Haiti and Human Rights Watch

By: Joe Emersberger – HaitiAnalysis
     In a world dominated by the wealthy the temptation will always exist for NGOs to acquire funds, and respectability, by saying at least some of what the powerful want to hear.
It’s an understandable temptation. Nobody should seek out oblivion – especially those who document human rights abuses. Any attention given to their work by the media may save lives and alleviate suffering, but the price of corporate respectability is high, and it is paid by people that human rights groups are supposed to defend.

     Human Rights Watch (HRW) appears to have succumbed to this temptation. The quantity and content of what it has published about Haiti and Venezuela over the past two years provide a good example of how to avoid oblivion: downplay the human rights abuses of US allies, and exaggerate the abuses of official enemies. By doing this HRW has assisted the US in its efforts to crush democracy in Latin America.
     Aristide won the presidency twice – in 1990 and again in 2000-. Both times his triumph at the polls was overwhelming and unassailable. Both times he was overthrown in US backed coups led by Haiti’s tiny elite. HRW responded quite differently to both coups.


In 1991, seven months after his election, Aristide was overthrown. The military regime that took over immediately began a murderous campaign to destroy Lavalas – the movement of Haiti’s poor majority that brought Aristide to power. Emmanuel Constant and Jodel Chamblain were leaders of the FRAPH death squads that were organized to eliminate Lavalas.

Within two months of the coup HRW produced a 38 page report entitled “The Aristide Government’s Human Rights Record”. [1] HRW was alarmed that the military was pointing to human rights abuses during months of democratic rule to justify the coup. HRW was particularly alarmed that the junta’s allegations were being spread by US officials with the help of the New York Times. HRW put Aristide’s record in proportion:

“…at least three hundred civilians estimated to have been killed by soldiers during the few days of the coup and its immediate aftermath – dwarfing the number killed by any means under seven months of President Aristide’ rule”

They also stated that “In our view, President Aristide is the sole legitimate Haitian head of state.”

They criticized Aristide for being not being consistent in his opposition to “popular violence” when Haitians, tired of seeing Duvalier’s henchmen escape justice, sometimes took matters into their own hands. However, the point was clearly made that junta’s attempts to justify itself were outlandish.

According to HRW the military killed at least 3000 people and forced 300,000 into hiding.[2] The US finally ordered the junta to step down in 1994 after outrageous concessions were secured from Aristide. HRW published a 30 page report highlighting some of the US imposed concessions.[3] The report, entitled “Security Compromised Recycled Haitian Soldiers on the Police Front Line” criticized the US for creating

“…an interim police force composed entirely of former members of the same military whose brutal human rights record initially galvanized the international effort to restore democracy…”

In October, 1995 HRW followed up with a report that mentioned US support for FRAPH:

“Despite voluminous evidence of FRAPH’s close links with the Haitian military …. the U.S. government initially insisted that FRAPH (whose leader Emmanuel Constant was at one time on the CIA payroll and later was permitted entry to the U.S. on a reinstated visa) was a legitimate Haitian political movement. On October 3, 1994, the U.S.-led multinational forces conducted raids of FRAPH offices in Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitian, but most of these detainees were released on the same day….”[4]

A year later HRW expressed frustration with US efforts to prevent criminals from being brought to justice. It suggested that “Washington’s reasons ranged from a misguided belief that the army was the only institution capable of securing order in Haiti to a realpolitik calculation that the army was necessary to keep leftist political forces in check.” For years HRW publicly asked the US to deport Emmanuel Constant and to return 160,000 pages of documents seized from FRAPH offices.[5] The US refused to return the documents unless the names of US citizens were deleted.

After 2001 HRW stopped publicly appealing for the deportation of Constant. He is still a free man living in New York. The San Francisco based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against him in 2005 on behalf of three FRAPH victims who fled to the U.S.[6]


Rene Preval, another Lavalas leader, was elected president in 1995. The Haitian constitution does not allow a president to serve two consecutive terms. In 2000 Aristide was elected president in another landslide victory. In 2004 he was overthrown in another US backed coup. CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market) called on the UN to investigate Aristide’s allegation that he was forcibly removed from Haiti by US troops. No investigation has ever taken place.

In the first two years after the 1991 coup HRW’s reports dedicated roughly 50,000 words to the situation in Haiti. That does not include a 136 page book they published during that period entitled “Silencing a People: The Destruction of Civil Society in Haiti”. But two years after the 2004 coup HRW allotted a trifling 9000 words to Haiti – less then had been written in the first two months after the coup of 1991. [7]

What changed? Was the human rights situation vastly improved compared to what it had been following the coup of 1991? A cursory glance at the coup leaders in 2004 should have convinced HRW that crimes of a similar scale were likely. One of rebels who overthrew Aristide in 2004 was Jodel Chamblain – second in command of FRAPH – whose exploits during the 1990’s HRW had documented. Days before the coup Chamblain’s rebels freed notorious criminals from jail including General Prosper Avril who served under both Duvaliers.[8]

Other evidence was immediately available that the aftermath of the 2004 coup would be as bloody as the previous one. A month after the coup the morgue in Port-au-Prince reported that 1000 bodies had been disposed of – most obvious victims of violence. The morgue typically disposed of only 100 bodies a month.[9]

HRW’s reports were not only inexcusably sparse, but they legitimized the overthrow of Aristide. A month after the coup HRW made no distinction between Aristide’s government and the people who had overthrown him:

“U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell should press the interim Haitian government to pursue justice for abusive rebel leaders as well as members of the deposed government”[10]

This statement was typical of HRW after the coup. HRW did not recognize Aristide as “the sole legitimate Haitian head of state” as they had in 1991. Why was Aristide no longer legitimate? How could the US and the “interim government”, whom HRW knew were allied with major criminals, be appealed to as if they were legitimate? Why was no comparison made between Aristide’s human rights record and his opponents’? In 1991 HRW had speedily refuted the junta’s attempt to justify themselves by exaggerating Aristide’s abuses – not this time.

Peter Hallward examined Amnesty International and press reports during Aristide’s second government. He found that “reports covering the years 2000-03 attribute a total of around 20 to 30 killings to the police and supporters of the FL [Famni Lavalas -Aristide’s party]….. at least 20 police officers or FL supporters were killed by army veterans in 2001, and another 25 in further paramilitary attacks in 2003,” [11] In short, the crimes of Aristide’s supporters were immediately dwarfed by the regime that replaced him – something easily predicted by referring to HRW’s research during the 1990’s.

Moreover, HRW had documented the concessions wrung out of Aristide by the US in 1994. They knew that criminals were being incorporated into the police; yet they were silent about this contributing factor to the abuses that occurred under Aristide.

On May 16, 2005 HRW published a letter to the head of MINUSTAH (UN forces) in Haiti. It stated that Aristide supporters were responsible for most of the violence in Port-au-Prince and called for increased firepower for MINUSTAH and the Haitian National Police.[12] Again, the legitimacy of the UN forces was not questioned. Two centuries of uninterrupted brutality, murder and theft inflicted on Haiti by US and European governments were easily dismissed as was Aristide’s popularity which was confirmed by electoral victories and even US commissioned polls. [13]

Shortly before HRW published their letter a 54 page report published by Harvard Law School found that

“”…MINUSTAH has effectively provided cover for the police to wage a campaign of terror in Port-au-Price’s slums. Even more distressing than MINUSTAH’s complicity in HNP abuses are credible allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by MINUSTAH itself,….” [14]

By the time HRW published their letter the regime had announced that it would pay millions of dollars in “compensation” to members of the former army. [15] Hundreds of political prisoners, overwhelmingly Aristide supporters, were in jail. Jodel Chamblain, of FRAPH, had been acquitted in a widely ridiculed trial as had 15 other perpetrators of a massacre that HRW had documented after the 1991 coup. [16] I wrote HRW asking why none of these facts had been addressed in their letter. I asked if they disputed the findings of Harvard Law School report or of the detailed report by Thomas Griffen of University of Miami School of Law.[17] They never replied; nor did they ever reply to an open letter from Kevin Pina, a US journalist who has taken on tremendous personal risk to film the crimes of MINUSTAH and the HNP. [18]


HRW had little to say about Haiti’s brutal unelected government. It had much more criticism for Venezuela’s democratically elected government. Two years after the coup in Haiti HRW allocated more than 22,000 words towards the situation in Venezuela – more than double what it had allocated to Haiti in the same period. [19]

A law to reform the Venezuelan judiciary received particularly disproportionate attention. In June, 2004 HRW published a 24 page report “Rigging the rule of Law” critical of the proposed law. An HRW press release said that the “biggest threat to the country’s rule of law comes from the government itself” – a remarkable statement given US support for the opposition that briefly ousted Chavez in a 2002 coup. The same month an op-ed appeared in the Washington Post entitled “Court-Packing Law Threatens Venezuelan Democracy” written by HRW’s executive director for the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco.[20]
HRW’s stated concern was independence of the Venezuelan judiciary from the legislative and executive branches of government. The class bias of the judiciary, which allowed various perpetrators of the 2002 coup to escape justice, was not addressed by HRW.

Haiti offered much more compelling examples than Venezuela of a judiciary under the thumb of the executive. The Toronto Star reported that in December of 2004 “Justice Minister Bernard Gousse removed two prominent judges’ caseloads after they had ordered the release of prisoners who were political opponents of the government.” [21] In December, 2005 Haiti’s unelected government fired the supreme court because it had hampered a US millionaire’s attempt to run for president. HRW remained silent. [22]
Worse than the double standard HRW has revealed regarding judicial independence in Venezuela and Haiti has been their double standard towards the opposition in both countries. HRW strongly protested Venezuela’s decision to prosecute members of Sumate, an NGO that had received US funds in violation of Venezuelan law to organize the recall referendum against Chavez. HRW referred to the trial as “government persecution”. [23]

HRW has not used such strong words (in fact, any words) to defend Haiti’s political prisoners. HRW’s failure to join the international campaign to free the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste is particularly glaring. The priest is a prominent Aristide supporter and humanitarian worker. He was illegally jailed twice after the 2004 coup. After his second arrest Amnesty International (AI) named him a “prisoner of conscience”. AI also issued an appeal on behalf of Annette August, another Aristide ally, who has been imprisoned for two years without being charged. I have contacted HRW many times to ask why they have been silent about the plight of these prisoners. They have never replied. [24]

HRW remained silent about Jean-Juste’s case even after he was diagnosed with Leukemia. The regime, under international pressure, eventually allowed him to leave Haiti to receive chemotherapy in Miami.

[1]HRW;November 1, 1991 http://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/h/haiti/haiti91n.pdf

[2] HRW; August 1994; http://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/h/haiti/haiti948.pdf

[3]HAITI: Security CompromisedRecycled Haitian Soldiers on the Police Front Line (http://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/h/haiti/haiti953.pdf)

[4]HRW: (http://www.hrw.org/reports/1995/Haiti3.htm)

[5]http://hrw.org/english/docs/1997/10/16/haiti1520.htm (http://hrw.org/english/docs/1999/09/16/haiti1641.htm) (http://hrw.org/english/docs/1999/11/04/haiti1968.htm) (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2000/12/01/usint3114.htm) (http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/bush2001/key-countries.htm#haiti)

[6] T h e C e n t e r f o r J u s t i c e & A c c o u n t a b i l i t y: HAITIAN DEATH SQUAD LEADER, toto Constant, to be brought to justice for his campaign of rape and murder: (http://www.cja.org/cases/ConstantDocs/Constantpr1.14.04.htm)

[7] Word count of all reports available on HRW’s website for the relevant periods

[8] Paul Farmer; Uses of Haiti” third edition; pg 393

[9] (http://www.ijdh.org/articles/article_ijdh-human-rights_update-july-26-04.html#intro

[10] HRW; April 14, 2004; (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/04/14/haiti10491.htm)

[11] Znet Commentary: Option Zero in Haiti by Peter Hallward : (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=5806) Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer with ample experience in Haiti, assisted Hallward with his analysis.

[12] HRW; May 16, 2005: (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/05/17/haiti10956.htm)

[13] NYT: Tracy Kidder, op-ed, NYT, Feb 26,2004; For details about the 2000 elections HRW has labelled “deeply flawed” see (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040302_Hell_Haiti_2.html) Also (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=55&ItemID=8940) Also “Canada in Haiti: Waging war on the poor majority” by Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton

[14] Harvard Law School; “Keeping the Peace in Haiti?”;March 2005 (http://www.margueritelaurent.com/campaigns/campaignone/human_rights_reports/harvard.html

[15) ] Maxine Waters letter of protest to G.W. Bush; (http://www.wbai.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=4684&Itemid=2)

[16] Toronto Star: Reed Lindsay: Haiti’s `huge step forward’ pushed back Court quashes milestone massacre convictions; May 15, 2005

[17] UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SCHOOL OF LAW: HAITI HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATION: NOVEMBER 11-21, 2004 By Thomas M. Griffin; (http://www.law.miami.edu/news/368.html)

[18] Znet: Pina: Open Letter to Human Rights Watch: (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7882) Znet: Pina: Open Letter to Human Rights Watch: (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7882)

[19] see note 7

[20] HRW, June 17, 2004; (24 pg report) (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/venezuela0604/;HRW,June) 17, 2004 (press release) (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/06/17/venezu8855.htmHRW) June 22, 2004; (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/07/07/venezu9015.htm) (published in the Washington Post)

[21] see note 16

[22] NYT: Reuters: Haiti’s Interim Government Fires Supreme Court; 12/9/2005

[23] HRW, July 8, 2005; (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/07/08/venezu11299.htm)

[24] AI; July 25, 2005; (http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR360082005?open&of=ENG-HTI) AI; January 11, 2006;http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR360032006?open&of=ENG-HTI