Can the UN’s New Mission in Haiti Work with Activists to Challenge Impunity?


Last month, the United Nations officially established a new mission in Haiti. The focus of the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti’s (MINUJUSTH) efforts will be on strengthening rule of law institutions and human rights reporting. Addressing the massive and systematic abuses perpetrated under the Duvalier and Cédras regimes (1957–1986 and 1991–1994, respectively) should be part of that mission, as an essential component for strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights. Those years were marked by the systematic imprisonment of political opponents, extrajudicial killings, corruption, and curtailed public discussion. Impunity for these violations continues to loom large over politics in Haiti and constitute an obstacle for stability, democracy, and the establishment of credible and law abiding institutions. The new mission recognizes that strengthening national human rights institutions ensuring accountability, and putting an end to impunity are essential to ensuring the rule of law and security.

A new briefing paper by ICTJ’s Cristián Correa unpacks MINJUSTH’s mission, its challenges, and its opportunities as efforts get underway.

The paper is based on Correa’s research on and work in Haiti, where he engaged with a number of civil society activists and UN officials, among them Isabelle Clérié. Clérié, a native Haitian, is a civil society activist in Haiti working to drive local change. Her most recent work was with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights where she worked on a transitional justice project that has led to a stronger focus on collaborations with civil society and other local institutions.


Isabelle Clérié

ICTJ’s Sam McCann sat down with Clérié to discuss the new UN mission, what it can accomplish, and how the past is understood and discussed in Haiti.

Read our new briefing paper, "Strengthening Rule of Law, Accountability, and Acknowledgment in Haiti" Available in English and French

MINUJUSTH’s mandate is a broad one, which could include confronting the massive and systematic violations of human rights committed under the Duvalier and Cédras regimes. What do you think MINUJUSTH’s priorities will be?

Isabelle: The previous mission was a re-stabilization effort more than anything else, so there was a focus on security. This one is supposed to be focused on the rule of law, so it is both connected to grappling with human rights violations and building the capacity of existing judicial structures.

The opportunity here as it pertains to transitional justice is to do something. If you look at any UN reports on Haiti throughout history, the recommendations are almost always the same: they have focused on Duvalier, on the prisons, and on human rights in general, including violence against women. Ideally what this new mission can do is act a little more tangibly on these issues, as opposed to constantly recommending action.

What issues are civil society grappling with?

Isabelle: If we are looking at transitional justice specifically, every administration since Duvalier, be they violent human rights violators or not, they have all stolen land and assets, all sorts of financial fraud across every administration. I could tell you horror stories about how easy it is. The issue, though, is that for the Duvalier or Cédras regimes, there are constantly sympathizers within the formal government structure or within arms’ reach. That’s been one of the biggest challenges.

What is the general public’s understanding of these violations?

Isabelle: Lack of discussion has been one of the biggest issues of transitional justice, and people don’t think about it. It is like: “Duvalier is gone. Let’s never talk about it again.”

My generation does not really know what happened under Duvalier. The reason that I know is that my mother made it a point for us to know what my family lived through. That was an important part of our childhood. But we did not talk about it outside of home, even among friends who I now understand also knew about it.

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather disappeared on April 26, 1963. There were a lot of people who were killed that day…and my grandfather disappeared. We don’t know if he was sent to Fort Dimanche, which was the prison, if he was killed that same day, or if he was in prison for years. We have no idea.

That understanding was very prominent in our family. Everyone has pictures of Papi Jean, we talk about him all the time like we knew him. My mother and aunts would tell stories. My grandmother would kiss his picture every day.

What was it like to have such a prominent space to discuss the past in your home, but to have it shut off in public?

Isabelle: Well, not my entire family was so open in their remembrance. My dad’s family was targeted, but they never spoke of it. I didn’t know about this until I was an adult.

In society in general you just do not talk about it. There was a very palpable fear and anxiety, because there were sympathizers. You walk down the street and say, “Oh, there’s that guy, he killed so-and-so.” You just know.

You and your family have been working to forge that public space though.

Isabelle: We are Catholic, so every couple of years my aunts would hold a mass in commemoration for my grandfather, so they decided they were going to do it again for the 50th anniversary of his disappearance. Some people got wind of it and they asked to do it not just for our granddad, but for everyone who disappeared or died that day.

It turned into this huge event, we were in one of the biggest churches in Haiti, we had almost 1,000 people. Standing room only. In the days leading up to that event we had testimonies on the radio. It was the first time ever that there was a public discussion around the anniversary.

So there is obviously a thirst for public remembrance. Can such a conversation will take place more consistently?

Isabelle: As a result of this mass, we realized there was this thirst. My mom and my aunt put together a group, now it is a formal organization called Devoir de Mémoire. They have been doing a lot of commemorations and collected a lot of information too, like pictures and testimonies, and are trying to do more with it. They share what they find immediately and also want to put out a children’s book to tell stories about what was going on at the time.

I was working on some of this with them, and that is how I got connected with the OHCHR. They heard about the project and wanted to do something collaborative, and so I became the bridge between the two.

Does the new mission offer hope of carving out a more substantial public space for these discussions?

Isabelle: OHCHR, in partnership with FIDH, very recently held a 3-day conference on transitional justice with the assistance of [ICTJ’s] Cristián Correa. We do not have a whole lot of precedent locally, so we invited a lot of people to come in from Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Tunisia, Peru, and held a lot of comparative discussions.

We also talked about local efforts. We did have a Truth and Justice Commission specifically for violations committed under Cédras, which was held in 1994-95, but few knew about it.. So the conference included a whole panel on it, where commission members spoke.

The event was meant to be catalyst for these sorts of conversations, and my biggest concern throughout the whole thing was what the follow up would be. My hope with the new mission is that there will be more room than before to do something more tangible.

Even though there have been small steps taken to confront it, impunity persists in Haiti. Can you tell me about the shadow impunity casts?

Isabelle: Basically, we do not trust the government at all. It has gotten to the point that corruption is so common that I do not even think we are corrupt anymore. Corrupt implies a sense of secrecy and illicitness that we don’t have anymore.

Financial corruption like this is pervasive, plus there is just the knowledge that human rights abusers are around. You see them, you know who they are, where they live, you know everything about their lives, but: what are you going to do?

When I was a kid, I would tell my mom, “Oh, I was talking to such and such.” And she would stop: “The son of this guy? You’re never to talk to him again.” And it wasn’t until I grew up and realized who these people were. “Oh, that was the son of the guy who shoved my grandfather into a trunk.” Or you are at an event and you see the daughter of the man who murdered and tortured thousands of people. What do you do with that?

There is outrage and underlying repulsion. But we have just accepted it. There is no direction for repulsion to go. What are we going to do, report them to the government?

Can the new UN mission and its mandate on rule of law and human rights have some impact on the dynamic around impunity?

Isabelle: Well, now there’s this fluttering opportunity that can be capitalized on. The opportunity from the conference we just had is that we were all in the same room. It was a chance to learn who is doing what, and I think that’s one of the most significant things the new mission can take on: ensuring that there’s a proper understanding of who is doing what, and at what capacity.

The issue of what civil society can do was raised repeatedly during the conference. We emphasized that civil society can be the eyes and ears in service of accountability.

You have said in the past that knowledge management is a key role of the UN mission. Can you tell me more about that?

Isabelle: Even official documents are unavailable. For instance: to even find the Truth and Justice Commission documents and reports was a mission and a half. Know where I found it? Duke University Library. We didn’t keep these records. There were only 75 copies printed, and it was supposed to be made widely available, but that never happened. The original document had four annexes, but there only have ever been three annexes published. The fourth had the list of people who were accused of human rights violations, so it mysteriously disappeared.

I found it, but I have no idea what to do with it. The corruption and impunity limits the capacity for official response. I would like to republish it, when it was published it was not publicized widely. There are so many things like this that can be more easily achieved with the UN. Civil society can gather information and documentation, too. Knowledge management is going to be a huge component to this, like building a database of information about all of these documents, that can be publicly accessed.

Cristián’s new briefing paper notes that the systematic nature of violations in Haiti mean they can hardly be addressed on a case-by-case basis. How could an operation like MINUJUSTH attempt to confront such systems?

Isabelle: Acknowledgement is an important step. If we can get a president to recognize the atrocities committed under Cédras and Duvalier, that would be amazing. It would not be sufficient, it would not be the final step for victims, but if you have a president who says “We acknowledge what happened and we’re really sorry,” I hope that would incense people to demand more.

What do you think the future holds for the mission?

Isabelle: I think the mission has the opportunity to contribute to changing the societal endorsement of accountability efforts if it works inclusively with civil society groups, actors like myself who are committed to this cause.

PHOTO: April 26, 1987 poster commemorating the violence of the regime: photographs of Duvalier’s victims, arranged in the shape of Fort Dimanche. The photos include John-Robert Cius, one of the Twa Flè Lespwa, killed in Gonaïves in November 1985; Richard Brisson, Radio Haiti’s station manager, killed in January 1982; Philippe Dominique, Jean Dominique’s elder brother, killed in July 1958 after an attempt to overthrow Duvalier; the victims of the April 26, 1986 Fort Dimanche massacre. (Image under Creative Commons License/Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library)