JURIST Features Editor Ingrid Burke Friedman talked with Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti about the ongoing civil unrest in Haiti. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Could you please tell us more about your academic and professional backgrounds as well as what brought you to Haiti?
I first arrived in Haiti in 1995. I went to Georgetown Law School, and I had been working for a large firm. I decided that was not really what I wanted to do with my life, and that I wanted to get into human rights work. The first job I got was with the United Nations as a UN volunteer on a human rights civilian mission that they had deployed to Haiti. Our job was to go around the country and monitor the human rights conditions, including people’s personal liberties, and how the justice system and the police and the prison systems were working. I expected that I’d be in Haiti for a year or two, but instead I have been working now full-time in Haiti for 27 years. After the UN, I joined a group of lawyers called the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which was trying to make the justice system work by pushing emblematic cases of human rights violations through the justice system. The group tried to both establish accountability for past crimes and develop the justice system’s ability to handle all cases. We hoped this would develop popular support for the justice system by showing people that the justice system could be an effective way of resolving complex societal disputes. All of this was part of an interest shown by the international community in promoting democracy in Haiti which came in at the tail end of a three-year dictatorship. At the time, there was a pretty broad consensus among the international community that we had an opportunity to build a stable democracy in Haiti and to help Haiti escape from its history of dictatorships which had come with repression and instability.
You mentioned that you have stayed consistently involved in Haiti for the past 27 years. Have you been working from the US, or have you spent a lot of that in Haiti itself?
I lived in Haiti for nine years when I worked for the UN and then the Bureau. I left in 2004 because the international community had lost patience with Haiti’s democracy. There were disagreements about Haiti’s economic policies, as well as about how much the government should invest in the economy and provide basic services. At the time, the international community was putting a lot of pressure to reduce the role of government in the economy and in the country as a whole. The Haitian government was insisting that it actually needed to provide more government services because the country was in such tough shape. The international community ended up trying to undermine Haiti’s government through a development assistance embargo. And then it actually helped force Haiti’s elected government out of office, which led to another dictatorship that lasted for two years. During Haiti’s democratic interval, the country really had shown that democracy can work. In the work I was involved with, we were able to get a trial known as the Raboteau massacre trial, which was considered one of the most heralded human rights trials ever in the Americas. We were able to convict many high command officers and paramilitary leaders for a massacre against a civilian neighborhood. It was a trial that was that the UN, Amnesty International, and journalists hailed as fair to both defendants and victims alike, and it showed that democracy could work in Haiti.
There were many other areas where democracy worked, such as when it came to opening schools, building hospitals, and having a somewhat functioning parliamentary system. However, once the international community lost its patients with Haiti’s democracy and facilitated the coup d’état which kicked the government out, all of that progress was reversed. That showed me that my place as an American was to come back to the US to bring the lessons I had learned from working with Haitian colleagues back to the US in order to help make the US and other powerful countries safe for democracy. The 2004 coup showed that too many of the decisions about Haitian rights were made in the US, Canada, England, and other countries. Thus, we felt that we needed to bring a human rights lens to those decisions. And since 2004, I’ve been back in the US, working for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which is trying to bring Haiti’s fight for human rights to the international community.
Can you tell us more about the unrest that is currently engulfing Haiti and what paved the way to the current situation?
Anytime you talk about problems in Haiti, it is important to note that there are both chronic and acute causes. Since its independence, Haiti has struggled to provide basic government services, including elections, basic economic health, justice, and security services. These issues were not caused by the current government; they are long-term causes, and we need to address those causes. However, you also need to look at the acute causes. And the acute causes are that the current government that has run Haiti for the last decade has been persistently dismantling Haiti’s democracy for the last decade. For example, the current government refused to have elections, and there has not been a functioning Parliament now for almost three years. The terms of the local elected officials ran out and were replaced by appointed people. Furthermore, the courts have been politicized and the government has refused to fill vacancies. Because of this, the Supreme Court has not been able to have a quorum to issue any decisions since March. You also have non-governmental accountability mechanisms that have been undermined. The press especially has been intimidated. Journalists have been killed and arrested. They are practicing severe self-censorship because they do not want to be killed. When civil society takes to the streets to protest, they have been attacked, arrested, and even killed. In sum, the government for several years has been persistently reducing all checks against it. And now it is somewhat unchecked. Gangs are the only real challenge to the government, although it is only a partial challenge because many of the gangs have actually been collaborating with the government for several years.
What is the rule of law in the current situation in Haiti?
In 2021, the World Justice Project released a ranking of 139 countries and ranked Haiti 132nd in the world for rule of law. The lack of rule of law is a key factor in the current unrest. The government is aware that the rule of law is a curb on their power, and they have systematically undermined that. To the extent possible, the government has eliminated the rule of law. Judges have been politicized for years, and vacancies have been allowed to remain vacant. In fact, the Supreme Court does not have a quorum. The main courthouse in Port-au-Prince was taken over by gangs in June and has not been taken back. This shows the government very deliberately does not want the rule of law. It is the shame of the international community that we have continued to support that. When I was with the United Nations doing human rights work in Haiti in the 1990s, we were finding out how the rule of law was not living up to its promise. We were writing reports about it and denouncing it. The international community was putting pressure on the democratic government to do better, which is exactly what it should have been doing. Fast forward to now where there is an unconstitutional illegal government, but the international community is not putting pressure. The exception that proves the rule on that is that in 2018, the head of the UN mission to Haiti Susan Page issued a statement saying that the justice system needed to do better and to inquire into some police massacres and public corruption. Although the statements were diplomatic, the government went nuts and recalled its ambassador to the UN. And in response to that, the United Nations and the US pushed Ambassador Page out of her job and replaced her with someone who would not criticize the government’s dismantling of democracy. This shows how we have a very deliberate international policy of propping up a government that is systematically undermining the rule of law.
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has researched how members of the Haitian opposition do not want foreign intervention and why it can be dangerous. Can you please elaborate on these findings?
There is widespread opposition in Haiti to international armed intervention. But for us, that is one element; the other element for us is the nature of accountability. Our approach to Haiti is that unless you establish the rule of law and accountability, Haiti is never going to escape its past of poverty and insecurity. And there are recent examples of how intervention should not be done, and an example of how it should be done. When I was in Haiti in the 1990s, there was a UN peacekeeping mission that had been requested by Haiti’s democratic government. The mission was there to support the democratic government. And although it had some controversies, that mission was generally more appreciated and welcomed by the Haitian people. Fast forward to 2004 to the coup d’état. A peacekeeping mission was authorized to support and consolidate that coup d’état. Thus, the mission was there to support the undemocratic government. And it did it in some extremely brutal ways. Harvard Law School issued a report stating that the UN forces were providing backup to Haitian police as they went into opposition neighborhoods and shot people. A few years later, the UN itself started going after gangs. And this is really important because one of the main justifications of the current mission is to fight gang activities. When the UN was fighting gang activities in the early 2000s, the way they did it was to identify people suspected as gang members and then hunt them down and shoot them. There was no legal process; in fact, this was a complete undermining of the rule of law. In the most spectacular incident, they shot 22,000 bullets in one operation in the neighborhood of Cité Soleil. The neighborhood is an extremely densely populated area, and the houses are mostly very thin walls. And the UN does claim it killed the six gang suspected gang members. But it also killed dozens of women, children, and bystanders, who just happened to be two or three, or four houses down and the bullets kept going. Although that did reduce gang violence temporarily, it undermined the rule of law in a way that allowed the return of gang violence to the spectacular levels that we are seeing today.
Our position, which is shared by many of the Haitian people, is that you cannot fight criminal violence by throwing out the rule of law. Rather, the only way of really fighting criminal violence is to first address the long-term drivers of gang violence, like poverty and the inability to provide basic government services in poor neighborhoods. Second, the approach should establish institutions that can hold people accountable for crime, including the police and government officials whose policies will reduce crime in the long term.
Do you have any experience successfully communicating this point in the US?
There are people in Congress that have stepped up and said no to an intervention. However, we do not have signs that we successfully communicated this point to the executive branch. We have been saying for years that the US needs to stop propping up the government. Although the US says they do not prop up the government, it actually has not stopped propping up the government. For example, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Brian Nichols went to Haiti in October to establish some kind of armed intervention. Nevertheless, the first thing he Tweeted when he got there was a big picture of him smiling next to the Prime Minister Ariel Henri who we are propping up and who has been implicated in the killing of Haiti’s last present Jovenel Moïse. The US is blocking accountability for that as well. This is just one example of how that is happening. In March, Congress passed an omnibus budget bill that is funding the government at this point. Part of the bill requires the US to report on what it knows about the investigation of President Moïse’s killing who was killed in July of 2021 in his home. Many police officers and government officials were implicated in that killing, including the current prime minister. Haitian judges have wanted prime minister Prince to explain his connection to the events, but he has refused to appear. The US Congress, therefore, required the government to submit a report by June 15 and to make it public by June 30. Months later, it still has not presented that report. Thus, Haitians as well other activists are concerned by the US’s involvement with Henri when he has been credibly accused of assassinating a president.
In an ideal world, how would you see Haiti improving its current situation? What do you think is needed in order to improve the situation there?
I think we need to listen to the Haitian population. There are certainly lots of reasons for despair when you look at what the Haitian government is doing and what the gangs are doing. But if you listen to Haitian civil society, it’s actually a pretty exciting and inspiring conversation. Haitians understand, better than we ever could, what it means to not have the rule of law. And they’re committed to getting their democracy back on track. There have been discussions over the last years by people who, although have very significant differences over government policy, have been coming together to address our democracy problem that is bigger than any of our individual disputes. Let’s come together, get democracy back on track, and then we can go back to fighting what we were fighting about before. And that has been inspiring to see how much people care about accountability and democracy, and the US needs to support that. If the US stops propping up Haiti’s current government, then Haitians will be able to either force the current government to leave or force it to make meaningful compromises that will allow it to go forward. The people of Haiti are asking us to let them run their own country, but the US thus so far keeps insisting all they need to know is some other plan. The US does not, however, need to know exactly what Haitians are going to do, because Haitians have a right to make those decisions. They understand their context much better than us. And so really, all we need to do is to do nothing to stop supporting the current repressive and corrupt government. The first thing we need to do is to stop making things worse by stopping supporting the government that’s causing these problems.