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Concannon Jr, Brian & Fenton, Anthony (2004) Fighting for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Zmag : -.

by Brian Concannon Jr. and Anthony Fenton

Fenton:Why did you feel it was necessary to form the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti IJDH?

Concannon:The IJDH was formed in response to both the unconstitutional regime change in Haiti in February and the inadequate response, by civil society both inside and outside of Haiti. Our mission is to promote democracy and human rights in Haiti, and we have three main areas of activity: working with grassroots groups in Haiti and the solidarity community abroad,; documenting human rights abuses in Haiti and disseminating that information; and pursuing legal actions in Haitian and international courts to support the democratization of Haiti and to help victims of human rights abuses find justice.

Fenton:Are there any cases that you are actively pursuing right now?

Concannon:Yes. We have lawyers on the ground who are trying to get political prisoners out of jail; we've had some successes, there have been some people released out of jail; we hope that by applying pressure in the US and working within the system that we can get the justice system to recognize detainee's rights under Haitian and International law.

So far it's been an uphill battle, but we're going to keep working on that.

Fenton:One can't help but notice that the IJDH report is not exactly consistent with mainstream version of events that would have us believe that the human rights abuses are not something we should be concerned with in the 'post-Aristide' Haiti.

Concannon:I think our report is not completely out of the mainstream. There are some mainstream organizations, for instance Amnesty International [2] and the Committee to Protect Journalists [3] that have documented the systematic persecution of Lavalas supporters, but that reality has not been accepted by the people who actually have a duty to act in that situation, namely the Haitian government and the governments that propped up the current Haitian government, including the governments of the US and Canada. They have ignored it because it's an inconvenient fact.

If they do admit that these persecutions are happening then they would be required to act. Haiti is not the first time that this has happened; we're seeing it right now in Darfur, Sudan, where there was a very slow international response. In fact, decision makers are avoiding calling it a genocide because international law requires affirmative actions to prevent genocide.. Go back to 1994 in Rwanda, where you even had a Canadian General saying there was a genocide and these horrible things were happening, but the world refused to admit it was a genocide, because that would have required them to take action to stop it. In this case, the governments of the US and Canada, they just do not want to recognize the mess they've made of things [in Haiti] because that would require them to admit that their regime change is not working, and to put a lot of pressure on the government and their paramilitary allies to stop the persecution.

Fenton:What can be done with the horrific information detailed in the IJDH and other reports?

Concannon:We need to confront the world with these facts. We write this report to prove beyond a doubt that large scale atrocities are happening, as a way of pushing reluctant people into action. We also need to take organizational action, with solidarity groups like the Let Haiti Live Campaign, and individual action like writing to newspapers and our elected representatives.

Fenton:Commander of the Canadian Forces in Haiti, Lieutenant-colonel Jim Davis recently called into question the "credibility and validity" of the IJDH report [4]. How do you respond to this? Is it "credible and valid"?

Concannon:The report was prepared by lawyers who have been trained in some of the world's best law schools. We've been working for eight years in Haiti. We have a very good system of collecting and verifying information, and it is up to the highest standards. I actually would prefer that this report was all wrong. If the people who came into our office were not really victims' relatives, if they had invented the stories, and we had faked the photographs if all those people reported dead or disappeared are alive and well, that would make my day; that would make me extremely happy, because then a lot fewer people would have suffered persecution.

But the reality is that very good information, from us and from anyone else who has seriously investigated, shows that there is widespread persecution. If the Canadian, or any other military on the ground in Haiti does not believe this information, their obligation is to go out and check.

Their obligation is to go in and talk to people in poor neighbourhoods, to go to the prisons and ask who's a Lavalas supporter, and find out if there are any warrants for those people's arrest. They'll find that there are no warrants; they'll find that they've not been brought before a judge, that the Constitution has not been respected in many ways. We'd be perfectly happy to cooperate with the Canadian government or anyone else who was looking into these questions. If they don't believe us their obligation is to conduct their own investigation rather than just putting their hands over their ears and closing their eyes, seeing no evil, hearing no evil.

Fenton:This same colonel denied that a "cleansing" of supporters of Haiti's Constitution has or is taking place, while at the same time acknowledging that 1000 bodies were buried in a mass grave by March 28th, one month after the coup. He admitted this and other things [such as a March 12th massacre carried out by occupying forces in the neighborhood of Belair] during a well-attended media teleconference call.

None of the mainstream outlest picked up on this context. Why do you suppose this is the case and what are your thoughts on the work of mainstream [corporate] journalists?

Concannon:I think that journalists covering Haiti have a moral and professional obligation to look into these atrocities, and that for the most part they have not fulfilled that obligation. Obviously if they're put on notice by the fact that a Canadian colonel admitted that a massacre happened and that there were a thousand bodies, then journalists need to ask where these bodies came from. They need to go to Haiti and check.. They need to go beyond staying in the nice hotels and speaking with Haitians who drive nice cars or speak good French or English. They need to go into the poor areas where the persecution is happening. The people who are doing the repressing are very clever; they're not killing prominent people; some of the prominent people are being arrested and put in jail, but the killing is being done to anonymous people, to poor people in the poor neighbourhoods that support President Aristide and they are being targeted in ways that the press won't see because the press isn't going into those neighbourhoods and is not making the effort to talk to the victims.

For both the press and for governments, finding this information is not hard. We did not aggressively solicit information. For the most part people justcame by our office. Once the word got out through the grapevine that we were taking down these stories, our office was inundated with people and it would not be very hard for a journalist or a foreign government in Haiti to put the word out that they're taking testimony about these things and I'm sure they'd also be inundated very quickly with information.

Fenton:In a recent interview Pierre Esperrance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights [NCHR], said "I can tell you right now that there are no political prisoners in Haiti." Can you put the NCHR into context?

Concannon:The NCHR also needs to investigate these things.

They may be telling the truth in saying they haven't received reports of persecution, but they've also admitted that they haven't gone out and looked. One problem is that they're considered by many of the victims of persecution to be hostile to their interests, partly because NCHR has been denouncing people who were subsequently arrested and imprisoned illegally, and partly because when you go into NCHR offices there are wanted posters for people associated with the Lavalas government and they don't have posters of people who've even been convicted of human rights violations against lavalas supporters and are roaming free.

If NCHR and others are going to claim that this persecution is not happening they have to out and conduct an investigation. I think that a lot of the mainstream human rights organisations in Haiti, which are also not coincidentally supported by USAID and by other wealthy governments, have been systematically biased in their human rights reporting, in terms of over reporting accusations against Lavalas members and underreporting or ignoring accusations of persecution of Lavalas members.

Fenton:What else is going on on the ground to help Haitian's achieve their human right to self-determine?

Concannon:One thing that's happening is that Haitian civil society is starting to reorganize, that is, the democratic [legitimate] civil society.

It's not an easy thing to do given that the whole purpose of this repression is to either kill or arrest activists, and to decapitate the civil society organizations, but despite that they are still managing to organize. I think you will see an increased effort on behalf of Haitian organizations to insist on democracy and sovereignty and Haitian independence. There are accompanying efforts outside of Haiti. I think that the solidarity community did oppose the coup as it was arriving but I don't think we that did it as effectively as we could have.

The solidarity community is starting to do more outreach, and making its message more effective. I also think that we are gradually getting more people on board. It's been a bitter disappointment for me that people who would not accept the US and other countries overthrowing an elected government elsewhere in the Americas did nothing to stop it from happening to Haiti. And people who would not believe Bush Administration propaganda with respect to other countries believe and recirculate it with respect to Haiti. Many of those people are starting to come around, they're seeing that this puppet [Gerard Latortue-Boniface Alexandre] regime is in fact not functioning and is not providing any benefit to the Haitian people.We're hoping that some of those people will 'jump on the bandwagon' and start supporting Haiti's sovereignty and popular democracy.

Fenton:A number of Haitian organizations who claim to represent 'the people' and left-of-center viewpoints were calling for Arisitde's resignation before the coup, allying themselves with the right wing elements. Please discuss this context.

Concannon:Haitian society has a few different divisions. The biggest division is between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. A lot of people who espouse left of center ideas do so from comfortable offices and homes, and when push comes to shove they stick to their primary alliance with others of their class, in spite of their espoused politics. I think this certainly happened in the months leading up to Haiti's coup. You saw incongruous alliances with former communists, and anti-neoliberal activists holding hands with sweatshop owners, calling for a common platform. Those people aren't happy now; they're not getting what they wanted, except for the ones who received ministerial posts, or director-general posts. It's obvious that the government is not advancing their espoused political agenda. But there still is this division, where people pick sides, almost like tribalism, where you pick a side of your economic class over your espoused views.

Fenton:It strikes me that Batay Ouvriye falls under this category.

They've said about Aristide's agreeing to be returned by Clinton in 1994:

"The return of Aristide under US/UN occupation was a futherance of this process of placing Haiti gradually under US imperialist tutelage." And, in the context of the recent coup they've said "The current U.S. led intervention in Haiti was first called for by the Lavalas government, desperately seeking a way to stay in power by any concessionnecessary.

But the U.S. had more servile lackeys in mind while taking advantage of the invitation to intervene."[5]

Concannon:Batay Ouvriye's criticism of Aristide coming back in the 1994 under US occupation, is certainly a legitimate issue for debate. I think to a large extent that debate was settled , by the fact that the Lavalas party continued to win a landslide in every election. I think that shows that the Haitian people did in fact approve of that decision, even though many of those voters probably struggled with that issue, they did come down in favour of having the Lavalas back in office. But in any event the issue should be debated within the democratic, constitutional framework: through public discussion in the press and elsewhere, and by putting the issue in front of the voters. Violent regime change simply does not advance that debate.

Fenton:In the context of a 'post-9/11' world and the subsequent new 'war on terrorism', put into context what Noam Chomsky has expressed as the "Tragedy of Haiti".

Concannon:One closely related theme to all of this is imperialism. After the 9/11 attacks there was a lot of talk about whether poverty breeds terrorism, and I think that that link is not necessarily a strong one. But there is a very strong link between injustice and terrorism, and I think you can also make a link between injustice and the inability of a country to maintain a stable government. If you look at all the 'trouble spots' in the world, you'll see there's a large disparity in wealth and there's also a lot of injustice both within those societies and between those societies and the wealthy countries of the world. I think that this is at the root of a lot of the problems that are afflicting poor countries as well as the wealthy ones.

One of Haiti's fundamental problems is the class divide. Although different elements of the anti-Lavalas sector had different motivations, the most powerful actors wanted Aristide removed because he was governing on behalf of the poor.If you look at Haile Selassie's famous 1963 speech to the United Nations, that Bob Marley transformed into his excellent song "War", where he proclaimed that as long as there's injustice, as long as there's racism, as long as people's autonomy and sovereignty are not respected, there will be war. Bob Marley's song said "War in the East, War in the West, War in the North, War in the South," meaning that sometimes the war will be contained in places like Cite Soleil and Soweto, but sometimes it will not. And I think we're seeing that. As long as the wealthy and powerful countries of the world continue to ignore the principles of justice in their international relations, we're going to have war.[6]

Fenton:If John Kerry is elected can or will this have a positive impact on the Haiti solidarity struggles?

Concannon:Certainly John Kerry's election will make a difference.

He espouses a more multilateral, more cooperative, and a more just approach to foreign policy. I don't think that it will necessarily make all the difference, nor can solidarity activists rest on their laurels if Kerry is elected. For example, if you go back to President Clinton, when he was a candidate in 1992 talking about the de facto regime [CIA-supported Cedras junta] that was in place at the time, and the US policy of illegally sending refugees back to that regime, he called that policy illegal and immoral, and he promised to change it. But even before he became President, a couple of days before his inauguration, he issued a statement reversing this position, saying he was going torepatriate Haitian refugees, the same thing that as illegal and immoral for the first President Bush to do...So, we certainly can't rest, we must continue to push for a just foreign policy toward Haiti, even if Kerry is in the White House.

Fenton:Speaking of Clinton, his administration originated the "Failed State" terminology that people like Canada's Paul Martin are now parroting as if the rhetoric was going out of style…

Concannon:I think that the rhetoric is highly cynical. The fact that there were problems with Haiti's government is no surprise.-There certainly were problems - many of them can be traced directly back to the policies of Canada and the US and the rest of the wealthy countries. Not coincidentally, most of these countries are former slave-holding countries and there was a three-year embargo against Haiti's democratically elected government. There was also diplomatic isolation, there was persistent support for people who were trying to overthrow that government both violently and non-violently. Calling Haiti a "failed state" is a way of deflecting attention away from the international community's failed policies. It is also an excuse to suspend the commitment to democracy that wealthy countries always preach, but so often fail to put into practice.

Despite the challenges of the embargo, and figting an intermittent but persistent armed attack, the Haitian government was continuing to provide many basic services. There were impressive, if still inadequate successes in terms of educational reform. Although they weren't anywhere near to filling the needs of the country, there were unprecedented advances in terms of building schools, training teachers, adult literacy programs. There were also great successes in terms of justice, some of our work. We had some of the best human rights cases ever done in Haiti and probably in the entire hemisphere over the last twenty years or so. Some of these happened with international support.

Had the international community provided more consistent support, there would have been more consistent successes. Perhaps most important, before 1996, no Haitian President in history had served his original term in office and left voluntarily at the end of it, no more no less. That happened in 1996, and again in 2001.

Haiti's Constitutional regime eventually foundered not because of competence, but because of politics: the governments insisted on implementing a mandate that had been given by the Haitian electorate but with which the wealthy countries [and wealthy Haitians] didn't agree.

Fenton:On June 1st you wrote an article called "Haiti's Coup and the Constitution,"[7] Please summarize where constitutional issues stand in Haiti today. And how has this affected you personally considering all the work that you've done over the last nine years in Haiti?

Concannon:In terms of the Constitution and the current government, it came to power through unconstitutional means and is continuing to govern in a completely unconstitutional way. As in the U.S. and Canada, there are certain ways to deal with constitutional crises and interruptions in the normal order. None of these were followed in Haiti.

The Prime Minister was not selected in a constitutional way; the President was the closest thing to being constitutional, in that he was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Constitution does provide for the Chief Justice to fill a Presidential vacancy. It wasn't a vacancy because President Aristide did not resign; his letter was not a resignation letter.

The US State Department hired a Creole expert to translate it who said that it was not a translation letter.

Even if there had been a vacancy, the interim President is supposed to serve for a maximum of three months. We are close to double that now, and there is no talk of elections before the end of 2005. The Prime Minister, who was appointed by a process not recognized by the Constitution, is filling most of the President's roles. He has the real power, because he has the ties to the international community.

As far as my personal reaction goes, I am of course bitterly disappointed with these results. We'd been working within the Haitian justice system since 1995 to try to make the system work, using the tools of democracy.

We were successful in many ways. The places where we were most successful was when we were able to convince people to take a gamble on democracy, we convinced people to testify in open court. We argued that prosecuting human rights violators under the law rather than engaging in some kind of extra judicial vengeance, would help establish the rule of law and break the cycle of violence. We told people that the rule of law would be the bulwark against these kinds of things happening again.

And the victims very courageously took the gamble, and now they're looking like suckers because the people they put in jail are now out, and in power, and are threatening them. This is demonstrated by several reports, not just ours [Amnesty, etc], that the former human rights abusers, who've actually been convicted, are back outside on the streets doing the same things to the same people. And they got back out on the streets with the help of the wealthy countries that supposedly promote democracy and the rule of law.

It's obviously a bitter disappointment to see Haiti' nine-year experiment in democracy thrown out like that. It was not a perfectly successful experiment, but it was in fact working. People for the first time ever had a role in their destinies. Democratic institutions were being developed through painstaking labor. Now we're not back to zero, we're back to less than zero, since there is not only a completely undemocratic government in place, you also have a lot of people who are now going to say 'I'm not going to be fooled again, I'm not going to take the bet on democracy next time'.

Fenton:The Haitian Constitution doesn't say that in the event of an 'interim govenrment' the Prime Minister - in this case Gerard Latortue becomes the de facto head of State, does it?

Concannon:Where Alexandre at least has a veneer of constitutional support, Latortue has none; it's clear that Latortue is running the country. The constitution does divide executive power between the President and the Prime minister, and in fact Latortue is doing most of the things that are on the President's side of the divide. It's clear that Latortue is the US man. He's probably spent more time in the United States in his life than I have. He's the Haitian Ahmad Chalabi, and he's there to do the US bidding.

Fenton:The EPICA"People's fact-finding mission to Haiti" finds that what we see in Haiti now is an effective return to the conditions of 1915. Many see US ambassador James Foley as the de facto 'governor' of Haiti. Would you agree with this characterization?[8]

Concannon:There's another report that came out this week from the Haiti Accompaniment Project [9], which came to similar conclusions as EPICA. When you look at the detailed workings, everything from the airport to the ministries, you have Americans that are involved in important oversight positions throughout the Haitian government. In that sense, it is a lot like in 1915, which was the beginning of a 19-year occupation.

It seems like in many of these [current] cases, people are settling in for the long haul. One person named Terry Stewart was a prison official in Arizona who was extremely controversial because of torturing and other mistreatment that went on on hs watch. He was then sent to Iraq and subsequently sent out of Iraq because he was too controversial, because of his past history of involvement in torture. He was then sent to Haiti. I'm not sure if he's still there but this is an example of the type of American practices that are being exported to Haiti. [10]

Fenton:What are your thoughts on attempting a new [or continued] 'democratic experiment' in Haiti? Do you agree with Jean Saint-Vil and others who see the struggle ahead as a long term one?

Concannon:I think that the most hopeful sign is that the Haitian electorate has always been highly mobilized and very clear in their desires. I've observed a lot of elections in Haiti - I was an official observer with the OAS in Haiti for several elections, and I've unofficially observed several others, and in almost every instance, the rate of participation of Haitian voters was way above that of any participation rate you'd have in U.S. elections, and higher than most elections in Latin America.

That shows that despite the challenges to their democracy, the Haitian electorate really does care. That is by far the most hopeful sign, although a lot of what has happened over the last years have been intended to demobilize the population, to make them care less about democracy so they're less likely to defend it. I think that this has not completely worked, and I think that whenever you do have elections the Haitian people will speak very clearly. This is why the plan is to delay elections as long as possible. But I think that the people will keep fighting and I agree with Jean Saint-Vil that solidarity activists need to be fighting too. We need to take the long-term view of this and fight over the long haul for the return of real democracy in Haiti, in which the poor majority has the say, that has the weight in public affairs that's consistent with their numbers. Together, we can in fact get Haitian democracy back on track.

Brian Concannon Jr., human rights lawyer and activist, Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti IJDH . Brian has co-managed the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux [BAI] in Port-au-Prince since 1996, after coming to Haiti in 1995 with the United Nations. Concannon is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, and held a Brandeis International Fellowship in Human Rights, Intervention and International Law from 2001-2003. Since Haiti's coup d'etat in February, the BAI has switched gears to document continuing human rights violations. The BAI also runs a training program for Haitian law school graduates.

Mr Concannon writes and speaks often about justice, human rights and the democratic transition in Haiti. He can be reached at

Anthony Fenton, is an investigative journalist and activist, living near Vancouver, B.C. Fenton has written for ZNet and The Dominion, 'Canada's Grassroots National Newspaper'. He can be reached at

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