Haiti: A Safe Haven for "Baby Doc" Duvalier...Really?

February 2, 2012

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier
Jean-Claude Duvalier lunches in Port-au-Prince (Photo Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

When I was in Haiti with Amnesty in December, training local activists in using new technology for human rights, I had the opportunity to meet many local defenders and activists.

We spoke openly about the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in Haiti and the impunity the perpetrators of those crimes enjoy.  We also spoke about the right to housing and the illegal forced evictions the Haitian government was conducting in displacement camps.

The one topic we didn’t discuss out rightly (for good reasons) was that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had recently returned to Haiti, that he still has a network of supporters, and that he has not been held accountable for his alleged crimes — including torture, disappearances, and killings — committed during his 15 year reign.  Crimes for which it not appears he will not be held to account for.

Duvalier had been under investigation by Haitian authorities since January 2011 when he returned to the country after enjoying a safe haven in France for 25 years. Haitian judicial authorities, however, just announced they are dropping the case and that Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier will not stand trial for alleged crimes against humanity. Rather, he will face accountability for embezzlement of public funds.

I do not know if you watch Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, but if you do (even if you don’t) this situation prompts me to also state: “Really?!?!”

The Duvalier regime is widely known for stifling any sort of opposition by using any and all means necessary and trouncing on international human rights norms.  Obviously the investigating judge did not read the documented evidence (or if he did, he certainly didn’t consider it), which includes the testimonies of many survivors and their families, including that of Raymond Davius, a member of the Haitian armed forces in the 1980s. Mr. Davius was subjected to ill-treatment 17 times while detained in the prisons of Jean Claude Duvalier’s regime. He was thrown into detention solely for sympathizing with the opposition party. Mr. Davius filed a complaint but the investigating judge did not question him, or even consider his case.

Bullying a human rights watchdog won’t improve one’s image

The investigating judge’s decision, in my opinion, is absurd. Why? Because once you consider the evidence gathered and submitted by human rights groups to inform the investigation, including evidence gathered by Amnesty International, I challenge you to disagree with me.  Amnesty International alone submitted over 100 documents of evidence to prosecutors.

Further, in September, some of my colleagues, while in Haiti releasing the evidence gathered by Amnesty International, were stormed by Duvalier supporters at a press conference for the sole purpose of disrupting the launch of the report. After four courageous attempts at opening a dialogue, my colleagues were finally able to deliver Amnesty’s message to the journalists who remained, alongside Mr. Davius who shared his story. Other survivors and families had also been invited to the press conference to have their voices heard; however, sadly most of those who attended had to withdraw as they felt intimidated by the presence of the protesters.

Javier Zuniga, Special Adviser at Amnesty International who researched the crimes committed by Duvalier (and was at the press conference in September), has summed up the investigation well:

“The conclusion of the sham investigation into Duvalier is a disgrace and will further entrench impunity in Haiti. No serious effort was made to determine the truth despite the multiple complaints and abundant evidence about the crimes committed and the victims…this is a dark day for Haiti and for justice.”

The conclusion of the investigation is a sham indeed.

There is still hope for justice to be served

It is important to note; however, that the victims can appeal the judge’s decision and Amnesty International has vowed to continue supporting their search for justice. Under international law, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrests are considered crimes against humanity when committed as part of a systematic or widespread attack against the civilian population. Further, no statute of limitations may apply to crimes against humanity and the alleged perpetrators cannot benefit from amnesties, even in the case of former heads of state.

This means that we all must continue to urge accountability for the alleged crimes against humanity committed during the rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. It is our duty to ensure the voices of the family members and survivors of Duvalier’s crimes are heard. No one, under international law, should ever be subjected to the ill-treatment, torture, extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary arrest, which Raymond Davius and countless others endured.

The dropping of this case by the Haitian judicial authorities sends a very dangerous message—that one can get away with crimes against humanity—as long as you commit them in Haiti.

The international community is watching, and I only hope the impunity Duvalier has enjoyed for the past few decades will soon cease to exist.

You can follow Kathryn Striffolino on Twitter @katiestriff