Can History Ever Absolve a Villain? No Closure for the Victims of the Duvalier Regime

POST WRITTEN BY: Marlon J.W. Bryan (J.D. ’16), Pace Law School

MBryanImageHuman Rights Watch recently commented on the disappointing state of human rights in Haiti. The country’s former President Jean-Claude Duvalier died on October 4, 2014, without ever being tried for the human rights violations that occurred during his ruthless fifteen years in power. Duvalier’s death without trial is an unfortunate failure to investigate and prosecute the human rights violations that took place during his presidency.

Haiti has a unique and rich history. In 1804, the world shook when a slave rebellion defeated Napoleon’s forces and made Haiti the first independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere. However, Haiti’s rich history has been blighted by poverty, catastrophe and repression. In 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier, succeeded his father as Haiti’s president. In his fifteen-year reign, “Baby-Doc” Duvalier oversaw a regime of corruption and mass human rights violations. His abuses included, repressing political dissidents and journalists, torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Most infamous of these abuses were inflicted by his secret police force, the MSVN (Militia of National Security Volunteers). In 1986, Duvalier fled the island after being overthrown in a coup d’état.

In 2011, Duvalier returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile. Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that Duvalier could be liable under international law for his direct command over the security apparatus that engaged in repressive acts. Moreover, there was evidence that Duvalier would have been liable for crimes by subordinates acting on his direct orders. Initially, a Haitian court found that the statute of limitations barred Duvalier from standing trial. However, in 2013 an appeals court overturned the ruling and ordered the testimony of Duvalier and former members of his government. In February of this year, the charges against Duvalier were reinstated with the court finding that statutes of limitation are never applicable in cases involving human rights violations. At the time of Mr. Duvalier’s death, the investigation had resumed. Had Duvalier gone on trial, it would have been a monumental opportunity for closure and reckoning. In life, Jean-Claude Duvalier was a ruthless and corrupt dictator who lived on graft and excess. In death, his supporters remember him as a symbol of a strong and stable Haiti; to his victims he is a painful scar that will never heal.


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