Haiti is telling us: Shut up or put up on human rights

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The real problem for Bill Clinton and his Haiti policy is not his indecisiveness but his conscience.

He has one.


If he had no conscience, he'd simply ignore Haiti.

But there is a brutal military regime near our shores that has ousted a democratically elected leader and is carrying out a policy of murder and torture against its people.


The State Department said Wednesday that human rights abuses by Haiti's military government have risen dramatically and include politically motivated rapes and the murder of children.

And, to his credit, Bill Clinton wants to do something about it.

So far, he has used economic sanctions to try to force the military regime from power.

But it is the average Haitian, already incredibly poor, who has been hurt most by these. The well-off in Haiti remain well-off. Gasoline, which is supposed to be embargoed, is so plentiful that the price has been going down. (I spoke a few days ago to a photographer who just got back from Port-au-Prince. She told me the rich had filled their swimming pools with gasoline.)

The repression of the military regime and the sanctions of the United States have caused more poor Haitians to flee.

In the last month, the Coast Guard has stopped 20,350 Haitians at sea, and the numbers are on the rise.

Many people in Florida, which is where the Haitians would like to go, do not want them. While Cubans are welcomed with open arms, Haitians are not.

But those who think the United States can simply continue economic sanctions and bide its time, may be forgetting that the Haitian regime can strike back by doing what Fidel Castro did with the Mariel boat lift.


In 1980, Fidel Castro opened up Cuba's prisons and mental hospitals and dumped 125,000 refugees on the United States.

When some rioted at a relocation center in Fort Chaffee, Ark., then-Gov. Bill Clinton was blamed for mishandling the situation and was defeated for re-election.

So President Clinton may be a little sensitive to refugee influxes.

So far, Clinton has been hampered by contending forces within his own administration: State does not agree with Defense, which does not agree with the National Security Council, which does not agree with the White House staff, etc., etc.

The talk of military intervention has increased for one simple reason: If one really cares about human rights, as opposed to merely talking about human rights, no other option may remain.

Our sanctions are squeezing the wrong people. And, as immigration expert and former congressman Bruce Morrison told the other day, "Sanctions don't drive people from office. We have sanctions against Iraq, and Saddam Hussein is still there."


Morrison, a Democrat, believes Clinton's heart is in the right place when it comes to Haiti.

"Clinton's 'new world order' instincts are correct," Morrison said. "We don't want to stand by and watch a slaughter. There is a terrible tragedy going on in Haiti."

Ideally, Morrison said, there would be an international human rights police force that could intervene in places like Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. "To put it simply, somebody has to willing to die for human rights," Morrison said.

But since no such force exists and since the Organization of American States, which is supposed to play that role in the Americas, cannot come to grips with military intervention, that leaves the United States.

"The president has to make up his mind to do what he has to Morrison said. "He has competing considerations: humanitarian concerns vs. his concern over the use of military force. But the worst thing for us to do now is, having started all of this, to put our tail between our legs."

Why? I asked.


"Because if we can't handle Haiti, we just can't handle [anything]," Morrison said. "President Clinton should go before the American people and explain what he is going to do and say this is why American boys are going to die."

Again, why?

"Because ultimately our own security depends on not allowing our neighborhood to be run by thugs with no respect for human life," Morrison said. "If we believe there is such a thing as an international standard of human rights, we have to have some way of enforcing it."