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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State
for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Press Briefing, U.S. Embassy
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 9, 2000

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As Prepared

I am deeply grateful to Ambassador Alexander and his superb U.S. embassy staff for their extraordinary hospitality during my 3-day visit to Haiti. I last visited Haiti 7 years ago, during the height of the violence and human rights abuse. At the time, I was a Yale University Law School Professor representing Haitian refugees, visiting Haiti as part of a private mission to assess the appalling human rights situation here. During my visit to Port-au-Prince these last few days this time, I have met with many diverse elements of Haitian Government and civil society -- human rights groups, lawyers, political leaders, and government officials in the human rights and justice sectors-as well as with members of the international community dedicated to promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. As I have visited these old and new friends, I have been struck both by how far Haiti has traveled down the path of democracy and respect for human rights, and by how far it has yet to go.

When I last visited in January 1993, there was widespread violence and fear, and the military regime was using the armed forces and paramilitaries to torture and murder opposition figures. Although significant human rights problems continue in Haiti, important steps have now been taken toward building democratic institutions and fostering civil society. The armed forces have been disbanded, and a new national police force has been created. A lively press has emerged. Next month, the UN will begin the International Civilian Support Mission in Haiti (MICAH) to provide civilian expertise to assist judicial reform, police training, and the building of human rights institutions. Some 29,000 candidates, as well as hundreds of thousands of voters, have now registered for upcoming elections in March and April that will be critical to restore a parliament that was dissolved more than a year ago. The U.S. Government is providing some $20 million to help Haitians achieve the goal of free, fair, timely, and peaceful elections, with the aim of maintaining a level playing field among all participants and empowering a more responsive government.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that Haiti's basic democratic and security institutions remain extremely fragile. Courageous human rights groups still operate in a climate of threats and insecurity. The court and prison systems sorely lack adequate physical, financial, and personnel resources. The justice system has not yet resolved numerous, visible cases of official human rights abuse -- including the Raboteau and Carrefour cases. Earlier this morning, I visited the Haitian National Penitentiary and witnessed disturbingly poor prison conditions. I also met several prisoners who have been detained without trial for extended periods without legal representation, charges, and in some cases, despite legal release orders. In my meetings, I have asked my Haitian Government counterparts to release these prisoners immediately, as their continued illegal detention cannot be reconciled with a genuine commitment to the rule of law.

This picture is discouraging. But the Haitian Government officials with whom I have spoken uniformly expressed genuine commitment to democratic change. No one that I have spoken to here in Haiti--whether from the Haitian or international communities--wants to return to the era of dictatorship and governmentally sponsored human rights abuse.

As my own country knows from hard experience, democratization is a long and complex struggle. Legitimate democratic institutions can only result from free, fair, and peaceful democratic elections in which all citizens can participate on an equal basis. Moreover, true democracy means far more than just holding elections. It requires an environment of personal security: security for people to pursue their professions, to move about freely, and to explore new ideas. Democracy also means the building of real institutions of justice and law, and the full flowering of civil society - the broad array of political parties, independent labor unions, independent media, non-governmental organizations and women's groups that encourage political and social participation. These choices cannot be imposed from the outside. As my boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recently noted, "[D]emocracy must emerge from the desire of individuals to participate in the decisions that shape their lives .... Unlike dictatorship, democracy is never an imposition; it is always a choice."

I know that many Haitians are tired from their long struggle for human rights and democracy and find it hard to maintain their optimism. But democracy has much to offer. For those who use their wealth to create employment for others, democracy gives the security for them to do so. For those that are emerging into the middle class, democracy offers them the opportunity to expand their horizons. And for those who are seeking to advance their social and economic position, democracy -- true democracy -- provides the education, health care, and infrastructure that allows them to move forward. As Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, my job is to travel around the world to places with human rights crises. In recent months, I have been in Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, three places where people have suffered unthinkable tragedy, hardship, and human rights abuse. Yet what has struck me talking to ordinary people in these places is how optimistic they remain, how indomitable and strong in enduring hardship and keeping hope alive. During the remarkable decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has changed dramatically. The number of democracies worldwide has grown from 30 countries in 1974 to 119 today. This is a genuinely global revolution, of which Haiti must be a part. The U.S. Government remains deeply committed to supporting and enhancing the cause of human rights and democracy in Haiti, as a core value of our own foreign policy.

Thank you. [end of document]

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