In Haiti’s Political Crisis, US Should Support Democracy and Human Rights

Two weeks before being sworn in as U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken tweeted that the United States “will always support democracy, human rights, and the security and prosperity of Haiti.” But these promising words now ring hollow as the State Department doubles down on its support of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who is attempting to cling to power beyond the legal end of his term last month.

Haitian judges, lawyers, and civil society leaders—including the two of us, who lead one of Haiti’s premier human rights organizations—agree that Moïse’s term legally concluded on Feb. 7. Regrettably, as Haiti’s constitutional crisis unfolds, the United States has thrown its weight behind Moïse, saying he has one more year in office and should use it to organize elections. That position is based on Moïse’s argument that a rerun of the 2015 election after fraud allegations delayed his taking office by a year. Tragically, the State Department has chosen to stand on the side of a dictator, not on the side of democracy and human rights, betraying Blinken’s promise.

Members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has scheduled a March 12 hearing on the situation to hear from Haitian human rights defenders and activists, including one of us, should hold Blinken to his words and press him to change course. Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) has said Moïse has “lost credibility” and should step down and let a transitional government take his place to organize democratic elections. In a letter to Blinken, Meeks and other committee members urged the secretary of state to “unambiguously reject” Moïse’s attempt to stay in power.

Key U.S. senators also want to see the United States take a different approach. Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy (D-VT), for example, tweeted that Haiti is in “worse shape” now than when Moïse first took power, calling on the United States to support an “inclusive transition.”

Dismantling Democratic Institutions

Since taking office in 2017, Moïse has systematically dismantled key democratic institutions, including those charged with keeping him accountable, apparently with the goal of extending his authority and undermining the rule of law. For example, Moïse drastically weakened the Anti-Corruption Unit (ULCC) and the Central Financial Intelligence Unit (UCREF), which were leading investigations into corruption and money laundering, illicit drug trafficking and other serious offences, including cases that implicated Moïse, among others. Moïse even weakened the Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes (CSCCA), which is responsible for reviewing all expenditures and financial commitments made by the Haitian government.

In addition to undermining existing institutions, Moise also created a national intelligence agency accountable only to him and expanded the definition of terrorism in ways that impinge on legitimate protests against his regime. Since January 2020, when parliament’s term expired, and in the absence of Moïse organizing new elections, he has been ruling by decree, consolidating his power further.

When pro-democracy activists challenged Moïse’s refusal to step down from the presidency last month, he arrested them and charged them with planning a coup. At the same time, he forced “retirement” on three Supreme Court justices and replaced them with his supporters in order to “protect” the court’s “independence.” Most worrisome of all, he is planning a constitutional referendum in June, during which he is expected to further consolidate and expand the powers of the executive, including potential changes to presidential term limits.

We believe that making changes to the Haitian Constitution is essential if we are to avoid repeating this episode of rule-by-decree by Moïse or any other Haitian president in the future. At the same time, we agree with many others in Haiti that the process for drafting the proposed changes to the Constitution by Moïse has not been inclusive. But the process for changing the Constitution cannot be led by Moïse, whose blatant violations of its provisions are too numerous to articulate here. If we are to change the Constitution to bolster democracy and human rights, we must do so in a climate of confidence, far different from the current atmosphere of political instability engendered by a regime that has lost all its credibility and systematically violates the human rights of the people of Haiti.

Gang Massacres

Crucially, Moïse also has created a security crisis for the people of Haiti by failing to hold egregious human rights abusers accountable during his tenure. We see this all around us. We have documented the massacres by gangs who operate with Moïse’s blessing, if not his full support: 10 massacres in the past two years, in which 343 people were killed, 98 were disappeared, and 32 women were gang raped. The violence left 251 children orphaned.

Without exaggeration, we have not been able to finish a report on one massacre before the next one is committed. And despite this series of abuses, no one has been brought to justice.

We see hope in the fact that some powerful Democrats in the U.S. Congress don’t agree with the Biden administration’s approach to Moïse. As Haitian human rights leaders, we know one thing for sure: the status quo is unacceptable. Under the Moïse regime, we are living in a dictatorship. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the proliferation of gangs and kidnappers supported by the Moïse regime. We have become victims of a state of terror.

It is time for the Biden administration to align its policies with its principles. The United States needs to reverse its policy of standing by Moïse, consult with Haitian civil society to help inform its approach going forward, and take the powerful step of placing democracy and human rights at the center of its foreign policy towards Haiti.

IMAGE: President Jovenel Moise sits at the Presidential Palace during an interview with AFP in Port-au-Prince, Oct. 22, 2019. Haitians fed up with poverty and miserable living conditions at the time called him corrupt and incompetent, and wanted him to resign. (Photo by VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Pierre Esperance

Pierre Esperance is the Executive Director of the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH).

Rosy Auguste Ducena

Rosy Auguste Ducena (@AugusteRosy) is a member of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association and Program Manager for the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH).