IN October 1994, just after American troops landed in Haiti to restore elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, a reporter asked State Department spokesman Michael McCurry whether the United States would recommend that Haiti arrest Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the leader of FRAPH, a paramilitary group alleged to have killed thousands of Haitian civilians during Aristide's absence.
Said Mr. McCurry: "That's a decision that the duly elected government of Haiti now in place will have to make. They were responsible for enforcing laws and bringing to justice those they suspect of crimes."
McCurry did not mention - perhaps he was not aware - that the US component of the Multinational Force was at that very moment in the process of seizing 60,000 pages of documents from FRAPH's headquarters in Port-au-Prince. These documents, along with an additional 100,000 pages taken from Haitian military headquarters, could help the Haitian government identify weapons caches and individuals responsible for human rights abuses under the previous regime. They are crucial to carrying out the process of justice described by McCurry.
In late December, Mr. Constant - who after the US intervention managed to sneak his way into America - dropped appeals to his deportation, clearing the way for his return to Haiti. But the Haitian government, which would like to bring Constant to trial, still does not have the documents seized by the US. The Clinton administration has promised to return them, but has not said when. It has also indicated that some material in the documents - in particular, names of US citizens - will be blacked out before being returned.
Continued US retention of the documents, and any alteration of them, not only violates our stated purpose of restoring democracy to Haiti. It is also illegal. On Dec. 12, the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a report that found that "under international law as interpreted by the US government," the documents "belonged all along to the Haitian state, and their retention by the US government violates Haiti's ownership rights." Retaining the documents, says the CRS report, may also violate the terms of the December 1994 agreement outlining America's mission in Haiti, which called for all states "to respect fully the principles and spirit of the general conventions and all other international law."
"I don't see how holding these materials hostage is compatible with the military's mission in Haiti, especially now that the legitimate government has been restored," says Rep. John Conyers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Pentagon is currently screening the documents, ostensibly to "ensure the safety of Americans." But who are the US citizens whose safety is at risk if the materials are returned? In reality, those who are being protected, notes Ira Kurzban, a lawyer for the Haitian government, are individuals "who have served as agents and paid informants for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency." In other words, men like Constant, who, it has been revealed, was on the CIA payroll beginning in 1992. The documents may help clarify Constant's relationship with the US and reveal the extent to which American officials collaborated with FRAPH and the former military regime.
As Congress and the White House have affirmed, no substantive transition to democracy can take place without implementing justice and the rule of law. Yet the United States is obstructing this process. It should return Haiti's property. Otherwise, it will be helping Constant and his accomplices evade justice and quite possibly get away with murder.