(IPS) WASHINGTON -- A dozen U.S. rights groups, attorneys and activists have petitioned the Organization of American States (OAS) to protect Haitian civilians from UN peacekeepers and the Haitian National Police.
The petitions requesting urgent measures, which were filed Nov. 16 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, are directed against Brazil and the United States.
As the commander of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Brazil is accused of complicity in dozens of killings since late 2004. The United States is cited for arming the Haitian National Police (PNH) which, according to the groups, has been responsible for most of the violence.
Both countries are committing substantial violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, according to the petitioners.
They allege that dozens of unarmed civilians have been killed during raids by both MINUSTAH and the PNH into poor sections of the capital, Port-au-Prince, that have remained loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted from power in early 2004, and his party, Fanmi Lavalas.
"Despite the official claims made by PNH and MINUSTAH spokespersons that the aim of these operations is to neutralize armed, 'gang' or 'bandit' elements in these neighborhoods," according to the groups' complaint, "those killed by PNH and MINUSTAH forces include a long list of unarmed men, women, and children.
"In many cases, these victims were not 'collateral damage' of the operations, accidentally caught in crossfire, but rather they were intentionally targeted and killed ... " asserted the complaints submitted by the National Lawyers Guild, Global Exchange, and the Institute for Justice and Democracy, among others.
The groups said they had prepared dozens of affidavits by victims, eyewitnesses, including Haitian journalists, and family survivors, as well videotapes taken at the scene of the raids or shortly afterwards.
"MINUSTAH's role is to protect Haitian civilians," said National Lawyers Guild attorney Kasey Corbitt, who helped draft the petitions. "Instead, the troops are actively participating in campaigns of terror on the Haitian people or turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by the PNH in conjunction with members of the former military."
The petitions are also backed by two members of the U.S. Black Congressional Caucus, Reps. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, both long-time supporters of Aristide. Given the ongoing violence, Waters told reporters Tuesday, "I don't understand how they can possibly hold democratic elections."
Aristide was ousted in early 2004 during an insurrection by former soldiers and flown into exile aboard a U.S. military jet after U.S. troops, who had been rushed to Port-au-Prince, informed him that they could not guarantee his protection. Many of his supporters, including Waters and Lee, have charged that the U.S. and France conspired to remove the president, who is currently living in South Africa, both from power and from Haiti itself.
An initial multinational force consisting of troops from the U.S., France, Canada, and Chile assumed peacekeeping duties in the major cities immediately after Aristide's departure. They were replaced after several months by the 7,000-man Brazilian-led MINUSTAH, whose mandate was to support the interim government of Prime Minister Gerard LaTortue, a former Haitian diplomat who had been living in the United States for most of the last 30 years.
His government's mandate has been to maintain order, jumpstart the economy, and prepare elections to take place next month. Despite substantial progress by the UN in registering voters, however, the government has largely failed in these tasks. With much of the countryside and even the major cities still under the control of local strongmen and their private militias, it remains unclear whether the election, if it goes forward, can be free or fair.
Aristide's supporters have long charged the interim government, and particularly the PNH, with targeting their leaders and activists, among them former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, both of whom have spent more than a year in jail without trial. The Bush administration itself has called on the government to either try or release them -- so far to no avail.
Most of the repression against Lavalas, which most analysts believe remains by far the most popular party among the vast majority of Haitians who live in absolute poverty, has been directed against suspected pro-Aristide gangs, or so-called chimeres, that continue to dominate or protect -- depending on the observer's political orientation -- entire neighborhoods in slum areas, including Cite Soleil and Belair in the capital.
Beginning in December 2004, MINUSTAH forces, along with UN Civilian Police and sometimes PNH units, have carried out raids in these districts to assert the government's authority there and disarm suspected gang members.
While MINUSTAH and the PNH have generally blamed any civilian casualties resulting from these raids on the gangs themselves, some community residents and other witnesses have charged that the uniformed forces have been responsible for most of the deaths and serious injuries.
The complaint filed by the groups details 13 such incidents between September 2004 and the end of August 2005, the most notorious of which was a controversial July 6 raid by MINUSTAH forces into Cite Soleil to apprehend Dread Wilme, a chimere leader, who was killed in the raid.
The operation, in which the groups claim more than 300 MINUSTAH soldiers and as many as 20 armored personnel carriers and a helicopter took part, resulted in the deaths of as many as 63 people, according to community activists cited by Seth Donnelly, who was leading a U.S. labor delegation to Port-au-Prince at the time.
He also quoted staff at a nearby hospital run by Doctors Without Borders as saying they had treated 26 people injured during the raid, 20 of whom were women and children. In an interview after the raid, MINUSTAH commander Lt. Gen Augusto Heleno Riberio Pereira denied that any civilians had been shot by his troops.
In August, according to the petitions, the PNH carried out a series of four massacres with the help of civilian "attaches" armed with PNH machetes in various Port-au-Prince districts.
The worst of these took place Aug. 20 when the police interrupted a USAID-funded soccer match, ordered several thousand spectators to lie down and then summarily executed an undetermined number identified by informers as "bandits." In each case, according to the petitioners, MINUSTAH troops in the area failed to intervene.
For its part, the director of the UN operation in Haiti, former Chilean foreign minister Gabriel Valdes, has acknowledged receiving reports of executions allegedly carried out by PNH personnel, as well as complaints against MINUSTAH itself. He has said inquiries have been initiated in each case, but no findings have been published to date.
While the current petitions are directed solely against Brazil and the U.S., Donnelly said the groups would soon file petitions against the PNH, as well.
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