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Duvalier ruling sends a chilling message

On Jan. 30, Investigative Magistrate Carves Jean handed down a ruling on the Jean-Claude Duvalier case, recommending that all human rights charges against Duvalier be dropped and that he be tried instead in a lesser court on charges of financial malfeasance, but not on the accusations of misappropriation of public funds. The judge did not explain his reasoning.

Human rights advocates responded with a forceful outcry against the ruling, claiming that human rights crimes during Duvalier’s regime are amply documented, and under international law, there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.

The United States has offered technical support should the Haitian government mount an appeal, but has maintained an ambiguous position on the Duvalier prosecution overall. In fact, the international donor community has been deafeningly silent on the subject.

A few days before the ruling, Haiti’s president Michel Martelly hinted a possible pardon for Duvalier and members of his regime at a conference in Davos, Switzerland.

“You cannot forget those who suffered in that time, but I do believe that we need that reconciliation in Haiti,” said Martelly.

The era referenced by President Martelly saw the largest exodus of the professional middle class from
Haiti to the United States, Canada, France and several countries across the Caribbean and Latin America in Haitian history. More than a quarter of the Haitian population lives outside of Haiti (an estimated 4 million Haitians live abroad, with 1.5 million in the United States). This unprecedented migration, which started under the rule of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, occurred over the 30 year Duvalier regime.

A principal legacy of Duvalierism is that scholars, engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and artists left Haiti to seek refuge from political oppression and a societal structure where government-backed crimes went unpunished.

This ruling continues that legacy of impunity. It also begs the question: Will the diaspora ever return
to a country where justice is not served? For that matter, will anyone else want to visit or do business in a country in which the rule of law is so flawed.

While the recent conviction of 8 police officers tried for a 2010 prison massacre in Les Cayes provided a rare victory for the rule of law in Haiti, this ruling reinforces the confidence gap that exists.

In the same speech Martelly beckoned the diaspora, as he had during his campaign, to return to Haiti and help rebuild after the earthquake.

“The diaspora will be put back to work. We need them,” the president proclaimed.

Yes, Haiti will need all the resources and assets it can get to rebuild for a better future. However, it is inconceivable to think that the diaspora would leave countries with functioning justice systems to
return to a land of impunity. President Martelly and all who call for reconciliation should understand that the only path to reconciliation isn’t forgetfulness. And if Haiti is to have a brighter future, it must reconcile the injustices of the past and hold Jean-Claude Duvalier accountable for all crimes committed under his watch.