PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- By quietly ordering an investigation into the killing of thousands of Haitians during the past three years, the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has opened one of the most sensitive issues it will ever face.
Father Aristide constantly repeats his new mantra -- "reconciliation" -- to soothe his enemies, but he also has promised his supporters justice for state crimes committed during his years of exile. Human rights groups estimate that Haitian soldiers and their paramilitary allies killed 3,000 people.
In December, Father Aristide named sociologist Francoise Boucard to head a new commission to investigate the crimes.
The commission is partly modeled on efforts to document the crimes of authoritarian regimes in El Salvador, Brazil and Chile. It would have no authority to prosecute.
"Reconciliation cannot become reality unless at least the truth is known about all the crimes committed between Sept. 30, 1991, and Oct. 15, 1994," said a draft document on the commission's mandate.
The draft also specified that the commission will act "inside and outside [Haiti]," a provision that could allow for investigating the killing of Haitians in Miami or foreign-based support for Haiti's military.
According to Haitians who worked on plans for the commission, it will have six months to prepare its report. The justice minister can grant three more months.
Some of the seven commission members are expected to be foreigners with experience in truth commissions, but only Ms. Boucard has been named so far.
In other countries emerging from military rule, truth commissions have been set up because the courts remained biased in favor of the armies. By officially recognizing state crimes, at least, civilian governments hope to prevent the crimes from being repeated.
"I think honestly we don't have the conditions for justice," said Evans Paul, the mayor of Port-au-Prince, who spent most of the past three years in hiding.
"We have to create now a truth commission [instead] of relying on the judicial system, since we don't have the capacity to guarantee true justice."
Haitians have been clamoring for justice since Father Aristide's return, and the president has answered them on several occasions by suggesting that they sue their attackers instead of waiting for the government to prosecute.
Father Aristide began to discuss plans for a truth commission a ** year ago. He met several times with Ed Broadbent, who heads the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Canada, and a group of specialists on the issue.
Father Aristide knows that identifying those responsible for state crimes would probably amount to making personal attacks on his most ruthless enemies. He is well aware that in Argentina, for example, talk of prosecuting soldiers who killed civilians during the so-called dirty war of the 1970s and early 1980s led to army rebellions that shook the new civilian government of then President Raul Ricardo Alfonsin.
"They're still very nervous about this whole topic of the truth, of investigations, of where they may lead . . . and at the same time promoting reconciliation," said Bill O'Neill, a human rights lawyer who specializes in Haiti and wrote a paper containing suggestions for a Haitian truth commission.
Commission head Ms. Boucard, the wife of Health Minister Jean Moliere and a newcomer among Haitian human rights specialists, said she was not yet able to discuss the commission because she is too busy planning it.
Although Father Aristide signed a decree creating the truth commission on Dec. 20, the decree has not been published in the government's official register. No documents describing the commission's mandate have been made public.
According to a Haitian who worked on a draft of such a document, it does not settle the question of whether the commission's report will identify people it believes are responsible for the crimes.
But Mr. Broadbent said in an interview: "If the truth is to be revealed, then the names of those responsible must be named. To have a commission that tells Haitians that terrible crimes took place, without naming the people [responsible], is to tell them what they already know."
Most Haitians working on plans for the commission concur, including Carl Auguste, the Aristide aide who has been most heavily involved. But they have not said so publicly, apparently to avoid provoking people who might eventually be named.
Some Haitians fear that if the commission publishes names, the public may take the list as an incitement to seek revenge, and others worry that the investigators may err, slandering the innocent.