OAS Observers' Arrival Renews Hope in Haiti Group Will Visit Countryside to Document Human Rights Abuses

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CARNIVAL in Haiti is normally a time of festive abandon. This year Haitians seem to be celebrating the arrival of Lent with renewed vigor, hopeful that the deployment of a joint Organization of American States (OAS) and United Nations (UN) civilian mission will end their 17-month-old crisis.

Maneuvering their way through throngs of Carnival goers, an initial group of 40 OAS observers entered Haiti Sunday, under an agreement brokered by UN Special Envoy Dante Caputo.

While the ultimate goal of the mission is to secure a safe return for Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the mission has also been mandated to help reform the French-based judiciary system.

Sixteen OAS observers have been in Haiti since September, but orders from the de facto prime minister, Marc Bazin, have prohibited them from leaving the capital. Members of the newly arrived mission plan to leave Port-au-Prince quickly and travel around the countryside to document human rights violations.

The Haitian armed forces, responsible for the September 1991 coup that forced President Aristide into exile, has accepted the arrival of the mission, though some question their sincerity.

"The Army has the tools to undermine the mission," says Rene Theodore, head of the Haitian Communist Party. One year ago, Mr. Theodore was selected as prime minister in a negotiated settlement between Mr. Aristide and the de facto government, but the accord was dissolved shortly after being signed. Instilling new hope

"There are plenty of armed `attaches' {Army-employed civilians} who, for small amounts of money, will continue the repression," Theodore explains. "In spite of this, we hope the presence of the observers will neutralize the repressive authority and instill new hope in the Haitian people for return to democratic rule."

According to a recently published report by Americas Watch and the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, "the suppression of civil society has become the principal goal of the Haitian Army since the September 1991 coup.... Since hostility to military dictatorship is widespread among Haitians, the Army views virtually any popular association as a potential conduit for organized oppression. As a result, all independent gatherings are considered suspect, and any sign of public protest or dissent is swiftly repressed."

Some analysts suspect that the Army and government have been pressured into accepting the mission under threat by the US government. …