Haiti's Inconvenient Truth

Was a U.N. diplomat pushed out of his position for airing Port-au-Prince's dirty laundry in public?

When a major earthquake clobbered Haiti in January 2010, a shift in how international officials talked about solving the country's ills was already under way. Starting with then-U.N. special envoy, Bill Clinton, the word "aid" had fallen from use, in favor of the new buzzword in international development: "investment." The term was sexier, more optimistic, and promised something not only for recipients but also givers with diminishing economic and political confidence: a return.

After the catastrophe, investment fever was everywhere, expressing itself in hundreds of millions of dollars poured into efforts to scale up Haiti's moribund export sector, particularly in low-wage textile factories, tourism, and niche-crop agriculture, such as mangoes. Another directly related trend was the investment of money and political capital in a new president, Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a former pop musician whose core governing principle -- expressed, in English, at his inaugural address -- was to create "a new Haiti open for business, now." Anything that threatened those investments, and the further investments they were meant to attract, could expect a cold reception.

That's the greeting that awaited Michel Forst, the visiting U.N. independent expert on human rights in Haiti, when he returned to Port-au-Prince last November. His ensuing report was an ice bath in reply. Forst alleged police torture and pervasive judicial corruption, deteriorating security, crackdowns on press freedom, and a general inadequacy on the part of Haiti's leaders -- including Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe -- to uphold the rule of law. He invoked the recent cases of Serge Démosthène, a groundskeeper allegedly tortured to death by police trying to elicit a confession in the killing of a major Haitian banker; and Calixte Valentin, a Martelly adviser arrested on murder charges but freed months later by a "judge believed to have been appointed solely for the purpose." Forst even took a swipe at the United Nations for failing to "throw light on the causes of the outbreak of the cholera epidemic" its peacekeepers are suspected to have caused. (Evidence suggests U.N. soldiers introduced the disease, previously unknown in Haiti, by contaminating a major river with their sewage. With more than 8,000 dead, the U.N. has refused to apologize, and recently rejected a petition for redress.) "I cannot hide from you my concern and my disappointment in the face of how the situation has developed in the fields of the state of law and human rights," Forst explained, as he presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last month.

The report was Forst's last as the U.N.'s expert on human rights in Haiti. Upon finishing his presentation, the French official announced that despite being eligible for an additional, sixth year on his term, he was resigning immediately "for personal reasons." As if to underscore the improbability of that explanation, the council's president, Remigiusz Henczel, thanked Forst for his work, "Regardless of the reasons for your resignation."

To Haitians who had been following the story, it seemed clear that Forst hadn't jumped on his own. "Michel Forst is very attached ... to the rule of law and fight against impunity while we have a government that acts arbitrarily and encourages impunity and corruption. " Haitian human-rights campaigner Pierre Espérance told the newspaper Haiti Progrès.

Private interviews with officials familiar with Forst's departure, granted on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, confirmed this view: that a breakdown in relations with President Martelly, exacerbated by impatience inside a U.S. State Department invested in the Haitian administration's credibility, resulted in his dismissal. At first, those sources said, the Caribbean nation's president simply wanted the human-rights council to deny the pro-forma yearly renewal of the independent expert's mandate entirely. Eventually, pressured by allies who wanted to see the position maintained, Martelly relented -- under the condition that someone other than Forst take over the position. "They felt Forst never really helped them at all. He'd just come pontificate," one diplomat explained.

Forst's critics blasted him for arrogance. But the departing official -- who remains the voluntary chairman of the committee coordinating all U.N. special rapporteurs worldwide, and whose day job is secretary-general of the French government's national human-rights council -- wasn't finished. In a parting op-ed reprinted in Haitian newspapers and made available to foreign journalists, he poked his opponents where it hurt, rejecting the notion that Martelly's Haiti is "open for business" at all. Noting that economic development is linked to the rule of law and stability to human rights, he hoped for a Haiti where "human rights proclamations will finally become real." (In late 2012, Forst had been even more blunt, telling a press conference: "Haiti is not ready at this time for the return of large companies.")

The irony is that many of the same concerns Forst expressed are shared by many in the governments and organizations whose money and influence hold sway over Haiti's leaders -- including the United States -- and even by Martelly himself. Forst praised many of the government's efforts, including the dismissal of 79 police officers in November 2012, including chief inspectors, found guilty of crimes ranging from rape and drug trafficking to falsifying credentials. Aware of international concerns, Haiti's president and prime minister -- who both embarked in the middle of l'affaire Forst on investment -- seeking tours of the Caribbean and West Africa -- have affirmed they are in a "war against corruption." But Forst seems to have broken an unwritten rule against criticizing the government's efforts in public.

Haiti has long suffered from an often-unfairly negative image abroad. Its current government knows that in order to attract serious investment, that image has to change, and has been aggressive about pushing back against negative publicity -- no matter the source. Regardless of whether any specific initiatives were threatened by Forst's condemnations, it seems clear that his tone was no longer welcome. (The Haitian government did not respond to a request for public comment.)

Specifics may become clearer over time. Forst's departure recalls the late-2010 dismissal of another outspoken diplomat -- Organization of American States permanent representative Ricardo Seitenfus, who saw his contract expire after he criticized the heavy hand of the international community, particularly U.N. peacekeepers, in Haiti. In retrospect it seems clearer that Seitenfus was causing problems by airing public grievances at a moment when the OAS and other major players were embroiled in a debate over how and whether to intervene in a shambolic postquake presidential election. Following his dismissal, the OAS presented a highly controversial report alleging fraud in Haiti's vote count that would have benefited the then-ruling party of President René Préval. That report, backed strongly by the Obama administration, upended the electoral tally, and paved Martelly's path to the presidency.

Then, as now, it's not that the international community was reticent to make its opinions felt in Haiti -- even those far more condemnatory than Forst's ultimately toothless reports. But when investments are on the line, it's usually advantageous to keep embarrassing facts far from view. As one Western diplomat told me, "We find it's better to beat them up in private than in public."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Jailed in Damascus

Two years after President Bashar al-Assad's regime had me arrested, there seems to be no end in sight to the bloodshed in Syria.

My time in Syria was short but decidedly varied: one week as a tourist, 10 days as a student, and two weeks as an inmate. As the Syrian conflict continues to unfold, my brush with the regime's paranoia was just one of the first instances of what evolved into an extremely bloody crackdown.

I was arrested on March 18, 2011, the first Friday of what was then termed the Syrian "revolution," after stumbling upon a protest in old Damascus. Just a student at the time, I was suspected of being a journalist, spy, or other unwelcome ilk. I was charged vaguely with "breaking Syrian law" and spent the next two weeks crammed in a basement prison run by the infamous secret police.

This week marked the second anniversary of my release. Since then, the Syria I so fleetingly knew has, for better or worse, unraveled.

The pre-revolution police state in Syria was stifling. No one publicly talked politics, communication networks were monitored, and the consequences of dissent made opposition practically unthinkable. I distinctly remember one college-aged friend refusing to even mention the then fledgling Arab Spring until we were in my apartment, and he had convinced himself that we had not been followed. I thought he was overreacting.

After being swept up by plain-clothed police, I realized why the authorities were so feared. My three interrogations consisted of a strip search, blindfolds, accusations of stoking unrest, and vows to "deal with [me] with violence." At one point, my interrogators even paraded me in front of a state TV camera in an apparent attempt to show that "foreign hands" were behind the protests. Between questioning sessions, I was locked away.

I spent the first week in a three-by-seven-foot cell with one other man. That was followed by another week in a 12-by-12 foot bathroom alongside more than 20 others, some of whom had been living there for more than a year. My companions included weapons dealers and counterfeiters, but also a mentally handicapped soldier and innocent bystanders. Most everyone was beaten, electrocuted, or otherwise abused regularly. Fortunately, I avoided this fate, but was threatened with and forced to listen to torture for days on end.

The regime's tools of repression have become drastically more ruthless throughout the past two years. They now routinely include rape, kidnapping, cluster bombs, missiles, attack helicopters, and more. An estimated 70,000 people have already lost their lives, and the violence is only getting worse: March was the bloodiest month yet of the Syrian uprising. The flow of refugees has also gone from a trickle to a torrent, with the total recently climbing above one million. What began as a struggle for dignity has devolved into a messy civil war with no end in sight.

Syria's cultural heritage is being destroyed as well. The covered market (souq) in Aleppo, with its labyrinth of shops, colors and smells, was the largest of its kind in the world and a favorite stop during my short-lived Syrian travels. In September, the souq burned to the ground when clashes between government soldiers and rebels sparked a fire that ripped through the wooden stalls like kindling. Hundreds of years of history gone in an instant.

Even Damascus has not been immune from the conflict. Bombs have exploded near my old apartment in the Mezzeh district, and also in Bab Touma, the predominantly Christian quarter of the old city where I used to go for the occasional beer and where, lore has it, Saint Paul once lived. The 2,000-year-old synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar -- which stands as a reminder of the country's once-thriving Jewish minority, which has now all but disappeared -- has reportedly been damaged and looted as well.

The surest sign, however, that the battle for Syria is creeping closer to seat of power came last week when mortar fire hit a Damascus University cafeteria, killing at least 10. During my brief time as a student, I studied Arabic in the university's non-descript set of classrooms and courtyards. The flagship institution of the Syrian education system was not a particularly inviting house of learning, but by breaching the relative calm within its walls, the uprising has taken a symbolic step closer to the heart of the regime.

Until the attack, Damascus University stood as a symbol of the regime's strength in the capital. Alumni include President Bashar al-Assad, his sister, and other high-ranking members of the government. Current students have been subjected to censorship and dorm raids, in a largely successful attempt to keep rebellion at bay. Assad has even used the campus as the venue for a number of his fervent speeches aimed at discrediting the opposition and drumming up support for the regime.

Irrespective of how the shells landed in the university -- a topic of much debate -- the attack is surely a blow to the regime's confidence. It represents a loosening of its grip on a city it has controlled with an iron fist for decades.

The jail in which I was held has likely seen thousands of Syrians go through its doors over the last two years, with many fewer coming back out. Yet revolutionaries continue to fight on. The fear barrier was broken long ago, and there is no going back.

While few will miss the regime, what comes next is far from certain. The fractured network of freedom fighters is underequipped, inexperienced, and vulnerable to extremism. The infighting within the political opposition, which the United States has recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people, has also raised concern.

Observing from afar, my predictions are bound to be futile. Moreover, the Syrian experience has diverged dramatically from the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Libya, making it difficult to use those events as guideposts. That said, whatever or whoever replaces Assad will be new -- an intimidating prospect, but one that should not preclude progress. But if the magnitude of a conflict is any indication of the path to recovery, Syria has a long and difficult road ahead.

Regardless, tomorrow's Syria will undoubtedly be different than yesterday's, and I look forward to visiting again soon.