DESPITE A SIZABLE U.N. peacekeeping force and much attention from international donors during the last year, Haiti has inched much closer to chaos than to a functioning democracy.
Its dysfunctional government cannot provide for the basic needs of its people, and its thuggish security force, severely weakened by the thug-o-war that sent President Jean Bertrand-Aristide packing in February 2004, has been unable to establish peace and security.
Criminal activity has reached alarming proportions in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with kidnappings emerging as a growth industry. And strong-armed responses to political opposition, including shootings into demonstrations and bloody sweeps of shantytowns, have further isolated Haiti's interim government nationally and internationally.
It's neither wise nor practical for the United States to ignore Haiti's problems and hope that elections scheduled for the end of the year will act as a magic wand and make the turmoil disappear. The sores will continue to fester until they burst again, sending everyone scrambling for cover and requiring yet another landing of the Marines.
The U.S. response to Haiti's woes must be bold and ambitious, starting with setting aside the formulaic embrace of elections as a panacea for political legitimacy. Elections should be postponed. What Haiti needs most is justice. The failure of its government to deliver respect for human rights and the rule of law overshadows any other sign of progress. The continued imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune - who continues a solitary fast to protest 12 months of detention without charges - may stand as one of the most egregious examples of such failure.
Mr. Neptune is accused of ordering a massacre in the town of Saint Marc days before Mr. Aristide left the country. Townspeople claim that 50 people were killed under his orders, but the independent U.N. expert on human rights in Haiti, Louis Joinet, concluded recently that "there was no massacre."
Had Mr. Neptune fled the country once his government fell into rebel hands, he would not have been in the predicament that he is in today. The new government promptly issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the Saint Marc event, and he willingly turned himself in to the authorities in June 2004. By law, the investigative magistrate had less than two days to decide whether formal charges were warranted. But more than a year has passed and the judge has barely begun her investigation. She questioned Mr. Neptune a few days ago for about four hours but has not formally charged him with a crime.
The government has not provided the magistrate with the means to conduct such a high-profile investigation. Further, the magistrate, who resides in Port-au-Prince and not Saint Marc, barely attends to the duties of her jurisdiction.
Mr. Neptune has sought a change of venue from Saint Marc to the nation's capital, but Haiti's highest court denied his appeal because he reportedly failed to provide the requisite fee, about $10.
The lack of action by Haitian authorities on this case because of inertia, incompetence, omission or ill will amounts to a travesty of justice.
Meantime, the situation in Haiti rapidly deteriorates as government and anti-government forces clash repeatedly in the capital, causing between them more than 500 deaths since October. Haitians are besieged by a wave of violent crimes and kidnappings that neither the government nor the U.N. peacekeepers seem able to stop. There has been little enthusiasm for elections.
Corrupt judges plague the judiciary. Numerous criminals are released after bribe payments, without judicial procedure. Yet hundreds of citizens identified as members of Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Party have been detained for months without charge or trial.
The main task is to establish the rule of law, including finding a just solution for the more than 1,000 detainees being held without charge.The United Nations should ensure that a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program is implemented without delay as a necessary step for the protection of the people. A positive step has been the creation of the National Commission on Disarmament, whose framework was adopted by presidential decree.
Haiti is a vibrant country cursed by its own political elites and repeated foreign interventions. The establishment of civil justice is a condition for peace in the country, which continues to be ravaged by almost daily acts of violence. The immediate and urgent release of Mr. Neptune is critical not only to save his life but as part of a basic process for restoring justice and respectability to that punished country.
Jocelyn McCalla is executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York. CM-isar Chelala writes about human rights issues.