(IPS) PORT OF SPAIN -- Caribbean leaders ended a two-day emergency meeting in Jamaica on Wednesday calling for an independent investigation into the circumstances that led to the removal of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office and his departure into exile.
Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson, who is also chairman of the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), stopped short of indicating the leaders wanted to suspend or expel Haiti from the organization, although he did say they were not prepared to "deliberate in any of our meetings with thugs and anarchists."
Aristide fled Haiti on Sunday morning after weeks of violence sparked by demands from opposition forces and armed rebels who had taken control of the northern part of the country that he leave office because of corruption and mismanagement.
In the final days before he left, the United States and France also pressured the former popular priest, who became the country's first democratically elected president since independence 200 years ago, to resign.
On his arrival in the Central African Republic, Aristide telephoned a number of Caribbean leaders, including Patterson, to say he had been forced out at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers and had no idea where he was being taken.
Washington has dismissed the allegation, but Patterson said the Caribbean leaders, who spoke with both Aristide and South African President Thabo Mbeki by telephone, were not convinced the Haitian leader had "voluntarily" resigned.
"Despite what we have heard in public and besides what we have learnt in private, we simply say that the situation calls for an investigation of what transpired and we believe that this should be done under the auspices of some independent international body such as the United Nations, which would clarify the circumstances leading to the relinquishing of the presidency of Haiti by President Aristide," Patterson said.
He added that CARICOM would use its membership in various international bodies, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), to ensure the probe is carried out.
Patterson said what happened in Haiti constituted a "dangerous precedent" not only for Port-au-Prince but for democratically elected governments throughout the world, especially small states in the Caribbean.
He said the region would protest "in the strongest possible term anything which would have the effect of removing by unconstitutional means persons who have been duly elected to office."
The Caribbean leaders said they were astonished at the speed with which the UN Security Council had been able to agree Sunday to send peacekeeping troops to Haiti following the departure of Aristide.
On Thursday, CARICOM had urged the UN body to help diffuse the situation, warning that any destabilization of Haiti would have an effect on neighbouring Caribbean states.
"We cannot fail to observe that what was impossible on Thursday could be accomplished in an emergency meeting on Sunday -- President Aristide having departed from office without any involvement or consultation with any CARICOM country as to the departure and the resolution which was eventually passed," Patterson said.
The leaders said that regardless of what happened in Haiti they were reiterating their commitment to the people of the former French colony, "and our intention to remain constructively engaged in those efforts that will create the conditions that will be necessary for the long-term safety, well-being and progress of the people."
But that did not mean they agreed to work with the armed rebels in Haiti, whose leader Guy Philippe declared himself "military chief" Tuesday.
"The question of Haiti's participation in the Council of CARICOM is a matter which will have to be considered and to some extent it will be contingent on what transpires in Haiti within the next few days," Patterson said.
"In particular, we have taken a collective decision that we are not prepared to deliberate in any of our meetings with thugs, with anarchists and with persons who have a reputation which is contrary to the tenets of civil societies to which we subscribe. Ò
Philippe, a former Haitian police chief and army cadet who fled Haiti after an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2001, has been described as having a "dubious" rights record. His fellow rebel Louis Jodel Chamblain was a leader of the paramilitary group that conducted a reign of terror during military rule from 1991-94.
Some of the Caribbean countries that had indicated a willingness to participate in a peace-keeping force in Haiti will do so, Patterson said, adding the region will be able to make its most meaningful contribution as part of the UN stabilization force -- providing humanitarian assistance and helping to rebuild the economy and civil society as well as strengthening democratic institutions.
That force is scheduled to take over from the U.S., French, Canadian and other soldiers now in Haiti in three months.
CARICOM has established a task force to coordinate its work on Haiti, and expects its first report at a previously scheduled meeting Mar. 26 in St. Kitts, added Patterson.
He said the region would meet new week with UN Special Adviser on Haiti, Trinidadian national Reginald Dumas, and "we have every intention of facilitating the success of his mission."
Earlier, two political scientists had urged the leaders not to abandon Haiti.
"The political reality suggests that if we have to move forward we have to work with an imperfect system," Trinidadian Derek Ramsamooj told IPS, adding CARICOM leaders might have to "work with whoever it is that we have to at this time as a transition process until we put together a democratic institution in office."
"Haiti is one of our CARICOM nations. There are problems and an expulsion would not resolve any issues inside Haiti. What we need would be for CARICOM nations to work alongside any multilateral force to ensure that we resolve this problem in the next coming years," he added.
Respected Caribbean political scientist Neville Duncan suggested the international community would have to share the blame for the sudden departure of Aristide and the political crisis in the impoverished nation.
"Just looking at how quickly the Marines and France came in this week suggested that it was a condition for them to come in," he told the Caribbean Media Corporation.
Duncan said Aristide had been unable to provide much for his citizens during his term in office because most of the aid promised to the impoverished country had been frozen by the international community.
"So the people suffered because the international community did not like to deal with Aristide, and I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with that because I think that failure to have any improvement in Haiti led to the crisis that Haiti is now experiencing," he added.
Patterson said CARICOM also believed that the freeze on funding and an economic embargo "helped to undermine the process of building democracy in Haiti." He said the leaders were "now anxious to hear what is the rationale for the change in position" if the international community says it is now prepared to provide aid to Haiti.
CARICOM had initially developed a peace plan that would have required Aristide sharing political power with the opposition, and while Patterson did not name Washington by name, he told reporters, "at no time in our discussions did they convey to us that the plan was unacceptable so long as Aristide remained in office."
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