Canada and political prisoners in Haiti: Open letter to NDP leader Jack Layton during the 2006 federal election

An appeal to Jack Layton, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, concerning political prisoners in Haiti, written on the eve of televised leaders debates in the 2006 federal election

Published on, December 15, 2005,

When Prime Minister Paul Martin was recently asked about the detention of hundreds of political prisoners in Haiti, he stated flatly: “There are no political prisoners in Haiti.”

Dear Jack,

On behalf of the 11 local groups that form the Canada Haiti Action Network, we submit this letter as a Special Appeal to you as NDP leader to use a few seconds of your time during the upcoming televised leaders debates to condemn the detention of hundreds of political prisoners in Haiti, and specifically to demand the immediate release of potential presidential candidate Father Gérard Jean-Juste.

We want to explain why we think this Special Appeal is such an urgent priority. As you know, the Government of Canada provided direct military and political support to the coup d'état that overthrew Haiti's elected government on February 29, 2004. Since that time, the repression unleashed by the unelected but Canada-backed Interim Government of Haiti has resulted in uncounted thousands killed, politically targeted police attacks on poor neighbourhoods, and hundreds of political prisoners being detained without charge. Amnesty International issued a report indicating that Haiti remains mired in a terrible human rights crisis:

Politically motivated arbitrary detentions, ill treatment, extrajudicial executions, deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, rape, death threats and intimidation are routine and are perpetrated with impunity[1].

In particular, Amnesty International[2]has declared Catholic priest and potential presidential candidate Father Gérard Jean-Juste to be a “prisoner of conscience” — and has urged the Interim Government of Haiti to release him “immediately and unconditionally.”

The UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Haiti, Louis Joinet, has recently joined the growing chorus of condemnation of this detention. The Associated Press reported on November 29 that Joinet “condemned the jailing” of Father Jean-Juste and other allies of the former President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Another UN human rights official, Thierry Fagart, stated on October 14 that the human rights situation in Haiti was “catastrophic,” and that prison conditions were “appalling.” This is in a country where CIDA, the RCMP and Canadian officials are working directly within Haiti's interim Ministry of Justice, and training and supporting the Haitian National Police.

It is not only respected human rights groups and UN officials who are calling for Father Jean-Juste's release. On November 12, U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent an official statement[3]to the Canada Haiti Action Network in support of our call to “free the political prisoners, establish security, and organize free and fair elections in which all Haitians are able to participate.”

Just four days later, on November 16, a group of eight Irish Parliamentarians issued a statement[4]calling for “Father Gérard Jean-Juste and all political prisoners be released and enabled to participate in the elections.”

To date, not a single Canadian politician has joined these voices to call for the immediate release of Father Jean-Juste and the other political prisoners in Haiti.

In our view, the Interim Government of Haiti has been able to carry out grave human rights violations because they have received active and uncritical support from the governments of Canada, the United States and France — the three countries involved in the coup d'état last year.

When Prime Minister Martin was asked about the detention of hundreds of political prisoners in Haiti in November 2004, he stated flatly: “There are no political prisoners in Haiti.” While clearly inaccurate, this statement did communicate an important message from Canada to the Interim Government of Haiti: “You will be shielded from criticism by our government, and your political detentions policy and other human rights violations can continue with Canadian political and economic support.” Such is the depth of Paul Martin's concern for human rights.

We will say that many activists in the Canada Haiti Action Network recognize and appreciate that the statements and letters from Alexa McDonough, the NDP's foreign policy critic, have sharpened somewhat in recent months, and specifically note the reports of political detentions and the other human rights abuses carried out with Canadian backing (or official silence).

However, Paul Martin and the Liberals have been allowed to pursue their disastrous policy in Haiti without truly being held accountable. This is why we are urging you to use the opportunity of the upcoming December 15 and 16, and January 9 and 10 televised leaders debates to expose this Canadian complicity in human rights abuses. If you choose to do this, it will be the first time ever that a national television audience will hear that our government's policy in Haiti may not be the success that Paul Martin has claimed. If you choose not to raise this issue during the debates, we fear that Canadians will never know about their own government's role in this affair.

We recognize that you and your party may not entirely share our view that Canada's Haiti policy has been a complete disaster, and that the Government of Canada should withdraw Canadian support from the Interim Government of Haiti — the RCMP training of the rights-abusing Haitian police, the Elections Canada monitoring mission overseeing a deeply flawed election, and diplomatic recognition. We hope that with further dialogue about the gravity of the situation in Haiti, we may come to a common understanding of this larger picture.

However, in the short term, we feel that the NDP must join the voices condemning the detention of political prisoners in Haiti — and Father Jean-Juste's detention in particular — during this campaign.

We will be urging all anti-war activists and supporters of the burgeoning Haiti solidarity movement in this country to communicate with you and all NDP candidates in the election to convey the urgency and priority of this Special Appeal. As with the issue of Ballistic Missile Defense in the 2004 federal election, an increasing number of Canadians are looking to the NDP to challenge the dangerous integration of U.S. and Canadian foreign policy that has been accelerated by the Martin government and this integration is illustrated most clearly in the leadership role that Canada has taken in Haiti.

We look forward to your positive response to this urgent Special Appeal. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact representatives of the Canada Haiti Action Network. The names of the signatories to this letter and more information on this situation, and Canada's role, are available on the Canada Haiti Action Network website[5].

Note: Canada held a national election on January 23, 2006. There were four televised leaders' debates during that election campaign. The first two were held in Vancouver--in French on Thursday, December 15, followed the next day by the English debate. The final English-language debate was held on Monday, January 9, the French-language debate on January 10.

The four participants were Liberal leader and incumbent prime minister Paul Martin, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Jack Layton, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. None of the party leaders in any of those debates voiced the concerns expressed in this letter above.