Only New, Fair Voting Can Help Haiti Now

It is bad enough that, by delaying reconstruction aid to Haiti, the United States has failed to give adequate assistance to our neighbor, which was struck by a devastating earthquake one year ago. It is far worse that we have actively cooperated in its deeply flawed election. Our government helped impose an election process upon the Haitian people that gave rise to foreseeable human rights violations and is, therefore, complicit in the resulting harm. After helping fund and organize the exclusionary elections that led to outrage and unrest, the United States used strong pressure to bolster an unfair outcome. It is not too late to make amends for our wrong. As a first step, the United States should support a fair and inclusive do over.

Three fatal flaws in the electoral process were known well in advance of the fraudulent November 28 elections. First, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), the organization tasked with supervising the elections, was hopelessly compromised by conflict of interest. President Rene Preval, who championed his “hand-picked successor” Jude Celestin during the elections, had also hand-selected the eight current members of the council. Second, the council banned the participation of 15 political parties – including Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular party in the country – without offering a valid reason. Third, it was obvious the government would fail to provide all internally displaced people with identification necessary to vote. This much was already clear when the United States enthusiastically invested at least $14 million into the election process.

By cooperating in an enterprise that guaranteed exclusion, the United States implicated itself in the violation of Haitians’ human right to fair elections. This infringement was the root cause of the uproar that followed. Human decisions – not nature – led to the predictable injuries and deaths. The United States had a moral obligation to demand the implementation of inclusive and democratic policies in exchange for its decisive support. It did not do so.

For months before the elections, the State Department stalled and equivocated in the face of prominent objections and appeals. Forty-five members of Congress signed an urgent letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for her to address the three flaws. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, criticized the CEP’s exclusions and warned of potential chaos. Dr. Paul Farmer, UN deputy special envoy to Haiti, expressed his concern that “all Haitian people and parties be allowed to participate.”

More than two dozen nongovernmental organizations and church groups with intimate knowledge of Haitian politics and society sent Clinton a letter with detailed prescriptions to mitigate the disaster. As a group of over 120 returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in the neighboring Dominican Republic, my colleagues and I also petitioned her. The State Department studiously ignored such pleas.

On November 7, President Barack Obama eloquently denounced the sham elections that occurred in Burma, which suffered from similar failings. In contrast, Obama made no appeal to resolve the Haitian electoral defects despite the moral responsibility arising from having funded an election that would predictably trigger political crisis and violence. The United States failed to use its uniquely influential position as the elections’ largest financier.

The media, with few exceptions, followed Obama’s lead. They missed the intrinsic defects of the election preparations and were, therefore, shocked by the ensuing catastrophe. While clearly documenting widespread ballot stuffing, outdated voter lists, and other irregularities, the media hardly mentioned the elections’ structural fraudulence: the exclusion of both voters and parties. Most reporting focused on the maneuverings of two pre-approved frontrunners as they disputed minuscule percentages of the votes of less than one-quarter of Haiti’s eligible voters. This attention falsely suggested that recounts and runoff rounds could somehow produce a legitimate president.

Further invalidating the process, the United Nations threatened to withhold resources if the elections were not accepted. It also inveigled two frontrunners into withdrawing their principled calls to annul the elections.

In this climate, the Organization of American States (OAS), which was tasked with reviewing the disputed elections, disregarded methodological norms and precedents. It did not order a recount and threw out over 200 tally sheets to arrive at a political decision favoring one candidate over another. The United States strongly championed the OAS recommendation and even revoked about a dozen Haitian officials’ visas “in an escalating effort to persuade Haiti’s government to accept international monitors’ finding,” according to The Associated Press. Instead of advocating for a new election including all political parties and voters, the United States pressed the Haitian CEP to accede to its preferred choice between two narrow, unjust options.

Despite CEP spokesman Richardson Dumel’s acceptance of the OAS recommendations on February 3, half of the CEP’s members did not approve this in writing. According to its own bylaws, an “absolute majority” is needed for any CEP decision to be actionable. Thus, the opportunity exists for us to begin undertaking remedial efforts due to our failure to refrain from causing foreseeable harm.

The United States, along with the other underwriters of the elections, should announce its willingness to finance an inclusive do over. Haitian civil society groups, religious leaders, a majority of the elections’ candidates, US human rights organizations and the Congressional Black Caucus support new elections. While their $30 million price tag may seem costly, it amounts to less than two weeks of the UN security force’s proposed budget for 2011. The Haitian government must have a democratic mandate to manage issues like public health and the investment of billions of dollars of aid.

Only new, fair elections headed by a new, credible CEP can lead to a just outcome. Let’s insist that our government take responsibility for its moral failure and offer logistical and financial support to carry out inclusive elections in Haiti.