Explainer: The Failure of the Organization of American States to Apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Haiti Features
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Explainer: The Failure of the Organization of American States to Apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Haiti

The Organization of American States’ (OAS) was presented with a crucial opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to democracy last month, as its Permanent Council turned its attention towards Haiti. The nation’s current crisis is one that is directly connected to the actions taken by members of its ruling Tèt Kale party (PHTK), which for the past decade has systematically undermined the nation’s democratic institutions to increase its own power. These actions have culminated in one of Haiti’s worst-ever periods of instability: after years of failing to hold parliamentary elections, the country has no elected officials remaining in office; economic mismanagement and public corruption under PHTK leadership have directly led to a severe economic crisis, which has left Haitians struggling to afford basic necessities; and gangs – which for years have received arms and financing from government leadership in exchange for political support – have seized over half of Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Through its words and its actions, the Council in recent weeks has acknowledged that Haiti’s democratic crisis demands its attention. On February 1, the Council’s Permanent Representatives convened to announce their commitment to helping the country through its crisis. Several weeks later, on February 22, the Council met again to formally implement a resolution creating a Working Group on Haiti. Per the resolution’s language, this Working Group will “establish and maintain ongoing dialogue” with the Haitian government, as it seeks to facilitate the administration of democratic elections by this time next year.

But conspicuously absent from all the dialogue and official resolution language was any mention of the Organization’s principal document for dealing with political upheavals in member states — the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IDC). When confronted with “an unconstitutional alteration… that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state,” Article 20 of that Charter compels the Permanent Council to undertake “necessary diplomatic initiatives…to foster the restoration of democracy.” If such diplomatic efforts fail, or if the “urgency of the situation warrants,” Article 21 requires the Permanent Council to convene a special session of the General Assembly to vote on that member’s suspension.

In the face of significant evidence of a democratic system in disarray, the Permanent Council has chosen to ignore these IDC obligations. But because it has triggered them in response to much less drastic democratic disruptions in the past, its decision to ignore these obligations now only provides credence to the perception that there is a double standard in how the OAS treats its member states.

How We Got Here

The roots of Haiti’s current political crisis can be understood by following the rise of the PHTK. From 2011 to 2016, President and party co-founder Michel Martelly consolidated power under the banner of the party, and shielded it from electoral and internal accountability. During his presidency, Martelly consistently failed to hold elections, leaving most of Haiti’s elected positions either empty or filled with unconstitutional political appointees. Without any meaningful legislative oversight in place to check him, Martelly used his authority to  remove and appoint new judges to advance his party’s interests, leveraged Haiti’s national police to arbitrarily and illegally arrest his opponents, and filled his party’s coffers through dubious public works contracts and illegal tax schemes. Meanwhile, efforts to promote accountability were stonewalled during Martelly’s presidency, as criminal prosecutions of his allies were disrupted and stalled.

Martelly’s hand-picked successor Jovenel Moïse continued to strengthen the PHTK’s increasingly autocratic hold over Haiti. After failing to hold elections once again in 2019, on January 13, 2020, the terms of all but 10 of Haiti’s Senators expired, leaving its Parliament unable to hold a quorum. What followed this exodus was a year of one-man rule: through a procession of executive decrees, Moïse curtailed the powers of oversight courts; forced several Supreme Court justices to vacate their seats; expanded the government’s definition of “terrorism” to outlaw common forms of public protest; and attempted to unilaterally amend the country’s constitution to expand his own authority. Emboldened by instability and abetted by PHTK leadership, gangs expanded their control throughout Haiti during Moïse’s time in charge, leaving a trail of violence in its path. Months after his term was constitutionally mandated to end, Moïse still refused to give up power, before eventually being assassinated in his private residence.

In the wake of Moïse’s assassination, what now remains is a nation where every single democratic institution has been undermined to the point of incapacitation. The last of Haiti’s remaining elected officials saw their terms expire on January 9, 2023, leaving the country now without  a single elected official in office. Vacancies in the country’s Supreme Court – with only 5 of its constitutionally required 12 seats currently filled – left the court unable to constitute a quorum to decide cases until February 28, when  Prime Minister Ariel Henry unilaterally appointed eight new judges to the court. The maneuver was widely denounced in Haiti, and is as outrageously unconstitutional in Haiti as it would be in the United States. Henry, who was named Prime Minister not by a Haitian process but by an announcement from the “Core Group” of foreign powers including the OAS after President Moïse’s assassination, is illegitimate and unpopular. With no functioning democratic institution remaining, Haiti finds itself incapable of responding to the series of unrelenting crises it currently faces.

The IDC’s Defensive Mechanisms Should be Applied

If the OAS is to abide by its IDC obligations, its defensive mechanisms should be triggered to help address Haiti’s democratic collapse. Not only does their language mandate it, but historical precedent shows us that the Organization is willing to do so – when it wants to.

On May 31, 2016, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro called for an emergency meeting of the Permanent Council, to determine whether Venezuela had suffered “grave alterations of democratic order.” A month later, the Council voted to allow Almagro to present the findings of his report on Venezuela, and in doing so, officially triggered the IDC. As he provided his findings, Almagro – who for years has been considered a close ally of the United States – explicitly requested that the Council “take such decisions as it deems appropriate” under Article 20 of the IDC, and laid out an argument for doing so that took aim at every facet of Venezuelan society.

Many of the ills Almagro described are well known to Haitians today. “Venezuela’s government’” he stated, had “created a systematic scheme of political persecution against the voices of dissent.” The “Executive,” he argued, had attempted to “impede and even nullify the normal workings of the National Assembly” by “overruling the legislature” through “executive decrees,” and by “placing arbitrary limits” on “the legislature’s authority.” Almagro contended further that the “collapse of accountable and effective governance” was “exacerbated by the endemic corruption that plagues the government.” From “unprecedented levels of poverty” and “food shortages,” to “historical highs” of “violent crime,” Almagro concluded that Venezuela’s deteriorating circumstances were all the “direct result of the actions of those currently in power,” and that those actions had violated the IDC’s provisions.

In the years following the presentation of those findings, Almagro and his allies continued to demonstrate their desire to leverage the IDC’s defensive mechanisms against Venezuela. In a March 2017 opinion piece for the New York Times, Almagro again decried the state of Venezuela’s democracy, as he presented his case for the country’s potential suspension under IDC’s Article 21. Several months later, on June 20, 12 OAS member states (among them, the United States) published their own letter, in which they also accused Venezuela of violating its IDC obligations. After another year of publicly sparring with the Maduro regime – one that included even more censorious speeches – the OAS’ General Assembly took yet another dramatic step on June 4, 2018, when it passed a resolution calling for the application of IDC’s “Articles 20 and 21” in response to the Maduro regime’s newly implemented “electoral processes.”

The OAS Risks Undermining its Credibility in Haiti, and in the Hemisphere

These numerous and direct attempts to apply the IDC’s defensive mechanisms against Venezuela’s left-of-center regime lie in stark contrast to the OAS’ current unwillingness to even discuss their applicability now, against a Haitian right-of-center regime that — unlike Venezuela — is friendly with the United States.

Indeed, Almagro and his allies on the Council have yet to even broach the topic of the IDC’s applicability in Haiti, despite the fact that its current democratic rupture is by any metric far more serious. While Venezuela’s National Assembly currently has a full 277 legislators in office, Haiti now has no elected representation remaining on any level at all. Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice — the nation’s highest court — has a complete 32 justices, while Haiti’s Supreme Court went from having mostly vacant seats to having 2/3 of its members appointed illegally.  And while Venezuela’s government remains fully in charge of its country, Haiti’s undemocratically appointed Prime Minister Ariel Henry has ceded control of over half of the country to armed gangs. By every measure, Haiti’s democratic institutions are in demonstrably worse shape than Venezuela’s, but given the OAS’ posture towards both nations, you would be forgiven for believing the opposite to be true.

In light of this consistently unequal treatment, Haiti’s current crisis is a test for the OAS — it is a test of whether the OAS is willing to apply its own rules equally to transgressions committed by both right-leaning, U.S.-supported governments, and left-leaning, Washington-opposed governments. Ultimately, it is a test of the OAS’ commitment to its democratic principles.

So far this month, the OAS has failed that test, and early signs seem to indicate that it unfortunately may continue to do so.  The OAS Working Group had a promising start when Sir Ronald Sanders — a respected diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda with a long track record of taking democracy seriously in Haiti — was nominated by thirteen of fourteen CARICOM members to lead it. Although that is close to a majority of the OAS’ 35 members, Sanders faced enough objections from Haiti and other countries that he withdrew his candidacy on February 28, and resigned from the Working Group. Mr. Sanders nomination was a positive sign for the working group, as he has not been afraid to speak out against the bloc’s more powerful members when they failed to respect democratic principles. Now, after withdrawing his nomination, a Jamaican diplomat has been elected in Sir Sanders stead. Such developments damper hopes that the working group will take its obligations to democracy and human rights seriously.

With prospects appearing dim that this OAS’ working group will hold Haiti accountable, the OAS is in significant danger of doing damage to its credibility. If it wishes to avoid doing so, it must faithfully uphold its IDC obligations.

Robert Duffy is a 2022 graduate of the George Washington University Law School, who currently works with the Haiti Response Coalition as a Human Rights Advocate. His areas of work and interest include human rights, democracy, and sustainable development, in the Americas and the Caribbean.