Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Paper Laws, Steel Bayonets: Breakdown of the Rule of Law in Haiti

New York: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1990. vi + 215 pp.

Americas Watch and National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. Silencing a People: The Destruction of Civil Society in Haiti. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993. x + 136 pp. $10.00

The following was published in 1996 in Journal of Third World Studies 13(1):369-371.

By Robert Lawless

These reports result from the work of some of the world's outstanding human rights organizations. Since 1978 the Lawyers Committee has worked to promote international human rights and refugee law and legal procedures in the United States and abroad. Americas Watch was established in 1981 to monitor and promote observance of internationally recognized human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Established in 1982, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees is composed of 47 legal, human rights, civil rights, church, labor, and Haitian community organizations working together to protect the rights of Haitian refugees under the U.S. and international law. Human Rights Watch began in 1978 with the founding of Helsinki Watch by a group of publishers, lawyers, and other activists and now maintains offices around the world. An independent organization supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations, Human Rights Watch accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly, and systematically investigates human rights abuses in some 60 countries.

During the summer of 1992--almost a year after military forces overthrew Haiti's freely elected government--representatives of Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees visited eight of Haiti's nine departments and compiled comprehensive information on the deterioration of the rule of law and the disappearance of human rights. The visits focused on conditions in the provinces since the repression in Port-au-Prince had already been well reported, and the result is a thorough report on the destruction of civil society in Haiti.

The brutal activities at all levels of the military went beyond the expected cruelties of empowered soldiers. Essentially an army of occupation ruled Haiti during those three years until September 1994 when the U.S. took over much of the governance of Haiti. The occupiers viewed pretty much the entire society as the enemy with only a few collaborators among the lumpen proletariat and the upper classes. If the three- year regime of General Raoul Cedras had any policy at all, it consisted simply of the notion that the Haitian people had to be denied any organized platform from which to express its discontent, which meant that all organizations and even temporary gatherings that were not directed control by the military were targeted for immediate and violent destruction.

Given the general knowledge of the role of the Haitian army since the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation and the more specific knowledge of the conduct of the army since the fall of Duvalier in February 1986--coupled with the information that this report gathered after the September 1991 coup--the authors display incredible naivete in their recommendations that the military "should formally and publicly withdraw the de facto ban on public dissent, . . . subject itself to civilian authority," and "dismiss from the army . . . those who have been responsible for murder, torture and other gross abuses" (p. 2). What every student of Haiti has recognized for years is that Haiti must abolish its army. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide apparently is attempting to accomplish this absolutely and basically necessary step for peace and progress despite the unfortunate fact that most sectors of the U.S. government and most North American business interests are more comfortable with the severity of the Haitian military than with the messiness of a Haitian democracy.

The report by the Lawyers Committee documents the abuses of the military regimes of Henri Namphy, Prosper Avril, and Herard Abraham from the period after the ouster of Jean-Claude Duvalier to several months before the election of Aristide in December 1990. The opening statement sets the tone: "There is no system of justice in Haiti" (p. 1). The title of the report comes from a Haitian proverb that states "Law is paper; bayonet is steel."

The Lawyers Committee has recommendations that are similar to those in the report published by the Human Rights Watch--and that are similarly naive. The Lawyers Committee recommended, for example, that the "rural section chiefs and their assistants, currently under the control of the army, . . .be placed under the control of the Ministry of Justice" (p. 19). Fortunately Aristide recognizes what needs to be done to move Haiti toward a society of law and justice, and simply abolished the institution of the rural section chiefs--twice, once during his first few months in office before the coup and once after he had been restored to office.

The bulk of these two reports records in sickening detail the murdering and torturing of those opposing the military regimes. The documentation of state- sanctioned violence is a sad but necessary task. What is necessary also is a report on the structure of Haitian society, the underlying ecological premises, and the international relationships that allow such murderous regimes to gain control over society.


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