Throughout the tumultuous 20th century when fascism was the political “soup du jour”; torture, false imprisonment and political assassinations were the prerequisites to setting up and maintaining stable, dictatorial or totalitarian regimes. It was the proverbial “everybody does it.” With the exception of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the democracies of Western Europe, most of the world had more or less experienced these modern-day scourges. The practice however has largely been abandoned or refined to suit the political reality of the 21st century and its emphasis on the universality of human rights which naturally takes the sail out fascism and other dictatorial tendencies or philosophies.
Without a doubt these human rights violations were repugnant and their authors should have been ostracized and punished. However, the political reality that existed in the second half of the 20th century not only gave comfort to these despots but also ignored the magnitude of their crimes. Most importantly these human rights violations were never considered “crimes against humanity” until this strange campaign by some international human rights organizations to have Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier prosecuted for the abuses that took place during his 15-year presidency (1971-86). It is evident that the campaign is self-serving, disturbing, demagogic and consistent with the paternalism that illustrates the relations between Haiti and the international community.
As it is understood that “crimes against humanity” can be tried in any jurisdiction, these human rights organizations could have asked France, a member of the Security Council, which is tasked to enforce UN protocols, to prosecute the former Haitian president. These self-appointed defenders of the persecuted had that opportunity from February 7, 1986, the day J.C Duvalier took flight for France, to January 16, 2011, the day he returned to Haiti, but desisted. There may be a valid reason for their inaction: the case against J.C Duvalier is political and does not rise to the level of “crimes against humanity.” Even the number of victims of the Duvaliers’ 29-year rule (between 15 to 30.000 Haitians by most estimates) belies the notion of this father-son duo being one of the worst human rights violators of the 20th century. Moreover, why is it that Haiti, which is reeling from the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake and many intractable social ills, being asked to take on such project? It appears that many of these organizations have simply outlived their usefulness; going after J.C Duvalier is providing them with a lifeline.
In fairness, many of the Duvaliers’ victims were innocent citizens whose only crime may have been an inherent belief in their inalienable rights, which should not be denied to anyone by any political entity. They should be immortalized as martyrs whose selfless sacrifices laid the groundwork for a democratic Haiti in which freedom of expression is a right not a privilege. Ironically some 26 years after the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier, the concretization of their vision is still a work in progress. Conversely, other so-called victims of the Duvaliers were essentially terrorists and impenitent traitors whose actions deserved the same condemnation as the excesses of their persecutors.
British historian Niall Ferguson was correct when he wrote in Civilization (the West and the Rest): “There are multiple interpretations of history, to be sure, none definitive…but there is only one past. And although the past is over, for two reasons, it is indispensable to our understanding of what we experience today and what lies ahead of us tomorrow and thereafter.” Indeed, we tend to ignore or dissociate ourselves from the past which, as history has proven on too many occasions, is intrinsically linked to the present and, by extension, our future. Complicating matters is the fact that most historians see history as a perennial battle between villains and pious, not a confluence of divergent philosophies and persona from which emerges an uncontested winner.
If only historians were willing to revisit the socio-economic conditions that prevailed in Haiti prior to the ascendency of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier to the country’s presidency, they might have been more forthcoming in their assessment of the dictatorship that ensued. Facts are the essence of history, not speculations or perspectives which, in the Duvaliers’ case, remain the main source of information. The misconceptions and preconceived ideas aside, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was part of a political movement that sought to transform a primitive society and reform the pyramidal socio-economic system on top of which sits a cosmopolitan mulatto elite supported by the international community.
Historically any attempt at transforming entrenched political systems usually encountered stiff resistance from their keepers, therefore the task of transforming Haiti’s decaying and unfair society was not made easy by Papa Doc’s enemies. The economic boycotts, invasions, attempted military coups and other measures hatched or supported by the elite and the international community were consistent with this mindset. Given the current state of affairs in Haiti, one can argue that Papa Doc had failed in his vision to restructure the country’s social, economic and political conditions. But would it be a fair or definitive assessment of his legacy?
The fact that another Haitian president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, had to confront the same destabilizing measures is an indictment of the system rather than a failure of those who tried to reform it. If these human rights organizations were serious about “crimes against humanity”, they would know where to look.
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