Haiti: Duvalier and UN blow off victims’ claims —again

On Feb. 21 former Haitian “president for life” Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier (1971-1986) once again defied an order to appear before an appeals court in Port-au-Prince that is considering whether he can be criminally charged for human rights violations committed during his regime. Duvalier had refused to appear in the court twice before, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. Duvalier’s defense attorney, Reynold Georges, said the former dictator’s presence was unnecessary because he had filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. Georges himself defied the court by arriving 90 minutes late. “I don’t lose,” Georges announced. “I’m Haiti’s Johnnie Cochran.” The three-judge appeals panel responded by ordering the public prosecutor to have Duvalier escorted to the court by Feb. 28.

Some human rights advocates considered the judges’ order a victory. Reed Brody, a legal consultant with Human Rights Watch (HRW), called it “a chink in [Duvalier’s] armor of impunity.” “This isn’t a victory yet, but it’s been a long struggle,” Collective Against Impunity coordinator Danièle Magloire said on Feb. 22. Still, “many doubt the government [of President Michel Martelly] wants to put Duvalier on trial,” Miami Herald correspondent Jacqueline Charles wrote. “Some of the top government posts are held by supporters of the regime, with the newly appointed minister of interior [David Bazile] also being the head of Duvalier’s political party.” (MH, Feb. 21, from correspondent; Associated Press, Feb. 21, via CTV News, Canada, Feb. 21; AlterPresse, Haiti, Feb. 22)

On the same day, Feb. 21, United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced through a spokesperson that the organization has no legal liability for a cholera epidemic caused in October 2010 by poor sanitation at a United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) military base in the Central Plateau. The UN’s position is based on section 29 of the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN. The Feb. 21 announcement was in response to a petition filed in November 2011 by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and its Haitian affiliate, the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI), for compensation on behalf of 5,000 victims of the epidemic. IJDH staff attorney Nicole Philips called the UN decision “all very political” and noted that “[I]f this had been a corporation, and if it had been an environmental spill, there would have been liability.” “The United Nations can’t have humanity and impunity at the same time,” BAI managing attorney Mario Joseph said.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence on the origin of the epidemic, Ban has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the UN’s responsibility. According to the Haitian Ministry of Public Health, as of the end of January 7,824 people had died of the disease and 350,000 had been hospitalized. UN spokespeople stressed that the organization has spent some $118 million to fight the epidemic. (AlterPresse, Feb. 21; The Guardian, UK, Feb. 21, from correspondents) The UN’s budget for the MINUSTAH troops and police agents this fiscal year, July 2012 through June 2013, is currently set at $648.394 million. (MINUSTAH Facts and Figures, UN website, accessed Feb. 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 24.