Investigations into former Haitian President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier will resume after Haiti’s Court of Appeals ruled that the alleged crimes against humanity did not fall under the statute of limitations. On February 20, 2014, the Court of Appeals reversed a January 2012 decision that found the statute of limitations had expired, which effectively stalled efforts to hold Duvalier accountable in Haitian courts for crimes committed during his presidency from 1971–1986.
Duvalier is accused of serious international crimes such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape. As a result of these accusations, Duvalier may be held responsible under international law for crimes against humanity as well as those human rights abuses the Haitian army and paramilitary committed during his presidency. Responding to the Court’s questioning in 2013, Duvalier denied responsibility for political crimes, asserting that “[i]ndividual government officials ‘had their own authority.’” However, the three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals found “significant evidence of . . . criminal responsibility” in the former President’s failure to “take the necessary measures to prevent or punish the alleged crimes.”
Following the Court of Appeals decision, the court appointed an appellate judge who, in accordance with Haiti’s civil law legal system, will lead the investigation and obtain testimony from victims and witnesses who were unable to testify during the previous hearings. However, victims and witnesses are not only difficult to locate, but are often reluctant to testify out of fear. Evidence gathered during the judicial investigation, including the testimony of survivors, will be presented to a panel to decide whether the case should go to trial. Duvalier’s lawyers appealed the Court of Appeals decision, calling the panel of judges “untrustworthy” and arguing that Haiti “doesn’t have a law recognizing crimes against humanity.”
The Haitian government is obligated to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of serious human rights abuses under both the American Convention on Human Rights and customary international law. Haiti ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) in 1977 and therefore is subject to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has reiterated that the “obligation that arises pursuant to international law to try, and, if found guilty, to punish perpetrators of . . . crimes against humanity, is derived from the duty of protection embodied in Article 1(1) of the American Convention. Moreover, under customary international law, states are obligated to investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators of acts constituting serious human rights abuses or, in circumstances where the judiciary is unable to do so, extradite the perpetrator to a country with jurisdiction to do so. Article 276-2 of the Haitian Constitution further stipulates that all Haitian-ratified international treaties and agreements take priority over domestic legislation and thus reaffirms Haiti’s obligation to either try or extradite Duvalier. As such, the Court has taken a huge step forward in upholding its human rights obligations—charging Duvalier for the grave crimes committed over a span of fifteen years.