Jean-Claude ‘Baby-Doc’ Duvalier 1975 CC Image Courtesy of a-birdie on Flickr

During the 1970s and 1980s Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc” ruled Haiti with repressive tactics that included forced disappearances, torture, and detention. In 1986, after being overthrown by a popular rebellion, Duvalier fled Haiti along with an alleged $300 to $800 million USD embezzled during his Presidency. After nearly twenty-five years in exile and with no stated reason, Duvalier returned to Haiti on January 16, 2011. Upon his return, the government of Haiti reopened cases against him involving financial misconduct and human rights abuses. Many saw this as an opportunity to prosecute Haiti’s most notorious dictator, but Haitian Judge Carves Jean dismissed the claims of grave human rights violations, saying that the statute of limitations on his crimes had run. In doing so, Judge Carves Jean ignored international law governing the application of the statute of limitations in alleged crimes against humanity by granting impunity to Duvalier, thereby denying his thousands of victims a chance at justice.

“Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded his father, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s brutal regime in 1971.  As “President for Life,” “Baby Doc” Duvalier assumed the role of head of state and commander-in-chief of Haitian security forces. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Duvalier “commanded the network of military and paramilitary organizations that committed a wide range of serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, ‘disappearances,’ and extra-judicial executions.” Additionally, his government held hundreds of political prisoners in prisons dubbed “the triangle of death” due to their infamous inhumane conditions and numerous prisoner deaths.

Despite the many years of documented evidence of abuse under Duvalier, investigative Judge Carves Jean rec­om­mended that Duva­lier only face charges for a misappropriation of gov­ern­ment funds; a crime that, under Haitian law, carries a max­i­mum penalty of five years in prison. According to Judge Carves Jean, the statute of limitations had run on the alleged human rights abuses and thus Duvalier could not be prosecuted. The com­plainants, along with international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, said they would appeal the deci­sion not to prosecute Duvalier for the crimes they suffered. Duvalier’s lawyer, Rey­nald Georges, reported that he would appeal the corrup­tion charges.

Under Section 466 of the Haitian Code of Criminal Procedure (available here in French), the statute of limitations for criminal charges is 10 years, which, according to Mr. Georges, would make Duvalier’s crime non-prosecutable.  However, this requirement does not necessarily apply to elevated and internationally regulated crimes such as torture or crimes against humanity, as Haiti is a party to the American Convention on Human Rights and has accepted as binding the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. The Inter-American Court has upheld Article 1 of the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, which provides that “[n]o statutory limitation shall apply to [crimes against humanity], irrespective of the date of their commission.”  While Haiti has not ratified that treaty itself, the Inter-American Court has further held that States under its jurisdiction must nonetheless comply with this imperative of the law, as “the non-applicability of statutes of limitations to crimes against humanity is a norm of General International Law (ius cogens), which is not created by said Convention, but is acknowledged by it.”

Moreover, the forced disappearances characteristic of the Duvalier regime are considered by international law standards legally “unfinished” crimes, as the fate of victims of forced disappearances is as yet unknown. Any statute of limitations that could run will not start until their fate is uncovered and the crimes are deemed “finished.” Until the fate is known, the obligation to investigate a disappearance persists. Human Rights groups, as well as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have condemned the decision not to prosecute Duvalier for human rights abuses, and argue that Haiti is shirking its recognized obligations. Rupert Colville of OHCHR urged the authorities to bring justice to the victims of the Duvalier regime’s human rights abuses, concluding “there can be no true reconciliation and forgiveness without justice.”