Rights Violations Abound in a Haiti Devoid of Monitors
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — JUST yards from the Haitian military headquarters, hundreds of people line up every morning to apply for political asylum at a United States in-country processing center.
Last Monday, armed policeman attacked asylum-seekers waiting there, forcing them to lie down while they beat them with wooden sticks. They threw three men in a police vehicle and drove off to an unknown location.
A situation like this would have been investigated by the joint United Nations/Organization of American States International Civilian Mission during its recent five-month stretch here.
But since the human rights monitors were expelled from Haiti by the de facto government on July 13, violations now slip through the cracks of an overtaxed and inadequately protected corps of local human rights organizations.
``The absence of the Mission creates a big hole for documenting violations and repression,'' said a local human rights organization coordinator. ``None of the local organizations has the structure or the resources that the Mission did.''
Since the military-backed government imposed a state of siege Aug. 1, human rights violations have increased, reversing the decrease that followed the Mission's departure. There is a lack of both empirical data and monitors.
``Those of us here do what we can, but we can't replace them,'' said Necker Dessables of the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission. ``We continue to do our work, but cautiously.''
The government is cracking down on the media, too. Following the state of siege, they released a communique to the local press, warning them to maintain calm by not broadcasting ``alarmist and tendentious news.''
They threatened that violators could have their broadcasting stations seized and licenses revoked, and warned Haitians working with foreign journalists that they could be sentenced for life under treason charges.
At least one journalist, a correspondent for the most progressive radio station, Tropic, has disappeared. And a driver for a foreign television crew is missing.
The foreign press, in light of last week's expulsion of three US journalists, is being uncharacteristically prudent.
Soldiers detained journalists from the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and their Haitian translator and driver at gunpoint for four hours last week after the journalists passed through an open gate at the Port-au-Prince airport without the required authorization. Although they released the Americans, the military expelled them four days later. The Haitians are still in custody.
The US embassy, concerned about the escalating tension, has increased security around the Port-au-Prince processing center. They closed their processing center in the southern town of Les Cayes for the security of both staff and applicants.
A team of human rights monitors from the US embassy who just returned from Les Cayes said things were mostly quiet there, but, according to one member of the team, there are increased searches and a variety of intimidation techniques that have left the population scared.
Even diplomats are worried. Following death threats against them, the Argentine and Colombian ambassadors closed their embassies and fled the country.
Underscoring their power, hundreds of Haiti's Army soldiers and their civilian auxiliaries high-stepped outside the National Palace on Saturday. They vowed to defend their country against what many consider to be an inevitable international invasion.
``All across the land, you'll see barracks filled with young people fighting to sign up and get training,'' said Haitian Army commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras.
So far, there's little proof that an invasion would be met with any resistance at all. Some speculate that the ragtag trainees were plucked off the streets. Others suggest they may have been motivated by the meal allegedly offered after the training.
``It's just show,'' said one Haitian. ``If they go down, they want to go down in style.''