[Ira Kurzban was counsel for the government of Haiti between 1991 until 2004 and was counsel of record in HRC v. Baker and over 10 other class action lawsuits involving Haitian refugees in the United States. Mr. Kurzban continues to serve as personal counsel for Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president.]
On September 30, 1991, the Haitian military, with the help of the Haitian elite, overthrew the democratically elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. President Aristide had won Haiti’s first free, fair and open election by 67% of the vote in a field of 17 candidates.
The violence of September 30, 1991 and its aftermath are well known. Estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 military and paramilitary executions within the first 48 hours of the coup, many in front of the National Palace where supporters of Haitian democracy went to protest the overthrow of their President. Beyond the immediate executions were tens of thousands more over the next several years by DIA/CIA sponsored paramilitary organizations such as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH). Many of this is documented in trials such as the Raboteau trial where human rights violators were tried in a court of law and brought to justice for the first time in Haitian history.
A second coup, again with the funds and organization of the elite, but also the support of the United States, French, and Canadian governments, occurred on February 29, 2004 during the second democratically-elected term of Jean Bertrand Aristide. By the second coup, the Haitian army had been demobilized. One might call this coup, documented in detail in such works as Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment and Sprague, Paramilitarism and the Assault of Democracy in Haiti, as a slow-motion performance where a military wing went from town to town executing police and supporters of democracy while the elites simultaneously financially supported such executions while proclaimed their rights were being violated. The U.S., French and Canadian government contributed at a minimum to the finance and support of gross disinformation campaigns, anti-democratic organizations, paramilitary groups and covert operations in the second coup.
The decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, a travesty of international and domestic law, and basic human decency, had a significant effect on how Haitian refugees fleeing these two coups were treated. Pre-Sale the U.S. government’s actions were hesitant, unsure, chaotic and erratic. Post-Sale they were ruthless.
In October, 1991, almost immediately after the coup, Haitians who supported democracy and supported President Aristide began fleeing Haiti in fear of their lives. By mid-October, Haitians were aboard vessels trying to get out of Haiti. By December there were more than 5,000 Haitians who had fled Haiti. At one point in the crisis there were more than 10,000 Haitians in the Guantanamo camps.
The initial response of the U.S post-September 30, 1991 was to decline to return Haitians to the imminent danger they faced. They were taken aboard Coast Guard cutters. The U.S. held them in the cutters and sought to obtain clearance for their trip to the U.S. or their return home. The U.S. had signed a 1981 interdiction treaty with Haiti that required our country to at least provide facial compliance with international law by granting “ asylum interviews” aboard Coast Guard cutters prior to forcibly returning refugees to Haiti. The numbers of Haitians on the cutters began to build up. Given the public executions in front of Haiti’s national palace the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. was too embarrassed pre –Sale to immediately return Haitians fleeing the country. By November hundreds of Haitians were simply sitting on the decks of cutters in the Caribbean. The numbers became too large and by November 18, 1991 the Bush Administration directed the Coast Guard to take the refugees back to Haiti and ignore our 1981 Accords.
The next day the Haitian Refugee Center filed an action for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Florida. They also filed an application for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the Coast Guard and the U.S. government from removing Haitians on the high seas from being returned. (more…)