Impact of the September 1991 Coup



A military coup on 29 September 1991 put an end to the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically-elected President. The coup initiated a new period of instability and political unrest in a country which had only recently begun to recover from the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship. Jean Bertrand Aristide's election in December 1990 had created hope among Haitians for an egalitarian and economically viable Haiti: his short-lived government promised social, political and economic improvements and began to introduce reforms which concentrated on human rights issues. Aristide's popularity had as well made a significant impact on the country's political climate. Although some observers raise questions concerning Aristide's desire to carry-out the promised reforms, it is difficult to judge his failures and achievements as his government was overthrown only nine months after it came to power.

During the aftermath of the coup, President Aristide was sent into exile in Venezuela as a result of negotiations between the military regime, headed by Brigadier-General Raoul Cédras, and the ambassadors of France, Venezuela and the United States (Amnesty International Jan. 1992, 1). On 9 October 1991, Supreme Court Judge Joseph Nerette was sworn in as Haiti's provisional President and, on 14 October, Jean-Jacques Honorat, Executive Director of the Centre Haitien des droits et libertés publiques (CHADEL), was ratified as provisional Prime Minister (Ibid.).

The international community reacted forcefully, condemning the coup and the resulting human rights violations perpetrated by the military regime. The Organization of American States (OAS) has demanded the return of President Aristide and imposed economic sanctions on Haiti to force the military to comply with its demand (U.S. Department of State 10 Jan. 1992, 1).

An agreement "meant to pave the way for Aristide's eventual return to power" (The Ottawa Citizen 2 May 1992, B3) was signed in February 1992 under OAS auspices between the exiled president and representatives of the de facto government. The Haitian legislature, however, has not ratified the accord and the military regime is discussing a new round of elections (Ibid.; The Boston Globe 3 Apr. 1992, 2).

There is currently no evidence to indicate the desire of the de facto government to respond to the appeal of the international community to seek a peaceful solution to the situation in Haiti. Since the coup, the military regime has suppressed pro-Aristide elements, causing a large number of Haitians to flee to other countries in search of refuge.


2.0          General

The military regime has been accused of grave and systematic human rights violations since the coup. It is apparent that "Haiti's justice system has ceased to function and its nominally civilian government maintains no control whatsoever over the thugs in uniform" thereby allowing the military to operate with virtual impunity (Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 2). Sources indicate that Haitians are living in a "climate of fear and repression" where politically-motivated violence and human rights violations range from widespread arrests to extrajudicial killings (Amnesty International Jan. 1992, 2; Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 1; Reuters 31 May 1992). Adding to the fear of the general population of Haiti are the implications of a decree issued by the de facto authorities on 17 December 1991, granting an amnesty for "all citizens who were arrested, persecuted, tried or convicted for political crimes during the period from 16 December 1990 to 27 September 1991" (Amnesty International Jan. 1992, 3).

The Haiti Commission for Inquiry into the September 30th Coup d'État summarizes the human rights situation in Haiti as follows:

Overall, the delegation judged the situation of human rights to be dismal, with no freedoms of speech, assembly, or association. We received testimony that at least one thousand and possibly several thousand people have died in coup-related violence. We saw direct evidence of both intentional and arbitrary killing or wounding of civilians. Hundreds of people have reportedly been illegally arrested and some tortured. Fear grips the population across all social groupings, and even our delegation was the object of inquiries by military authorities at the hotel where we stayed (Haiti Commission of Inquiry [Dec. 1991], 1).

Reports of violence, illegal arrests and torture continued throughout May 1992. During the last week of May 1992 alone, 18 people were killed in Port-au-Prince as a result of political violence (The Boston Globe 29 May 1992).

2.1     Targets of Violence

2.1.0                General

A wide range of people have been targeted by the military regime since the coup. Late in January 1992, President Aristide accused the military regime of being responsible for "1,500 to 2,000 deaths and the forced exile of 10,000 political refugees" (The New York Times 20 Jan. 1992; The Haiti Commission [Dec. 1991], 3; Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 3). Sources indicate that hundreds of civilians have been deliberately shot in sectors of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The army has opened fire in rallies and in public, "especially in poor areas where ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has widespread support" (Amnesty International 22 Jan. 1992, 2; Ibid., Oct. 1991, 1). A number of massacres in the Lamentin Zone of Carrefoures and Cité Soleil, an extremely poor area known as an Aristide stronghold, left close to 200 dead between 29 September and 2 October 1991 (Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 4; OMCT 7 Oct. 1991).

2.1.1         Opponents of the Military Regime

According to Amnesty International, those targeted by the military regime include:

[members of] the clergy, journalists, trade unionists, students and human rights activists, who have openly denounced the overthrow of the government and the subsequent wave of human rights violations (Amnesty International 22 Jan. 1992, 2).

The military regime has been accused of widespread arrest of its opponents, and supporters of President Aristide and those who have publicly demonstrated their opposition to the coup have faced severe human rights violations (U.S. Department of State 10 Jan. 1992; OMCT 15 Nov. 1991, 1; Reuters 31 May 1992). On 15 November 1991, for example, Haitian soldiers are reported to have entered the Cité Soleil section of Port-au-Prince to arrest young people on the grounds that they were "preparing to leave the country like boat people."... The soldiers then severely beat the young people in front of other residents and forced their prisoners to identify others who also might be preparing to flee Haiti (Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991, 5).

According to Amnesty International (Jan. 1992, ii, 6), the fate of many of those arrested is not known; there are numerous reports, however, of the torture and ill-treatment of persons while in detention (U.S. Department of State 10 Jan. 1992; OMCT Oct. 1991; Inter Press Service 21 May 1992).

Individuals involved in minor political activities have also been subjected to violence since the coup; persons have been arrested, tortured or killed "for selling opposition newspapers, listening to foreign radio broadcasts and in one case just glancing at a photo of the former president" (Amnesty International 22 Jan. 1992, 2). Further, during the days following the coup, soldiers occupied the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince and fired their weapons indiscriminately (Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 4). Activities of most medical institutions have been disrupted, and medical staff has been ill-treated and physicians arrested or harassed. Health care is deteriorating due to the number of wounded and constant lack of medical supplies (Ibid.).

Students who took part in a meeting of the National Association of Haitian Students at the University of Haiti on 12 November 1991 were reportedly arrested and tortured (Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991, 4). On 12 November 1991, soldiers with automatic weapons stormed a university auditorium in the capital and arrested about 80 students protesting Aristide's ouster. The witnesses said the students were herded into a corner of the auditorium and at least four were beaten (AP 13 Nov. 1991, 2).

In late May 1992, student demonstrations calling for Aristide's return were disrupted and many students were arrested and beaten by authorities (Inter Press Service 21 May 1992).

According to the Haiti Commission for Inquiry into the September 30th Coup d'État, while various people have been among the victims of government-sponsored violence, "[the] most likely victims of military violence are young men from 16 to 35 years old. Many of this age group have fled to the countryside or out of the country, across the Dominican border or by boat towards Florida" (The Haiti Commission Dec. 1991, 2).

2.1.2         Organizations/Groups

Since many of those involved in various groups, trade unions and grassroots organizations tend to be supporters of President Aristide, reports claim that they have been intimidated by the military and many have suspended regular meetings and gatherings. The Inter-American Foundation states:

as a result of the military's denunciation of grassroots groups, a pattern and practice of violence, terror, and psychological intimidation against the organized poor, their leaders, and those working with them, has been renewed -- not only by military forces, but also by para-military forces that the Aristide government had been trying to dismantle (13 Dec. 1991, 2).

Several members of the Association of Literacy Monitors (AMAP), the Associations of Grassroots Organizations (AMOP), leaders of women's groups and those suspected of being members of local committees were arrested in October and November 1991 (OMCT 14 Nov. 1991, 2). According to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights,

[m]embers of peasant self-help groups and women's organizations in Jean Rabel and Cotes de Fer have been the targets of systematic persecution including arbitrary arrests and illegal detention. The army has forbidden all meetings. Many people have gone into hiding in the mountains and some have presumably tried to leave the country (Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991, 2).

One of President Aristide's most significant human rights reforms was the disarming of rural section chiefs who were initially established during the Duvalier regime and "have traditionally ruled as petty tyrants in the remote countryside, taxing, arresting, beating and imprisoning as they pleased" (Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991; Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991). Under the Duvalier regime, section chiefs were often members of Duvalier's paramilitary force known as the Tontons Macoutes. According to Haiti Insight, the rural section chiefs have not been formally reinstated, although many of them have informally regained their positions, and this has contributed to violence and fear in the countryside (Winter 1992, 12). Violent acts committed by former members of the Tontons Macoutes have been reported (CNN 24 May 1992).

2.1.3                The Press

The seizure of power by the military was quickly followed by the suppression of the media. Members of the military arrested staff or banned broadcasts of a number of radio stations including Radio Haiti International, Radio Cacique, Radio Caraibe, Radio Lumeiers, Radio Nationale, Radio Metropole and Radio Tet Ansamm (Amnesty International Oct. 1991, 2; Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991). In addition, the arrest and detention of various journalists and the destruction of their tapes and equipment during raids has been widely reported (Reuters May 22 1992). Jacky Caraibe, a popular radio broadcaster, was allegedly killed by security forces (Lawyers Committee 8 Dec. 1991, 7).

On 15 December 1991, Radio Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale-57 (VSN-57), a pirate radio station, called on members of the Tontons Macoutes to "mobilize against supporters of President Aristide" (Amnesty International Jan. 1992). The broadcast instructed listeners as follows: "when you find them... you should know what to do... Go and do your job...crush them, eat them, drink their blood" (Ibid.; Americas Watch et al. 30 Dec. 1991, 11). VSN-57 also aired a broadcast which included a "hit list" of various organizations to be suppressed, including the names and addresses of over 100 individuals (Ibid.). According to the United States Department of State, however (10 Jan. 1992, 2), these broadcasts were most likely meant to intimidate Aristide's supporters on the anniversary of his election, and they appear to have been largely disregarded.

3.             EXIT AND RETURN

3.0                General

In the aftermath of the September 1991 military coup, massive numbers of Haitians fled Haiti to seek refuge in other countries, and continue to flee today. As the numerous reports of military-sponsored human rights violations suggest, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that fear of ill-treatment is a major cause of flight; as well, the devastating effects of the OAS-imposed economic sanctions on an already impoverished Haiti should be taken into consideration as additional impetus for flight. Haitians are now faced with shortages of food and medicine, and the poorest rural areas are the most severely affected.

As a result of geographic proximity, several countries in the Americas have been the main recipients of the current influx of Haitian asylum seekers. The United States is providing temporary shelter for thousands of Haitians. Some countries have granted asylum or temporary asylum to the Haitians and international organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross have played significant roles in assisting asylum seekers. These organizations have urged countries to accept Haitian asylum seekers and have offered to share the cost involved in resettlement programmes as well as to assist with repatriation programmes where possible.

3.1                United States

Most Haitians who have left Haiti have done so with the hope of finding refuge in the United States. That government, however, has implemented a policy of interdiction to prevent Haitians from reaching its shores. Up until 24 May 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard had intercepted Haitian boat people in international waters and sent them to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba to process their claims. On 24 May 1992, President Bush stated that the overcrowding at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base had contributed to a "dangerous and unmanageable situation," and he issued an executive order authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept Haitians at sea and to return them to Haiti (AP 24 May 1992). The order was implemented on 25 May 1992; the 12,000 Haitians currently sheltered at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base are not to be affected by the executive order (Ibid. 25 May 1992).

The Bush administration stated that the 24 May 1992 executive order is meant to discourage Haitians from coming to the United States. Asylum seekers are encouraged instead to make claims for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince (The Washington Post 25 May 1992). According to The New York Times, "Haiti's military-backed Government has said it would not persecute refugees who follow those procedures" (25 May 1992).

The U.S. government categorizes the Haitians as "economic refugees" rather than "victims of political repression" (AFP 28 Nov. 1991, 1); some current reports state that approximately 8,000 Haitians have thus far been found to have grounds for asylum in the U.S. (AP 24 May 1992). An unidentified American official claimed that "the [U.S.] administration wants to disperse Haitians to countries in the region where they would be cared for by the [United Nations] High Commissioner for Refugees" (AP 13 Nov. 1991, 1). The high incidence of AIDS among Haitians and of those who have tested HIV positive has reportedly further discouraged U.S. authorities from accepting Haitians (The New York Times 14 Dec. 1991, 1, 2). The following statistics regarding the status of Haitian asylum seekers show that since October 1991, over 34,000 Haitians have been stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard, 3,546 of whom were intercepted during the first two weeks of May 1992. As of 24 May 1992, 14,000 have been repatriated and approximately 12,000 asylum seekers are being kept at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (UPI 11 May 1992; AP 24 May 1992).

3.2      Policies of Countries of Asylum

Soon after the coup, the government of the United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed to several Latin American countries to accept a number of the Haitians being held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Reuters 15 Nov. 1991,1). Some of these countries responded positively while others rejected the appeal.

Among the countries which have refused to accept Haitian asylum seekers are Barbados and the Dominican Republic. Although a large number of Haitians have gone to the Dominican Republic since the coup, the government of that country has been unwilling or unable to protect them. The November report of the Haiti Commission for Inquiry into the September 30th Coup d'État provides the following information on the treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic:

[w]e found a situation where refugees are arrested, beaten, robbed, and hunted by the Dominican Army, rather than accepted as fugitives from a reign of terror. Meanwhile the military authors of the violence have been allowed to freely cross and obtain supplies of food and fuel in violation of the international embargo against the illegal regime (28 Nov. 1991, 1).

The International Red Cross is currently providing financial assistance to a large number of "illegal Haitian immigrants" who were expelled from that country (Canadian Red Cross Society Oct.-Nov. 1991, 5).

Among those countries which agreed to grant temporary asylum to the Haitian asylum seekers is Jamaica, which, at the request of the United States, accepted 100 Haitians in November 1991 (BBC Summary 23 Nov. 1991). Trinidad and Tobago also agreed to accept on a temporary basis between 100 and 500 of the Haitians who were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, although its policy towards the asylum seekers remains ambiguous. Following the election of a new prime minister on 16 December 1991, the government stated that it would not accept any Haitians (BBC Summary 19 Dec. 1991; Ibid., 18 Nov. 1991). It is not clear whether any asylum seekers have been accepted to date. Among the countries which agreed to accept some of the asylum seekers on a permanent basis is Belize, which agreed to resettle 100 Haitians "provided they test negative for the [HIV] virus" (Reuters 15 Nov. 1991, 1). Cuba agreed to grant refugee status to 62 Haitians provided UNHCR reviews their claims (AFP 11 Mar. 1992). According to the Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister, Cuba has "sheltered 1,441 Haitians shipwrecked off Cuba's shores at the eastern end of the island" (Ibid.). Guyana has also accepted 100 Haitians, although as of February 1992, there were no reports to confirm whether they had been resettled in Guyana (Inter Press Service 4 Feb. 1992, 1).

According to the Foreign Minister of Honduras, UNHCR requested that the government of Honduras grant asylum to an unspecified number of Haitians, stating that UNHCR would share the costs involved (Inter Press Service 15 Nov. 1991). Although reports on the exact number of Haitians accepted by Honduras are conflicting, it is estimated that between 250 and 350 asylum seekers have been accepted as of February 1992 (AFP 28 Nov. 1991, 1; Xinhua 11 Feb. 1992). In addition to those accepted by the government of Honduras, an unspecified number of Haitians whose applications for refugee status to the U.S.A. had been rejected were taken to Honduras on 22 November 1991 at the request of UNHCR, presumably from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (The Christian Science Monitor 6 Feb. 1992, 4). Although the asylum seekers have not been granted refugee status, they are permitted to remain in Honduras "until the crisis in Haiti is resolved" (Ibid.). Living conditions are reportedly not satisfactory; asylum seekers live in a camp guarded by the Honduran military and are "unable to leave without government permission" (Ibid.).

Venezuela, after granting asylum to President Aristide, offered to accept 100 asylum seekers (AFP 16 Nov. 1991). Reports vary, however, on the exact number of people accepted (AFP 28 Nov. 1991, 1).

3.3              Return

A large number of Haitians have been voluntarily and involuntarily repatriated from various countries since the 29 September 1991 military coup. Most have been repatriated by American authorities from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. In some cases, the repatriation process has not been supervised by UNHCR.

The American-forced repatriation of Haitians was challenged by several American courts, causing interruptions in the implementation of the policy. On 3 December 1991,

the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued a preliminary injunction suspending forcible repatriation of boatpeople to Haiti. The court found that there was a substantial likelihood that the U.S. government's policy of interdicting and deporting Haitian emigres violates the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The court also found inadequate the screening procedures employed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to determine which Haitians have plausible claims of asylum, and concluded that denying the emigres the opportunity to consult with counsel violated the First Amendment (Center for Human Rights 30 Dec. 1991, 1).

On 17 December 1991, however, a U.S. Federal Appeal Court in Atlanta, Georgia, ruled that asylum seekers could be returned to Haiti (AP 18 Dec. 1991). On 1 February 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the U.S. government permission to repatriate over 11,000 Haitian asylum seekers from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Inter Press Service 4 Feb. 1992, 1).

There are conflicting reports on the total number of Haitians who have been repatriated since the coup, and of their treatment upon return to Haiti. Press reports indicate that 14,000 Haitians have been repatriated as of 24 May 1992 (AP 24 May 1992). An article in the Los Angeles Times states that although there is a high level of terror, fear and brutality, human rights monitors who have conducted extensive interviews of Haitians report that there has been no indication that the asylum seekers who were forcibly returned to Haiti have been subject to any specific acts of retribution (16 Mar. 1992; The Christian Science Monitor 28 May 1992). The U.S. Department of State also indicates that

[t]here are no substantiated reports that persons returned there by U.S. under the interdiction program are detained or subject to punishment by Haitian authorities. Nor are there substantiated reports that persons deported or excluded from the United States after having unsuccessful sought asylum in the U.S. or after attempting illegal entry are or subjected to punishment by Haitian authorities (10 Jan. 1992, 2).

Several human rights organizations have accused the government of the United States of discriminating against Haitians (Reuters 15 Nov. 1991), and UNHCR has stated that it is concerned about the American policy of repatriation. Once the U.S. government resumed its repatriation policy in February 1992, UNHCR repeated its concern by stating that:

[t]he High Commissioner had sought assurances from the U.S. government at a very high level that those seeking safety abroad would not be forced to return until the situation in Haiti has evolved positively and has stabilised. Continuing reports of serious human rights abuses and violence by security forces since the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Haiti are cause for great concern. For this reason, UNHCR fears that those being returned may, in fact, be exposed to danger upon their return. UNHCR is not in a position to monitor the safety of those being returned to Haiti (2 Feb. 1992).

The American policy of repatriation is based on the claim that most Haitian asylum seekers are economic migrants and can therefore be repatriated without fear of ill-treatment. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and UNHCR, however, have expressed concern for the fate of the returnees as well as for the repatriation process itself, which they claim deprives asylum seekers of a fair hearing. Amnesty International expressed concern for Haitians in January 1992, stating that those returned in the past had suffered ill-treatment, and that those merely attempting to flee the country had been beaten and arrested (22 Jan. 1992).

The decision of the United States to return Haitians who are intercepted at sea to Haiti has further outraged human rights groups. Lawyers and human rights activists argue that the executive order is a violation of international law and of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CNN News 25 May 1992), and the human rights community is preparing to challenge the decision in court (Ibid.).

4.                CURRENT SITUATION

HTI: Impact of the Sept. 1991 Coup 4. (1992-06)

Evidence suggests that the human rights situation in Haiti has been deteriorating since the September 1991 military coup. The ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the military regime have created a climate of fear in Haiti, and large numbers of Haitians are still fleeing to other countries in search of refuge. The worsening economy and the resulting lack of food and proper medical supplies have made life unbearable for many and have provided an additional incentive for flight.

President Bush's decision to return all new Haitian asylum seekers to Haiti has resulted in the outrage of the human rights community and its vow to challenge the decision in court. The United States continues to claim that the majority of Haitians are fleeing poverty, while most human rights groups insist that Haitians will face persecution if returned to Haiti. It is difficult to unequivocally determine whether Haitian asylum seekers are fleeing persecution or poverty without a case-by-case analysis.

Finally, it appears that the military regime has no intention of giving up the power it seized on 29 September 1991. The accord signed in February 1992 between the de facto government and exiled President Aristide has yet to be ratified. Until the OAS demand for President Aristide's return is met and democracy is restored to Haiti, human rights abuses will likely continue.

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