Why Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, Haiti’s “president for life” from 1971 to 1986, decided to return to his native land a year ago is a mystery. Exiled dictators are not supposed to go back home, lest they expose themselves to charges of human rights violations and/or corruption. With some 30,000 people killed or “disappeared” during his 15-year rule, and $300 million to $800 million (U.S.) in estimated embezzled funds, one would think this would be of some concern to Duvalier.

One interpretation is that he wanted to show the Swiss authorities he would face no such charges, to access $6.7 million in a blocked bank account. Another was that he was keen on relaunching his political career. Though quickly put under house arrest by the government of president René Préval, he has been flaunting his presence around the country, while his lawyer, Reynolds Georges, has been proclaiming that he may well run for president. One of Duvalier’s recent appearances was at the commencement ceremony at the Law School of a university in Gonaives — the equivalent of Robert Mugabe giving the keynote address at a Freedom of the Press Day event.

The recent decision by Judge Carves Jean that Duvalier should face trial on corruption charges is thus welcome. Haiti, for long seen as a unique case in the Americas — the place of the first successful slave rebellion, the first black republic, a French and Creole-speaking nation surrounded by Spanish and English-speaking lands, a country where normal rules do not apply — is aligning itself with the rest of the world in terms of bringing heads of state to justice.

Until the 1980s this was considered taboo. Yet, as Ellen Lutz and Caitlin Reiger in their fine book Prosecuting Heads of State show, from 1990 to 2008, 67 heads of state or government from 43 countries were charged or indicted for various crimes, of which 32 were from Latin America. This signals a shift in established norms. It is no longer acceptable for dictators to fly off to their golden exile (much as Duvalier did in a U.S. air force jet in 1986) to a tropical island or to Southern France.

And as Kathryn Sikkink points out in her recent book, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics, the standard excuse for not prosecuting heads of state (and former dictators in particular), that is, that it is a divisive action that would destabilize newly emerging democracies, does not hold. Far from destabilizing new democracies, prosecuting the former dictators has a positive effect, strengthening governmental institutions and the rule of law. That has been the case, over time, in countries as diverse as Argentina, Chile, Serbia and South Korea. This should not be surprising.

It is odd that some of the most vocal proponents of the rule of law should also be the greatest supporters of having the living embodiment of ultimate impunity, that is, the former dictator, walk around freely in the nation’s capital, flaunting his ostensible immunity from the rules that apply to everybody else. The message this sends to potential lawbreakers and criminals should be apparent.

It seems strange the judge has only found that Duvalier should stand trial on corruption charges and not for human rights violations. Yet this is a first step in the right direction. More disturbing are the mixed signals sent by Haitian President Michel Martelly. He was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that the Duvalier case “is part of our past. We need to learn our lessons and move forward,” something widely interpreted as hinting at a potential presidential pardon, though he later backed off.

Two years after the tragic earthquake, Haiti has made some progress, though much remains to be done. It has an elected president, a dynamic prime minister, Garry Conille, considerable international goodwill, and an economy that is picking up. The last thing it needs right now is a resurfacing of Duvalierism, something that would be made possible if the government of President Martelly decides to go easy on Baby Doc. The time to end the truism that Haiti is the land of impunity has come.

Jorge Heine holds the CIGI Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University. His book, with Andrew Thompson, Fixing Haiti: MINUSTAH and Beyond, is published by United Nations University Press.

The last thing (Haiti) needs right now is a resurfacing of Duvalierism, something that would be made possible if the government of President Martelly decides to go easy on Baby Doc.
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