Those who forget the past are often condemned to repeat its mistakes.
On February 29, 2004 the US, France and Canada overthrew Haiti’s elected government. The foreign military intervention led to an unmitigated human rights disaster.
In the three weeks after the coup at least 1,000 bodies were buried in a mass grave by the State Morgue in Port-au-Prince, a fact acknowledged by Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Davis, Commander of Canadian Forces in Haiti, during a July 29, 2004, media teleconference call. In the year and a half after the coup, investigations by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the University of Miami, Harvard University and the National Lawyers Guild all found significant evidence of persecution directed at Aristide’s Lavalas movement.
The most authoritative account of the post-coup human rights situation was published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal. The August 2006 study revealed that there were an estimated 8,000 murders, 35,000 rapes and thousands of incidents of armed threats in the capital in the 22 months after the toppling of Aristide’s government. Of the 8,000 people murdered — 12 people a day — in the greater Port-au-Prince area, nearly half (47.7 percent) were killed by governmental or other anti-Aristide forces. 21.7 percent of the killings were attributed to members of the Haitian National Police (HNP), 13 percent to demobilized soldiers (many of whom participated in the coup) and 13 percent to anti-Aristide gangs (none were attributed to Aristide supporters and the rest were attributed to common criminals).
Throughout the March 2004 to May 2006 coup period the Haitian police killed peaceful demonstrators and carried out massacres in poor neighbourhoods, often with help from anti-Aristide gangs. Canadian troops and later police trainers often supported the Haitian police operations, usually by providing backup to the police killers. Canada commanded the 1,600-member UN police contingent mandated to train, assist and oversee the Haitian National Police.
Throughout the period investigated by the researchers, Canada was heavily involved in Haitian affairs. Ottawa provided tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to the installed government, publicly supported coup officials and employed numerous officials within coup government ministries. Haiti’s deputy justice minister for the first 15 months of the foreign-installed government, Philippe Vixamar, was on the Canadian International Development Agency’s payroll (the minister was a USAID employee). Later he was replaced by long-time CIDA employee Dilia Lemaire. During this period hundreds of political prisoners, including Aristide’s prime minister and interior minister, languished in prolonged and arbitrary detention.
There is some evidence that Canadian forces in Haiti participated directly in the political repression. The Lancet researcher noted above recounted an interview with one family in the Delmas district of Port- au-Prince: “Canadian troops came to their house, and they said they were looking for Lavalas [Aristide’s party] chimeres, and threatened to kill the head of household, who was the father, if he didn’t name names of people in their neighbourhood who were Lavalas chimeres or Lavalas supporters.” A January 2005 human rights report from the University of Miami quoted a Canadian police officer saying that “he engaged in daily guerrilla warfare.” Afghanistan and Haiti were cited by the Canadian Forces 2007 draft counterinsurgency manual as the only foreign countries where Canadian troops were participating in counterinsurgency warfare. According to the manual, Canadian Forces have been “conducting COIN [counter-insurgency] operations against the criminally-based insurgency in Haiti since early 2004.”
While our security forces fought a counterinsurgency campaign Canadian diplomats pressured others to contribute to the fight. In early 2005 the head of the UN force (MINUSTAH), General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, told a congressional commission in Brazil that “we are under extreme pressure from the international community [specifically citing Canada, France and the U.S.] to use violence.” Not long after Ribeiro complained about pressure to get tough, UN forces committed their worst massacre in Haiti. Marketed by its architects as an action against a “gang” leader, at dawn on July 6, 2005, 400 UN troops, backed by helicopters, entered the capital’s densely populated slum neighbourhood of Cité Soleil. Eyewitnesses and victims of the attack claim MINUSTAH helicopters fired on residents throughout the operation. The cardboard and corrugated tin wall houses were no match for the troops’ heavy weaponry, which fired “over 22,000 rounds of ammunition.” The raid left at least 23 civilians dead, including numerous women and children. The UN claimed they only killed “gang” leader Dread Wilme. For their part community members responded to Wilme’s death by painting a large mural of him next to one of Aristide and Che Guevara.
In the months just prior to the February 2006 election there was a spike in UN military operations. After nominally democratic, but largely powerless, President René Preval took office repression subsided. But Haiti’s business elite and the international powers began to demand further UN repression of “gangs.” In a January 15, 2007, interview with Haiti’s Radio Solidarité Canada’s Ambassador Claude Boucher praised the UN troops, urging them to “increase their operations as they did last December.”
Boucher’s public support for operations “last December” was an unmistakable reference to the December 22, 2006, UN assault on Cité Soleil. Dubbed the “Christmas Massacre” by neighbourhood residents, Agence France Presse indicated that at least 12 people were killed and “several dozen” wounded. A Haitian human rights organization, AUMOHD, reported 20 killed. The Agence Haitienne de Presse (AHP) reported “very serious property damage” following the UN attack, and concerns that “a critical water shortage may now develop because water cisterns and pipes were punctured by the gunfire.” Red Cross coordinator Pierre Alexis complained to AHP that UN soldiers “blocked Red Cross vehicles from entering Cité Soleil” to help the wounded.
After his interview, Boucher got what he wanted. A UN raid on Cité Soleil on Jan. 25 left five dead and a dozen wounded, according to Agence France Presse. On February 3 the UN killed several people in Cité Soleil, including two little girls, Alexandra and Stephanie Lubin. And a week later, MINUSTAH operations in Cité Soleil left “four dead and 10 injured all of which were innocent civilians” according to AHP. (Kevin Pina’s film Haiti: We Must Kill the Bandits documents the chilling brutality of UN forces.)
Largely due to the work of solidarity activists, some information about post-coup human rights abuses was published by major Canadian media outlets. But most rights violations went unreported and Canada’s complicity therein was almost never mentioned.
In the lead up to the 10th anniversary of the coup will any major media outlets mention Canada’s complicity in the worst human rights disaster in the Western Hemisphere this century?
Or will ordinary Canadians be condemned to once again be responsible for their government’s crime against the people of Haiti?