SHORTLY after Haiti's military coup in 1991, the Organization of American States (OAS) began negotiations to restore democracy and return exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But the attempts to find a peaceful solution did little to stop the illegal arrests, disappearances, torture, and killings taking place here.
At the request of President Aristide, the OAS sent a small group of human rights monitors to Haiti last September. The military government, however, refused to allow them to leave the capital. With increased international pressure, a Feb. 9 agreement was reached with the government to allow a new civilian presence to investigate rights abuses.
A team of observers soon arrived, and they are currently fanning out through Haiti's nine geographic departments. Their mandate is to guarantee the respect for human rights promised by the Haitian Constitution.
The mission is supposed to operate independently from the negotiating team, spearheaded by UN Special Envoy Dante Caputo. But the negotiations' rollercoaster path has slowed the mission's attempt to reduce human rights violations and bring more stability to the country.
"We have reason to believe there is a correlation between the repression and the political crisis," said Mission Director Colin Granderson of Trinidad. "The majority of people targeted are alleged Aristide supporters. If we could finalize a negotiated settlement, I believe there would be a dramatic decrease in the number of human rights violations."
Negotiations stalled in April when Mr. Caputo failed to reach an agreement with the Haitian military. Among the conditions presented were the resignation of the Haitian military's high command in return for political amnesty for the putschists, a new prime minister, and the return of Aristide.
A new shower of violence followed Caputo's April 16 departure from Haiti. Joe Sills, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said international officials are "profoundly worried about the number and severity of violations of human rights, consisting of arbitrary detentions, systematic repression, and torture perpetrated and inflicted by members of the armed forces and persons aligned with them.... The attacks are to restrain, prohibit, and forbid freedom of expression, the right to meet
peacefully and demonstrate."
"The target of repression is the youth and community organizers," says Father Antoine Adrien, head of the Presidential Commission, a group selected to represent Aristide while he is in exile. "The core of the problem is the Army, because they have taken the law into their own hands," he adds.
Many Haitians support the mission, but some pro-coup supporters object on nationalistic grounds. There are others who just don't understand it. Illiterate peasants in the countryside, isolated from news, are mistrustful of the foreigners. Living under the gun of the local sheriff, they have preferred to suffer in silence rather than risk reprisals by complaining about abuses.
At a recent meeting in the southeastern town of Marigot, three quarters of the peasants who had gathered to give testimony on repression fled when word arrived that the military was searching for the meeting.
"Still, there's some hint that there's at least been a little improvement," said Belela Herrera, a sympathetic Uruguayan who has helped coordinate the human rights work. Some people who haven't been able to return home in a year and a half are going back.
"Although there's fear, people seem to be less afraid to talk to observers, so we know more. We feel ... with citing of the guilty parties, maybe they will be more reticent to attack for fear of being tried later on."
The mission has been allowed access to most prisons. In one town on Haiti's southern coast, however, the rural sheriff preferred to release all the prisoners rather than allow the mission to have access to them.
In Ti Goabe in the west, the mission found people starving to death because the military had separated them from prisoners whose family brought food.
"Despite the numerous problems," said Anne Fuller of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, "I'm encouraged that the mission is acting in the right way. They are confronting the military with specific cases, publicizing abuses, naming the guilty party, intervening in arrest. Still, in recent weeks, there's no question but that the Army has been reacting agressively."