Helping the Haitians

FOR the United States, the political crisis in Haiti has become more than an abstract issue of democracy and human rights. It has taken on the human face of nearly 15,000 Haitian refugees who have been picked up at sea since Sept. 30, when a violent military coup overthrew the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

This week, after the Supreme Court lifted a lower-court order blocking repatriation of the refugees, the US began returning Haitians to Port-au-Prince. Some refugees, after a screening that appears fairer than the shipboard questioning we criticized last fall, have been allowed to commence asylum proceedings.

Understandably, many Americans are distressed to see their government forcibly return Haitians to an impoverished and violent land gripped by dictatorship. On humanitarian grounds they are calling on the US to suspend repatriation until the returnees' safety is more assured.

Human rights groups should continue to monitor the refugee screening process at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for its compliance with due process, and all Haitians who reasonably qualify for political asylum should be welcomed. But the repatriation of the other boat people should proceed. Letting them stay could set off an even greater exodus from Haiti.

The best way to end the refugee crisis would be to restore democratic government to Haiti. After the coup the Organization of American States (OAS) imposed a trade embargo on the nation and launched a diplomatic initiative to put Mr. Aristide back in the presidential chair.

Last month the strategy seemed to be working: Aristide - a fiery priest-politician adored by the poor but feared by the military and the business sector - agreed to the appointment of a pragmatic prime minister to manage the government while Aristede served as the head of state. But the military and its political allies rejected the compromise.

Moreover, the embargo has largely backfired. It has intensified the hardship of innocent Haitians without weakening military control. On Tuesday the US rightly loosened the embargo to allow some plants to reopen, providing work for laid-off Haitians.

The OAS needs to restructure the embargo so that its brunt is borne by the military brass and affluent Haitians.

With economic and diplomatic measures stymied, for now, some voices are suggesting military action to reverse the coup. The Bush administration has properly shelved that option. Any use of force in Haiti should be undertaken, if at all, only under the auspices of the OAS, and only after persistent efforts to restore democracy by peaceful means.

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