by Sue Montgomery. Originally printed in the Montreal Gazette February 28, 2014
MONTREAL — Ten years after Haiti’s first democratically elected president was removed from his country in the middle of the night and dumped in Africa, Canada’s role — and that of Montreal’s current mayor — has been shrouded in secrecy.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest from Haiti’s slums who is reviled by the elite minority and revered by the poor masses, claims to this day he was blindfolded and forced to sign a letter of resignation before being airlifted out and dropped in the Central African Republic.
The United States, Canada and France all claim he left voluntarily. They say they told Aristide that no one would come to help him — despite the trio’s signed commitment just four years earlier to do so — and that he, his family and supporters would be killed.
“In some ways, the competing stories are a distinction without a difference,” says Brian Concannon, a lawyer with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “It is hard to say that in that situation he had a meaningful choice.”
It was another blow to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — made destitute by two centuries of racism, greed, revenge and a series of inept and corrupt governments backed by the United States. The Caribbean nation, which shares an island with the better-off Dominican Republic, has had 22 constitutions since winning its freedom in 1804 and lived through 32 coups — 33, if one counts the 2004 ouster of Aristide.
Now, Haitians want an apology from Canada, and particularly Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.
Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who has also served at the world agency in several other prominent postings, says the international organization must accept responsibility for the cholera epidemic that broke out in Haiti in October 2010. He says he supports the legal action against the UN that was formally launched in New York City on October 9 on behalf of the victims of the epidemic.
Lewis spelled out strongly-held views in a nine-minute interview on the national, Saturday morning newsmagazine of CBC Radio One, Day 6 on October 12.
The CBC host began the interview by asking Lewis whether he supports the action. He replied, “I do. I think it is unequivocal, the responsibility of the United Nations for the cholera outbreak.”
Lewis dismissed suggestions that definitive proof of the origin of Haiti’s cholera epidemic has not been established. The disease was not present in modern Haiti before October 2010. The epidemic, he said, “has been traced definitively to the Nepalese peacekeeping force” of the UN military mission in Haiti termed MINUSTAH.
Even the UN’s own study on the matter, he said, “came within a hair’s breath of saying ‘we were responsible’, and in fact, the independent investigations by scientists show there is no question of the origin of the cholera”.
To know Mario Joseph is to wait for Mario Joseph. You will wait for him to return from a last-minute hearing, to stop barking into one of his two mobile phones, to wrap up a meeting that started an hour late. And you will wait because Joseph, managing attorney at the NGO Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, is the best human rights lawyer in Haiti, a country where human rights are honored mostly in the breach. From dawn till dusk, clients gather on his office’s bougainvillea-laced terrace: brave women going after rapists, homeless Haitians evicted from post-quake tent camps, cholera victims seeking reparations.
Joseph’s eyes are often red-rimmed from lack of sleep, but his suits are sharp, his ties are sumptuous and his shoes and fingernails are buffed till they shine. With his percussive Creole and typically stern countenance, Joseph can be intimidating. It’s easy to forget that he was raised in rural poverty by a single mother who couldn’t read, and that he managed to get a law degree only through a series of flukes and his own determination. If fate had had its way, Joseph would have been like the millions of Haitians who never attend school, never see a doctor and live on less than $2 per day.
Court’s order that Jean-Claude Duvalier appear in court is another victory for the victims
The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), in its mission to defend Haiti’s poor and the inalienable rights inherent to all human beings, considers the appellate court’s reiteration on February 7, 2013, of the summons to Jean-Claude Duvalier to personally appear in court another victory for his victims.
Additionally, this was the first time that the Court recognized Jean-Claude Duvalier’s status as the accused, so his personnel appearance at a hear set for February 21, 2013, will be required or he risks arrest. According to lawyer Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, one of the victim’s lawyers, “the Court’s order is also a victory for the victims claiming civil damages because the Court also confirmed our standing as civil claimants despite efforts from the lawyers for the accused to derail the process. Their strategy was to block Duvalier from appearing before the court to be questioned.”
A recent New York Times op-ed offers only half the picture.
What is the point of doing any work in Haiti? After all, the country is a mess and it’s hard to shake that habit. And its reputation.
Athena Kolbe and Robert Muggah’s December 9 New York Timesop-ed illustrates in detail the post-rape reality for a survivor of sexual violence in Haiti – a series of misfortunes that encapsulate all of Haiti’s failings in responding to rape. Yet the authors make no mention of the hard work of many groups that have been trying to improve the country’s reputation.
The story is so vivid and real that I can imagine Wendy recounting it to me and my former colleagues at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) office in Port-au-Prince. Yet, it does Haiti a disservice by focusing on the negative, failing to mention the numerous efforts to combat rape in Haiti, and the numerous successes, since the earthquake. As the work of my colleagues at BAI and collaborators at women’s grassroots organizations like KOFAVIV (see also MADRE) and FAVILEK demonstrates every week, the story does not have to play out that way.
Three lawyers in Haiti are reporting an increase of threats and intimidation against them in recent months. They believe they may be targeted for their activism and criticisms against the Haitian government.
On 28 September, the Chief Prosecutor of Port-au-Prince, Jean Renel Sénatus, was interviewed at local radio station, where he discussed his dismissal by the Ministry of Justice because he refused to implement a ministerial order to arrest 36 political opponents. It is not clear on which grounds these arrests had been ordered. The Ministry of Justice denied having given such orders.
Among the 36 political opponents were the names of lawyers Mario Joseph, Newton St-Juste and André Michel. Mario Joseph is a prominent human rights lawyer who is involved in sensitive judicial cases such as proceedings against former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, complaints against the UN for their alleged involvement in spreading the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and cases of forced evictions of people made homeless after the earthquake. As head of the International Lawyers Office (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux), he addressed the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights last July, requesting to visit Haiti to investigate human rights violations. Newton St-Juste and André Michel, also lawyers, recently filed criminal grievances against the wife and the son of the President of the Republic of Haiti for corruption and embezzlement of public funds.