompanied by machete-wielding civilians
attacked a soccer crowd of thousands, shooting or hacking to death
at least six and as many as thirty spectators.
Our tax dollars were at both ends of the killing. The soccer game
was sponsored by a USAID program, to promote peace in the neighborhood.
The United States also sponsors the killers, the Haitian National
Police, by providing guns and weapons despite a consistent history
of police killings over the last eighteen months. When the House
of Representatives passed Rep. Barbara Lee's resolution to block
arms transfers on June 28, the State Department responded by announcing
on August 9 that it would send $1.9 million worth of guns and
other equipment to the police, before the elections and presumably
before the Senate could vote on the resolution.
There has been much discussion about whether Fanmi Lavalas, Haiti's
largest and most popular party, will participate in the upcoming
elections. The party's official position has been that the current
high level of political repression makes fair elections impossible.
Because the international community appears eager to place its
seal of approval on elections in November, no matter how unfair,
the party is faced with a dilemma. It can either risk legitimizing
a patently unfair process by participating in it, or it can refuse
to participate and let electees who do not represent the Haitian
people run the country for the next 2-5 years. This is truly a
choice of two evils, and the fact that the party chooses one over
the other does not make either less evil.
What should the United States do about this situation? Passage
of Rep. Lee's ban on arms transfers to the police as long as they
continue persecuting is a good start. Congress should also inform
the Interim Government that it will not accept the results of
any elections that are not free and fair, nor will it provide
continued financial support unless the persecution stops.
Rep. Waters' proposed amendment to H.R. 2601 provides solid standards
for evaluating conditions as the elections approach. It asks for,
among other things, adequate security, disarmament of paramilitary
groups, and trials or release for the political prisoners.
Policy Recommendations to Ensure Fair Elections in Haiti
· Monitor distribution of polling places and delivery
of voting cards.
· Review and denounce the Interim Government's
attempts to limit the constitutionally-guaranteed right to assembly.
· Insist on the release of all political prisoners,
and defend the right of opposition members to register and campaign
· Ban arms transfers to the Haitian police as long
as they continue persecuting.
· Demand a climate for fair elections through adequate
security and disarmament of paramilitary groups.
The following issues also deserve particular attention:
1) Right to Vote: Congress should continue to look at the
number of polling places, and their distribution. Monitoring is
needed to assure that those who have registered actually receive
their cards, especially in the poor urban and rural areas. No
voting cards have been delivered yet, and when delivery begins,
any problems with the delivery system may disproportionately affect
2) Right to Organize: Congress should look at both de
jure and de facto attempts to limit the constitutionally-guaranteed
right to assembly, starting with next Friday's demonstrations.
3) Right to Campaign: Congress should also continue to
follow the cases of political prisoners, and insist that they
be released from prison and allowed to register and campaign for
office. Special vigilance is needed to denounce forms of intimidation
of dissident politicians that fall short of actual imprisonment.
It is tempting, when confronted with the complexity of the challenges
facing Haiti, to look for shortcuts -- accepting expedients not
recognized in the constitution or candidates who are only slightly
unconstitutional, or having elections for the sake of getting
them done. But Haiti's history shows that shortcuts are not the
solution to the country's problems, but the cause. In 200 years
of independence, nearly every conceivable alternative to constitutional
democracy has been tried in Haiti: an empire, a kingdom, foreign
occupations and foreign puppets, Presidents for Life, Interim
Presidents, "governments of national unity," military
dictatorships, paramilitary dictatorships. All have brought increasing
misery to Haiti's people.
Haiti needs better things from America than guns, impatience,
and double standards. We can help our oldest neighbor with its
complex challenges because we have overcome similar challenges
ourselves throughout our history. Our Civil War is still the standard
by which all political violence in the hemisphere falls short.
The struggle to extend equal voting, eating, and transportation
rights to all citizens was long, polarizing, and sometimes violent.
Our experience in grappling with these issues should provide valuable
experience to share, but should also provide the humility to accept
that Haiti's citizens may not always vote, and their representatives
not always govern, exactly as we want them to.
Brian Concannon Jr. is the Director of the Institute for Justice
& Democracy in Haiti, and is an analyst for the International
Relations Center's Americas Program www.americas.irc-online.org.
This text is based on his presentation before the Congressional
Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Forum Panel on September 22,
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