Thursday, February 21, 2013

Can Guatemala’s Long Struggle for Justice Provide Lessons for Haiti?

While it is too early to tell whether or not Jean Claude Duvalier will appear in court today to face charges for embezzlement and corruption, it is important, whatever the outcome, to highlight that Guatemala’s arduous 14-year struggle to prosecute former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt for crimes against humanity provides an important template for Haiti moving forward.

After Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996, a National Reconciliation Law (NRL) was enacted which granted amnesty for political crimes committed by both the Guatemalan Armed Forces and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union. The hasty establishment of the NRL was seen as a crucial component mandating that both sides lay down their arms, but it also threatened to institutionalize impunity in a nation seeking to rebuild itself after 36 years of civil war.

Following the models of nations seeking to move forward from a history of brutal military governments, like Argentina and El Salvador or apartheid in South Africa, Guatemala organized a Truth Commission to spark the process of national reconciliation. However, many Guatemalan and international human rights organizations argued that neither justice nor reconciliation would be achieved, as the NRL remained foggy as to whether or not those who carried out extra-judicial executions would qualify for amnesty. This lead the New York Times to write at the time that “Guatemala's commission will be allowed to report on who died or disappeared and perhaps under what circumstances, but it will not be allowed to investigate who committed this violence.”

In 1999, the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification released a report titled Guatemala, Memory of Silence which stated that “Although many are aware that Guatemala's armed confrontation caused death and destruction, the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by its people has yet to become part of the institutional consciousness… The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages… are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala's history.” The report found that about 200,000 people—the vast majority of them civilians—were killed or “disappeared” during the war, a number that was much higher than initially thought. Rios Montt’s brief presidency (1982-83) was arguably the most violent period in the civil war, in which thousands of unarmed indigenous civilians were killed.

Despite the initial feelings of helplessness after the passing of the NRL, a law which was looked at as being drafted by and for the military and guerillas, it excluded crimes against humanity which were not subject to any statutes of limitation under international law.

It was with this opening in 1999 that Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu and other victims filed a criminal suit in the Spanish National Court against Efraín Ríos Montt and seven other senior Guatemalan officials. Menchu turned to the Spanish National Court on the principle of universal jurisdiction after her efforts in the Guatemalan courts were met with hesitation, delay, and intimidation. Menchu remarked that “The fundamental idea behind justice is to dignify the memory of our deceased. It is to dignify the children, the women, the elders, who were annihilated through genocide, those who were kidnapped, those who were disappeared, those who were tortured.”

Legal motions in Spain staleed progress in the case for several years until 2005, when the Spanish Court ruled to the surprise of many that they would in fact act upon the principles of universal jurisdiction and charge Rios Montt and other senior officials with genocide, terrorism, torture, and illegal detention. The Spanish Court soon after issued arrest warrants in July 2006.

Similar to Duvalier in Haiti, Rios Montt remained connected to the traditional political and economic centers of power in the country—and as such successfully ran for a seat in Congress in 2007, granting him immunity from prosecution until January 14, 2012.

Despite this roadblock—it was a perhaps even blessing in disguise—the organizing by the victims and human rights defenders continued unabated in the face of threats and intimidation. This grassroots effort to prosecute high ranking military officials finally bore fruit in 2011, when General Héctor Mario López Fuentes, the former Minister of Defence was detained for his alleged role in massacres committed in 1982 to 1983.
Once Rios Montt was no longer covered by Congressional immunity in January 2012, he was indicted in a Guatemalan court for committing crimes against humanity. On March 1, 2012, according to the established norms of international law, a Guatemalan judge refused to grant Rios Montt amnesty from the charges of crimes against humanity—leading to the first time that a former head of state would be tried for genocide in their own country. On January 31, 2013, the criminal trial of Rios Montt for crimes against humanity formally began.

Although it is true that the charges against Duvalier are not on the level of genocide—and thus are not comparable in that regard—the Inter American Commission on Human Rights has classified the systematic abuses carried out by Duvalier as crimes against humanity. Through the command of the Ton Ton Macoutes and the Haitian army, Human Rights Watch has reported that Duvalier oversaw the killing and torture of thousands, while hundreds of thousands more fled into exile.

While different in many ways, like Haiti, Guatemala also suffers from a lingering history of deep-rooted racism, significant structural inequality, foreign intervention, deep politicization with limited political participation by the popular classes, and a history of a corrupt judicial system. Despite this, the success of Guatemala in bringing Rios Montt to trial for crimes against humanity highlights that, despite the overwhelming odds at times, justice can prevail.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Small Step Toward Ending Duvalier’s Impunity in Haiti

In January 2012, Judge Carves Jean triggered a wave of shock and disappointment throughout Haiti and much of the world by ruling that the former dictator of Haiti, Jean Claude Duvalier, would stand trial for the embezzlement of public funds, but not for the much greater charge of committing crimes against humanity. While it is widely acknowledged that Duvalier looted the Haitian treasury to the tune of $800 million, he has also been implicated in carrying out systemic human rights abuses, consisting of the murder, torture, disappearance, and imprisonment of tens of thousands during his rule from 1971 to 1986. Judge Jean’s decision to drop the most serious charges against Duvalier was based upon his reading of the Haitian constitution, which cited that the abuses fell outside of the 10 year period outlined in the statute of limitations.

Contrary to the ruling by Judge Jean, international law states that there is no such limitation when it comes to crimes against humanity. According to Javier Zúñiga, Special Advisor at Amnesty International, "International human rights standards are very clear in cases such as this. Crimes including torture, executions, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances are not subject to a statute of limitations and the alleged perpetrators cannot benefit from pardons or amnesties.” It is with this in mind that Duvalier’s victims and their relatives—and the human rights and advocacy organizations representing them—appealed this decision.

On February 7, Duvalier defied a court order to appear before court, instead choosing to provide a letter in his place to explain his absence. The letter noted that the date of the hearing coincided with the 27th anniversary of his overthrow in 1986, a date which he regards as the day in which one of "the greatest political crimes were committed in this country.”

Without a doubt, such a self-righteous gesture was to reinforce and show the court and the Haitian people that he considers himself to be above the law—and as such can do as he pleases. This fits a similar pattern whereby Duvalier had previously missed an earlier appeals hearing on January 31, regularly and openly disregarded his conditions of house arrest—and was even recently granted the renewal of his diplomatic passport.

However, contrary to letting these troubling turn of events snowball into complete impunity, Judge Jean Joseph Lebrun of Haiti's Court of Appeals accepted the rescheduling of the hearing once again, with the important caveat that Duvalier must attend court on February 21, or he would be risking arrest.

Nicole Phillips, an attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti explained the significance of this decision, remarking that "The hearing on February 21 could be a pivotal moment in the prosecution of Jean-Claude Duvalier. If Duvalier appears as ordered by the appellate court, it will present the first opportunity for the former brutal dictator to speak about his political violence crimes in a courtroom full of his victims and the media. If Duvalier fails to appear, the Haitian government will be under intense pressure to arrest him for violating a court order."

Additionally, Javier Zúñiga has stressed that the importance of this trial cannot be understated, "It is the whole credibility of the Haitian justice system which is at stake. . . . Only by respecting the procedures in the appeal case, including thoroughly examining all evidence and hearing all the victims, will the court be able to demonstrate the professionalism and independence of the Haitian justice system."

The initial dismissal of the charges of crimes against humanity was considered by many to be politically motivated. President Michel Martelly has previously mentioned the possibility of granting Duvalier a pardon in an effort at bringing about national reconciliation on several occasions. In an interview with the Washington Post in January 2012, Martelly remarked “It is part of the past. We need to learn our lessons and move forward. . . . It is time to unite the country, show tolerance, show compassion, show love for everyone . . . [we  need] to reconcile the factions that have been at war.” Martelly’s soft spot for Duvalier is due to his own links with the former dictator.

While Martelly has since retracted these statements, it appears that Duvalier has not forgotten them. His letter addressed to the court goes on to state that if he was to face trial “Too many passions would have been awakened and updated to revive old moments and wounds during this difficult period where the Head of State and current political leaders speak with reason of National Reconciliation [which is] necessary to heal and bandage the wounds of our still recent past.”

Despite Duvalier’s self-serving opinion on the low value of such a trial, it would be significant in regards to Haiti building itself back as a sovereign nation. It would set a precedent that even the most powerful—regardless of their wealth, connections or history—are not immune to the rule of law. The 61-year-old Duvalier would face no more than five years in prison if convicted of embezzling public funds and other financial crimes. On the other hand, a conviction of crimes against humanity could put him away for life. February 21 promises to be a significant day in Haiti’s recent history—for better or worse.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Drug Trade and the Increasing Militarization of the Caribbean

The Drug Trade and the Increasing Militarization of the Caribbean

1539Given the current controversy surrounding the extent of the U.S. drone program and targeted killings, it is important to revisit that in the summer of 2012, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency announced that unmanned drones would begin patrolling Caribbean airspace as an expansion of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). This is only one aspect of how the War on Drugs in the Caribbean is increasingly looking like the War on Terror.

The U.S.–Caribbean border is the often ignored “Third Border,” which the Department of Homeland Security has referred to as an “open door for drug traffickers and terrorists.” A recent study by the National Defence University has stated that “the region's nexus to the United States uniquely positions it in the proximate U.S. geopolitical and strategic sphere. Thus, there is an incentive, if not an urgency, for the United States to proactively pursue security capacity-building measures in the Caribbean region.”

While the drones are unarmed for the time being, they will be primarily used to locate drug traffickers operating fishing boats, fast boats, and semi-submarines and would relay information to the Coast Guard, Navy or Caribbean authorities to carry out the interception and arrests. It has been revealed that the drones will be operating out of bases in Corpus Christi, Texas, Cocoa Beach, Florida and potentially the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

The shift towards the use of drones in the region is largely based off of an unconvincing pilot program carried out over 18 months in the Bahamas, in which “During more than 1,260 hours in the air off the southeastern coast of Florida, the Guardian (drones) assisted in only a handful of large-scale busts.” That said, the Caribbean governments increased militarization in the region when they implemented the never-ending War on Drugs without any public consultation or debate. This erosion of regional sovereignty may be a slippery slope to a dangerous future in which Caribbean nationals may very well find themselves on kill lists instead of facing a trial.

Such a conclusion is not baseless, as a November 2012 report by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security recommended that Latin American drug cartels be classified as terrorist organizations “so there is increased ability to counter their threat to national security.” Furthermore, in 2009, the U.S. Military drew criticism for placing 50 suspected Afghani drug traffickers on a “kill list” as part of their ongoing efforts to cut off finance stream of the Taliban. The controversy arose due to the fact that drug traffickers (generally classified as civilians) had now been placed into the same legal category as the Taliban “insurgents” and thus became legitimate targets.

This is especially important in light of how the extradition of Jamaican kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke was handled. In September 2009, the United States requested his extradition to face drug trafficking charges, but Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding blocked the request due to his deep political connections with Coke. It was only after months of intense pressure that Golding caved in May 2010. Jamaican Police and the Jamaican Defense Forces led the bloody operation to arrest Coke, which resulted in the deaths of more than 70 civilians—the vast majority of which were unarmed.

The resulting scandal led to the downfall of Golding as Prime Minister but highlighted the power that drug traffickers and gang leaders have had in Jamaican government and politics. It has since been reinforced that the operation was “assisted by the U.S. government and carried out, to a large degree, at its behest.” Information has emerged which reveals that a U.S. spy plane participated in the raid of Coke’s stronghold of Tivoli Gardens, and a Freedom of Information Act action has recently been levied against the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) by a group of law students to reveal the extent of U.S. involvement.

To prevent such explosive outcomes in the future, there has been a call for closer integration between Caribbean police forces and the U.S. DEA in a clear escalation of the War on Drugs. A September 2012 Senate Report revealed that Jamaica has been floated as a target for a Sensitive Investigative Unit, which consists of a highly trained police that collaborate with the DEA. A similar program exists in Kandahar, where U.S. and British troops have created and participated in a task force made up of Afghan police officers and U.S. DEA agents to disrupt the drug trade and investigate corrupt Afghan officials.

According to a seemingly benign Department of Homeland Security (DHS) press release announcing the drone program, the “DHS is partnering with Caribbean nations to enhance border security in the region through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) . . . . The DHS is conducting border security training in conjunction with CBSI to increase partner nation capacity to secure their borders.” The problem with such statements is that there is always more shady business going on behind the scenes. Given the direction of U.S. policy in the region, it will only be a matter of time until the War on Drugs becomes eerily similar to the War on Terror.

It is impossible to argue against the protection of the Caribbean people against the ravages of the drug trade—concrete steps must be taken to combat it. However, the militarization of the region should not be considered the only way to move forward. Preventative programs to tackle youth crime and general unemployment must be instituted and supported by Caribbean governments and their international partners. Despite what the previously mentioned National Defence University thinks about the militarization of the Caribbean, such actions are not preventative, but reactionary and ultimately futile. Like anywhere else, it is the overall lack of opportunity which creates foot soldiers for the drug trade. The determination to create a real alternative is what is needed—not the deployment of more drones or more special police task forces.