Originally: Save nation from sliding into more violence

  International Crisis Group

March 17, 2005

A year has passed since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s forced departure from Haiti in the midst of crisis — and the crisis is getting worse.

Aristide’s second term in government had become an expression of Haiti’s historical winner-take-all polarization, with many in power bent on corruption and either encouraging or turning a blind eye toward violence by its supporters. The government that replaced him is starting to show some of the same flaws, with human-rights abuses mounting. And Haiti’s latest chance to escape its chronic state failure seems to be slipping away into violence and chaos.

On Feb. 19, a commando of a dozen heavily armed men broke into the country’s largest prison and freed drug dealers, suspected criminals and some former Aristide officials. The jailbreak symbolizes the insecurity that Haiti’s citizens face in both the cities and the countryside.

Without security, the fall elections for a new parliament, president and local officials that are going to cost some $50 million will not be fair or free. And scores of former Aristide political leaders, even those who are willing to break with his Lavalas movement to participate in the political process, will be afraid to do so — and with good reason.

The armed and uniformed ex-military who were key to ousting President Aristide last year still swagger around the countryside, intimidating and at times attacking individuals they identify as Lavalas supporters. The 7,400-U.N. peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH (led by Brazil and with mostly Latin American make-up — a positive expression of regional commitment), has only lately begun confronting them and the politicized armed urban gangs.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s disarmament and demobilization plan for the ex-military was more farce than fact. Reports of summary executions by members of the Haitian National Police also are mounting. On Feb. 28, during a peaceful demonstration to commemorate the first anniversary of Aristide’s departure, police opened fire without reason on the demonstrators, killing two of them.

U.N. Special Representative Juan Gabriel Valdés (a Chilean diplomat) and MINUSTAH peacekeeping forces immediately objected and vowed to protect peaceful protesters. The transitional government’s failure to investigate and punish police abuses sends a message of impunity that places the transition itself at risk.

If the violence of illegal armed groups continues without serious prosecution, Haiti’s slide into chaos will become unstoppable. And Washington’s new bipartisan commitment to Haitian democratic development, in a city long at odds over Haitian policy, may well disappear as well.

There are four critical steps to be taken by the Latortue government, backed by the international community:

– Give the ex-military a deadline, well before the summer, to give up their weapons and accept demobilization as a condition for receiving their pension and other benefits, with a serious vetting of all for criminal violations.

– Urgently strengthen the national dialogue process to reach agreement on political rules of the game, which would include former Lavalas party members, whether or not former President Aristide approves.

– Release Yvon Neptune and others detained without charge, prosecute those who use HNP cover for their crimes, confront the armed urban gangs and those who finance them and insist on a nonpoliticized police force and judiciary.

– Move more quickly to translate financing pledges into visible help for small farmers and micro-entrepreneurs, public schools, health and jobs.

If these steps are taken, then Haitians will feel safer and more confident in participating in elections — and Haiti may yet avoid the slippery slope toward state failure.

Mark L. Schneider, former Peace Corps director, is the senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and its special advisor for Latin America.