Human Rights Watch spokesperson Reed Brody called it “historic“: on February 28 former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced to appear before a Port-au-Prince appeals court to discuss criminal complaints filed against him by victims of his 1971-1986 regime. The occasion was significant regardless of the outcome of the now ongoing trial of Duvalier. “Whatever happens next,” Brody said, “Haitians will remember the image of their former dictator having to answer questions about the repression carried out under his rule.”
This was only the latest in a number of encouraging developments involving former dictators forced to confront their crimes from the 1970s and 1980s. Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s military ruler from 1982 to 1983, faces charges in a trial that began on March 19 for the deaths of indigenous campesino civilians, while dozens of former Argentine officials are in jail or on trial for the “disappearances” of as many as 30,000 suspected leftists in the 1976-1983 “dirty war.”
Duvalier’s court appearance has received substantial coverage in the United States, and that, too, was encouraging. Duvalier missed three hearing dates in the once-a-week trial until he was threatened with imprisonment. Then he showed up for one court date, and became “sick” afterwards and was “hospitalized” for the next. Theoretically, he should still be making court appearances
But in their coverage, the media, and even human rights groups and many progressives, seemed to miss an important point: Duvalier, like Ríos Montt and the Argentine generals, had accomplices and enablers who are still free to walk the streets of New York and Washington.
As journalist Cyril Mychalejko points out in the case of Guatemala, “for justice to overcome impunity … there needs to be an international component.” During Ríos Montt’s reign of terror, US president Ronald Reagan announced that the dictator had gotten a “bum rap” and then authorized weapons sales to the Guatemalan military. Elliott Abrams, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, enthusiastically helped cover up the military’s violations of human rights. But Reagan’s memory is still revered, and Abrams blogs for the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.
The US record in Haiti is no better.
The brutality of François Duvalier’s 1957-1971 regime was so blatant – and so well known – that Washington shied away from public statements of support even as it propped up the regime, in fact, with only one interruption. But once “Papa Doc” was gone, US advisers openly collaborated with the son, promoting “industrial development” through a disastrous program for attracting assembly plants, and “agricultural development” through the slaughter of the local “Creole pigs” without any provision for sustainable replacements.
Baby Doc was flown into exile in 1986, and from that point on, his crimes seemed to be limited to violations of French immigration law and a failure to pay hefty hotel bills. The US government’s crimes never stopped. Washington backed Duvalier’s successors, a series of military dictators during whose stays in power atrocities such as the massacres of at least 139 peasants at Jean Rabel in July 1987 and of dozens of voters at Port-au-Prince polling places that November occurred. In 1991, the military overthrew the recently elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and proceeded to kill an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Haitians over the next three years. A leader of the military junta, Raoul Cédras, had been a US “intelligence source“; the leader of the main death squad, Emmanuel (“Toto”) Constant, was a paid agent of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The US government restored Aristide to office in October 1994, but continued to push its failed economic prescriptions over the next ten years. Eventually, it launched a campaign to destabilize Aristide’s second administration that ended with Haiti’s president in exile in Africa.
Starting in June 2004, the United States outsourced military control of Haiti to the United Nations. The so-called “peacekeepers” of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) quickly built up a record of civilian casualties and rapes and other sexual crimes. In October 2010, MINUSTAH’s failure to screen its soldiers for disease and to maintain proper sanitation at its bases led to Haiti’s first cholera outbreak ever. It took the two Duvaliers 29 years to murder an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians through executions and torture; in just two and a half years, the UN has managed to kill off over 8,000 Haitians through its outrageous negligence.
On February 21 – while media attention was focused on the Duvalier case – UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon announced that the organization wouldn’t accept any liability for the epidemic. He cited a 1946 convention with which the UN granted itself diplomatic immunity.
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Human Rights Watch’s Brody likes to quote a Haitian proverb: “Bay kou bliye; pote mak sonje.” The one who hits forgets; the one who’s scarred remembers. The scarred of Haiti, Guatemala and Argentina have refused to forget and – often at great risk to themselves and their supporters – have refused to be silent, with the result that they are now forcing the hitters to remember.
A few people here in the United States have had the integrity to emulate these activists. In 1995 investigative journalist Allan Nairn confronted Abrams on a nationally televised program about US abuses in Guatemala. “President [George H.W.] Bush once talked about putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity – Nuremberg-style tribunal,” Nairn told moderator Charlie Rose. “I think that’s a good idea. But if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed…. I think we have to start talking about putting Guatemalan and US officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit subject for such a Nuremberg-style inquiry.”
We’re still far from the point where we could hold Nuremberg trials for people like Abrams, but at the very least, we should refuse to be silent.