Challenging Narratives: Development, Duvalier, and interning at ASFC

By: Sarah Cha

“The solutions to Haiti’s suffering are usually characterized by images of engineers digging wells, construction workers building houses, and especially doctors treating the sick. But the physician most associated with Haiti relief, Dr. Paul Farmer […] places much of his hope for the country in the hands of lawyers. “The current justice system’s shortcomings […] underlie almost all of Haiti’s problems”.[1]  

I came across this passage a couple of weeks ago sitting at my desk at Avocats sans frontières Canada (ASFC), knee-deep in research on the Duvalier case. This was a case that had made international headlines in 2011 when it began and once again in 2014 with former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s (untimely) death. How about since then? For all intents and purposes, the case has more or less been relegated to the shelf.

I had heard little about the case before starting this internship in Québec City. While aware of Haiti’s turbulent political history, Haiti was a country whose name was much more likely to evoke thoughts of earthquakes, poverty, and cholera than it ever would dictatorship, international crimes, or impunity.

Now, given that the 29-year dictatorial reign of the Duvalier father-son duo ended in the mid-1980s and that the legal case has yet to reach trial (after over five years), maybe this isn’t so surprising.

But, this is the story of a dictator who suddenly came home in 2011 after a comfortable 25-year exile abroad – not to face justice for crimes which continue to affect Haitian society today, but instead to live lavishly among many of his former victims and their families. Personal invitations by then-President Martelly to official ceremonies, loosely-enforced house arrest, and talk of amnesty under the guise of reconciliation all effectively served to trivialize the charges of crimes against humanity and financial corruption he officially faced. As aptly remarked by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch: “Where is the outrage we [the international community] would have if the brutal leaders of Iraq or Serbia were walking around free? We would not allow this anywhere else.”[2] Indeed, there is nothing quite like having the former dictator – the “living embodiment of ultimate impunity”[3]  – freely walking around a nation’s capital to reveal the rule of rule in a country to be little more than a myth. While Duvalier can no longer be personally prosecuted so as to provide a measure of justice to his regime’s victims, his “consorts” (similarly accused of committing countless atrocities) most certainly can.

So, what makes this case (and Haiti) different? Why were we and do we continue to be so willing to provide Haiti with lots of development aid, while distancing ourselves when it comes to prosecuting a former dictator (and members of his regime) whose very lack of accountability for crimes against humanity arguably laid the foundation for Haiti’s current pattern of impunity?[4] Where is the involvement of the U.S., so readily immersed in Haiti’s political matters for two centuries, but all of a sudden unwilling to implicate itself much beyond the provision of humanitarian relief?[5]

Given there is arguably little serious legal controversy surrounding the Duvalier case, scholar Fran Quigley believes that only political controversy is left to explain the lack of political will—both national and international—behind the case. More specifically, a “Duvalier prosecution would inevitably expose embarrassing details of the long U.S. pattern of supporting the Duvaliers financially and militarily despite awareness of the regime’s brutality and thievery.”[6] From this perspective, the lack of Western involvement in the Duvalier case can be better understood by recalling its past complicity in permitting the very same human rights violations targeted by that case to go on for as long as Duvalier was seen as being key in the fight against communism.[7]

Focusing on development aid (and promoting the narrative that features such aid as being the key solution) conveniently helps avoid delving into such messy controversy. In this light, the association of earthquakes with Haiti really couldn’t be better, for the simple reason that, unlike dictatorships, an earthquake can be seen to be a natural, unpreventable, and, most importantly, fault-free, disaster.

Here’s another related example. Both the Haiti cholera outbreak and earthquake happened in 2010, while the Duvalier case about nearly thirty years of brutal international crimes began a year later – and yet, it is the earthquake with which many associate Haiti the most. Why is that? At least part of the reason may have to do with the fact that both the cholera outbreak and the Duvalier case illustrate a crisis of accountability for past abuses in a way that the earthquake simply doesn’t. As many are now aware following the 2016 admission by the U.N. of its role in the cholera epidemic brought in by its peacekeepers, this outbreak wasn’t merely a humanitarian matter, but a human rights crisis that easily might have been and should have been avoided.

And, so, it becomes less surprising to me that earthquakes and poverty easily make it into the dominant Haitian narrative – the one casting it as “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere”[8] – while impunity and Western complicity in the Duvalier regime’s human rights violations are easily ignored. This narrative is compelling in its simplicity, as perhaps any good narrative should be. But, it is also one that is undeniably distorted if it is meant to be a representation of the whole reality – key if the “solutions to Haiti’s suffering” (as worded by Dr. Farmer in the quote above) are to be found. No narrative that ignores a country’s geopolitical and social history can possibly be accurate. Ahistorical narratives are ultimately uninformed ones, such that representations of Haiti as a poverty-stricken, earthquake-ridden nation frankly serve to allow the same problems to continue: the same lack of accountability, the continued neo-colonial experimentation.[9] While development relief undoubtedly remains important, the aftermath of both the Duvalier regime and the cholera outbreak significantly underscore “charity’s inadequacy as a stand-in for justice”.[10]

The way I see it, by supporting victims of human rights abuses under Duvalier’s regime in demanding justice and insisting that violations not be left in the past, organizations like ASFC are helping to stitch an important but often-neglected narrative into this dominant narrative for a more complete picture of Haiti. The strategic litigation of emblematic cases like the Duvalier case is just one part of the work ASFC carries out in countries around the world, working closely with domestic lawyers on the ground to develop the human rights jurisprudence in a country. In this way, it helps to build a justice system that can help correct wrongs and to allow for a real, rather than apparent, rule of law.

Listening to the voices of Haitians demanding justice for past human rights violations and an end to the cycle of impunity – having them write the narrative of their own country – would be a good place to start.

(Another reason the passage above struck me? Given the seemingly unrelenting reminder of the limits of law as a tool for social justice – and that it just isn’t all about lawyers – that has been my law school experience (only exaggerating a bit here), seeing positive representations of lawyers and law’s potential in human rights work really just never gets old.)

 

[1] Fran Quigley, “‘Judge Him’: Pursuing Duvalier” from How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: Activists, Lawyers, and the Grassroots Campaign (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) at 41.

[2] Ibid at 41.

[3] Jorge Heine, “Jean-Claude Duvalier Should Be Tried for More than Corruption” The Toronto Star (5 February 2012), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/02/05/jeanclaude_duvalier_should_be_tried_for_more_than_corruption.html>.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Thirst for Justice: A Decade of Impunity in Haiti » 8:7(B) (September 1996), online: <https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Haiti.htm>.

[5] For example, commenting on Duvalier’s return, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State P.J. Crowley remarked that “What happens at this point forward is a matter for the people of Haiti … This is their concern, not ours”. See: <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-haiti-duvalier-usa-idUSTRE70H5WN20110118>.

[6] Quigley, supra note 1 at 39.

[7] “It’s a Shame Jean-Claude Duvalier Died a Free Man, Says Ex-UN Prosecutor” CBC News (4 October 2014), online: <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/it-s-a-shame-jean-claude-duvalier-died-a-free-man-says-ex-un-prosecutor-1.2787931>.

[8] This dubious honour may now belong to Venezuela. See: http://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/headline-Venezuela-takes-over-from-Haiti-as-the-poorest-country-in-the-hemisphere-33573.html

[9] See interview with Gina Athena Ulysse: <http://www.aaihs.org/why-haiti-needs-new-narratives-an-interview-with-gina-athena-ulysse/>.

[10] Fran Quigley, “Haiti’s Earthquake Was Devastating. The Cholera Epidemic Was Worse.” The Nation (16 October 2015), online: <https://www.thenation.com/article/haitis-earthquake-was-devastating-the-cholera-epidemic-was-worse/>.

[11] M.R. O’Connor, “The World’s Favorite Disaster Story: One of the Most Repeated Facts about Haiti is a Lie”, Vice News Canada (13 October 2016), online: <https://news.vice.com/story/one-of-the-most-repeated-facts-about-deforestation-in-haiti-is-a-lie>.

Close to Home

2016 Cooke FionaBy Fiona Cooke

My first entry on this blog has turned out to be a lot more personal than I thought it would be. I didn’t expect to feel as emotionally engaged in my work as I did at certain points these past few months, researching at Avocats sans frontières Québec. Because I’m “only” in Québec City, not some exotic, faraway country, I secretly feared my experience would be somewhat less authentic, or carry less meaning – that I wouldn’t feel it.

However, I was starkly reminded with my second research assignment that Québec City is not so far away from big questions of human rights. The office is situated on Rue Saint Joseph Est, right in the middle of a neighbourhood that is undergoing significant gentrification. In the midst of places like Zara and Crudessence (an extremely delicious but ridiculously expensive raw vegan joint) are community kitchens and homeless shelters. People sleep on the benches lining the street on a backdrop of over-lit high fashion shops and overpriced coffee shops, where young people park themselves all day with their Macbooks.

The second research mandate I was given was to write about “Canada’s experience with transitional justice” for an upcoming forum that ASFC will hold in August on Transitional Justice. Canada’s experience is not typical – the “transition” is not referring to a regime change or exiting a time of conflict. However, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, can be compared to similar settlements in approximately 40 other countries in the world.[1] Canada’s Commission was tasked with collecting the stories, experiences and truths of Aboriginal people all over the country who suffered through the Indian Residential System or its intergenerational effects.

The TRC is based on the principle that true reconciliation cannot come about in the absence of truth. In most transitional justice contexts, this means the right to know “the truth about the abuses they have suffered, including the identity of the perpetrators [and] the causes that gave rise to violations.”[2] In Canada, “truth” has meant more “truth-telling” by the survivors themselves – creating a record that collects their individual experiences so that the magnitude and severity of the violations can be accurately communicated. The TRC’s aim was to communicate to the Canadian public in general the truth of what happened to Aboriginal people in residential schools, and to promote an understanding of the intergenerational effects of this system. The idea is that this will be the first step in healing the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada, along with an apology from the government individual payments as part of the Indian Residential School Survivor Settlement.

The Importance of Truth-Telling

Completing this mandate affected me in three very personal ways that I was not expecting. During the exact same two weeks during which I was working on this project, my own life felt like a microcosmic reflection of what I was reading about. Out of the blue, I received an apology for something that happened to me almost two decades ago, from the person who should have prevented it. It was a very sincere, genuine apology, that I believe came from a true place of regret in this person. However, despite this, I still didn’t feel like I could truly forgive or reconcile with him. While continuing my research at work, I realized why. One of the reasons was – he didn’t know the half of what I had gone through. How could he truly apologize when he doesn’t really know exactly what he’s apologizing for? I felt like, in some very small way, I understood the impulse that drove hundreds or thousands of Aboriginal people to tell their stories at the TRC events. The need to feel like suffering has been vindicated, recognized, completely acknowledged – it feels like an essential component of feeling like justice has been done. And I’m just not sure that the TRC had the exposure it needed – every single Canadian needs to read at least the Summary of the Final Report before society can truly transform in a way that will be conducive to righting the wrongs that have been perpetrated for so long.

Apologies

Another reason for my skepticism about prospects for reconciliation: a true apology is not just words – it is actions, it is changed behaviour in the long term. A true apology can span decades. The apology that I received was followed almost immediately by an excuse, and indications that by-stander behaviour wasn’t over. The apology that the Aboriginals of Canada received not only didn’t address the greater narrative of colonial assimilation, but was also simultaneous to the ongoing destruction of their traditional lands, ongoing funding discrimination, ongoing institutional racism – Matt James refers to it as a “politics of distraction” from the question of restitution of stolen lands.[3] One participant said, “I won’t forgive the government. There’s no way in hell. I’m going to court to protect the land. […] That’s why it’s a lot of bullshit with the government and the apology.”[4] This is why guarantees of non-repetition are fundamentally important in transitional justice contexts – societies cannot let go of their anger if the wrongful behaviour is ongoing, or likely to occur again. I felt/understood the truth of this principle in both theoretical and very personal ways throughout my research on the Canadian TRC.

First Steps

Finally – doing all this research, but especially reading the summary of the final report of the TRC, which is full of survivors’ stories and the history of the indian residential system, had a fundamental impact on my understanding of the current situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. I wouldn’t have considered myself ignorant before – I knew that the Indian Residential School existed (despite not having been taught about it at school), and I knew that Aboriginal communities had lower health outcomes than non-Aboriginals. I knew that poverty and discrimination abounded. One of my best friends is native, and I had heard of the struggles of her community. However, I don’t think I truly understood the connection between the history of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people and the current problems. Reading peoples’ personal stories helped me understand that everything feeds off each other. I experienced a fundamental, if almost imperceptible shift in my reactions to hearing about Aboriginal communities’ difficulties. Before, my reaction would have been one of sympathy and frustration about the current state of things. Now when I think about it, to those reactions is added a recognition of my implication in it – of my duty to try to understand the cause and effects, and to understand and respect the anger and resentment. These are legitimate feelings, on a societal and personal level, that cannot be done away with by a simple apology.

Take the TRC reading challenge –

http://trcreadingchallenge.com/


[1] Rosemary Nagy, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design” (2014) 29:2 Canadian Journal of Law and Society 199 at 200.

[2] International Center for Transitional Justice, “Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating an Effective Truth Commission” (2013) at 3. Online at : https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Book-Truth-Seeking-2013-English.pdf.

[3] Matt James, “A Carnival of Truth? Knowledge, Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (2012) 6 The Int’l Journal of Transitional Justice 182 at 189.

[4] Anne-Marie Reynaud, “Dealing with Difficult Emotions: Anger at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (2014) 56:2 Anthropologica 369 at 375.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.