By Brian Concannon, Director, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti
Boston MA--On February 20, 2014, the Court of Appeals handling the Jean-Claude ”Baby Doc” Duvalier case in Haiti made history by reinstating the charges against Mr. Duvalier, and declared that under international law binding on Haiti, the statute of limitations cannot protect people accused of crimes against humanity (see our press release for more details).
There is still a ways to go before the victims obtain justice in this case, but yesterday’s decision was a large, historic step in the right direction. It is a step forward for the Duvalier regime victims of course. But it is also a step forward for the rule of law in Haiti, a step toward the day when peasants can use the justice system to defend land ownership, workers can enforce their labor rights and everyone can enforce their right to be free of political violence.
Almost as important as what happened yesterday is how it happened: by a committed network of people, including BAI/IJDH supporters, who changed the context to make a fair hearing possible. A year ago, as the appeals court hearings started, my colleague Mario Joseph, who represents many of the victims, felt it would be very difficult for the court to hear the case fairly in the current political context. So Mario and a network of people and organizations committed to justice stepped up and changed the context.
The advocacy network started with Duvalier victims themselves- those represented by Mario and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, as well as a group organized under the Collectif Contre l’Impunite. Many of these courageous and persistent advocates have been fighting for justice for Duvalier for three decades. They were joined by international human rights groups, especially Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the American Bar Association, who publicly reminded the world of the Haitian government’s international law obligation to bring Mr. Duvalier to trial. The Center for Justice & Accountability submitted a compelling amicus curiae brief, explaining the international law context to the court. 66 Human rights groups issued a joint call for a fair prosecution.
Mario and the other Haitian lawyers representing the victims did skilled and courageous advocacy in court, despite threats and intimidation. They were backed up by a host of pro-bono lawyers in the US and Europe, students at Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic, and volunteers, externs and interns at our office in Boston. Members of the U.S. Congress, led by Rep. John Conyers and Rep. Maxine Waters, admonished the Haitian and US governments to do more. A cohort of journalists, from Haiti, the US and Europe covered the appeals court proceedings with an impressive eye for detail and a willingness to tackle the context and complexity of the proceedings.
Last, but certainly not least, financial supporters kept the lights on, the computers working and the security cameras running at the BAI office. We were grateful to have been able to leverage an enormous amount of resources from all the volunteers and collaborators for this case, but we did need a minimum of in-house staff and logistical capacity to manage it all. Without our financial supporters, yesterday’s success would never have happened.
All this support provided the lawyers a chance to make their case, and applied enough public pressure to enable the Appeals Court Judges to conduct a fair hearing, and release a just and courageous opinion, despite a difficult political context in Haiti. At BAI and IJDH, we are truly grateful to have the opportunity to play a part in such a historic, transformative development. We are even more grateful to be a part of such a wonderful network of people willing to pool their skills, time and financial resources in support of justice. As they say in Haiti, men anpil, chay pa lou (many hands makes the load light).
Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
666 Dorchester Avenue
Boston, MA 02127
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