Three years ago, after the U.S.S. Harlan County was turned around at Port-au-Prince by members of FRAPH, the Haitian paramilitary force went on the attack against people and organizations supporting the return of President Aristide. Alerte Belance, a young mother, was one of the victims: she lost an arm in a machete attack and fled to New York, where I represent her in a suit against the organization that maimed her. Alerte Belance was very much on my mind when I came to Haiti last fall to see President Jean-Bertrand Aristide restored to power. For Belance and all the other exiles in the United States, for the more than 6,000 refugees then on Guantanamo, I wanted to see if it was safe to return. In the euphoria of October, it was too early to tell.
I returned to Haiti in December. I traveled throughout the country, from north to south, to small towns and even smaller rural settlements that are very, very far from the Presidential Palace. I found a growing anger. The thugs who slashed Alerte Belance, the killers who murdered so many young people, the officers who “disappeared” peasants–these are still free men. There is anger that the worst of the military are merely recycled and sent to different locations. And while people respect President Aristide’s pleas for “reconciliation”, they want justice too. Sooner or later, their anger will lead them to act on their own.
The Haitian desire for justice is not a desire for justice in the abstract. It is not simply because justice is morally required. And it is not even because of the pain of seeing the FRAPH member or the attaché who had killed a relative walking through town with impunity. Haitians, particularly in the countryside, want justice because they understand that until the killers are off the streets, they will not be safe. The murderers might not re-emerge tomorrow, but they will be back–and until they are brought to account, Haiti will not be free.
For that tortured country to move forward, there must be an accounting. The most obvious requirement is, of course, stopping the violence–which has not ended because of Aristide’s return. This means disarming, arresting, and charging FRAPH, attaches, and known human rights violators in the police and army. Haiti also needs to make its judicial system work immediately so prosecutions can be brought. The judges today are the same judges appointed by the military government; the police are largely the same police. To date there has been no criminal prosecutions against military personnel, or attaches. To date there has been no official effort to account for the disappeared.
This is not because there’s a lack of knowledge: the United States and the Haitian government have membership lists of the paramilitary as well as the official groups. They know who has every gun in the country. They know which thugs have been “recycled” from army to police positions, or from attaches to military, and they have a good idea where many of the disappeared are buried. When citizens have tried to protest the presence of known FRAPH or attaches in the police, the U.S. military has threatened them; when they have complained about judicial inaction, the government has urged patience. The emphasis, to date, has been on order, not on law.
I fear that order built on fear and silence cannot last long. A recent US legal brief, arguing that Guantanamo refugees should be returned now, claims that a “stable and safe climate is taking root” in Haiti. But as long as there is no justice, there is no safety or stability for those in Haiti or for those refugees the United States has forcibly returned. Unless the government acts swiftly to account for the disappeared and initiates prosecutions against the worst offenders, I fear people will take justice into their own hands. The violence will spread. And it will not be safe for Alerte Belance to come home.
By: Michael Ratner is one of the attorneys who represented the Haitians at Guantanamo and is a member of the Board of the Center for Constitutional Rights.