January 24, 2011
It is bad enough that, by delaying reconstruction aid to Haiti, the United States has failed to give adequate assistance to our neighbor, which was struck by a devastating earthquake one year ago. It is far worse that we have also actively cooperated in its deeply flawed election. Our government helped impose an election process upon the Haitian people that gave rise to foreseeable human rights violations, and is therefore complicit in the resulting harm. Having helped fund and organize the elections, the United States should support a fair and inclusive do-over, if only to rectify its wrong.
Three fatal flaws in the electoral process were known well in advance of the fraudulent Nov. 28 elections. First, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, the organization tasked with supervising the elections, was hopelessly compromised by conflict of interest. President Rene Preval, who championed his “hand-picked successor” Jude Celestin during the elections, had also hand-selected the nine members of the council. Second, the council banned the participation of 15 political parties—including Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular party in the country—without offering a valid reason. Third, it was obvious the government would fail to provide all internally displaced people with identification necessary to vote. This much was already clear when the United States enthusiastically invested at least $14 million into the election process.
By cooperating in an enterprise that guaranteed exclusion, the United States implicated itself in the violation of Haitians’ human right to fair elections. This infringement was the root cause of the uproar that followed. Human decisions—not nature—led to the predictable injuries and deaths. The United States had a moral obligation to demand the implementation of inclusive and democratic policies in exchange for its decisive support. It did not do so.
For months before the elections, the State Department stalled and equivocated in the face of prominent objections and appeals. Forty-five members of Congress signed an urgent letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for her to address the three flaws. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, criticized the Provisional Electoral Council’s exclusions and warned of potential chaos. Paul Farmer, U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti, expressed his concern that “all Haitian people and parties be allowed to participate.”
More than two dozen nongovernmental organizations and church groups with intimate knowledge of Haitian politics and society sent Clinton a letter with detailed prescriptions to mitigate the disaster. As a group of over 120 returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in the neighboring Dominican Republic, my colleagues and I also petitioned her. The State Department studiously ignored such pleas.
On Nov. 7, President Barack Obama eloquently denounced the sham elections that occurred in Burma, which suffered from similar failings. In contrast, Obama made no appeal to resolve the Haitian electoral defects despite the moral responsibility arising from having funded an election that would predictably trigger political crisis and violence. The United States failed to use its uniquely influential position as the elections’ largest financier.
The media, with few exceptions, followed Obama’s lead. They missed the intrinsic defects of the election preparations and were therefore shocked by the ensuing catastrophe. While clearly documenting widespread ballot stuffing, outdated voter lists, and other irregularities, the media hardly mentioned the elections’ structural fraudulence: the exclusion of both voters and parties. Most reporting has focused on the maneuverings of three preapproved candidates as they dispute minuscule percentages of the votes of less than one quarter of Haiti’s eligible voters. This attention falsely suggests that recounts and runoff rounds can somehow produce a legitimate president.
Further invalidating the process, the United Nations threatened to withhold resources if the elections are not accepted. It also inveigled two front-runners into withdrawing their principled calls to annul the elections. Despite this, over half of the candidates still demand annulment.
Our failure to refrain from causing foreseeable harm obligates us to undertake remedial efforts. The United States, along with the other underwriters of the elections, should finance a do-over that includes all political parties and voters, headed by a new, credible Provisional Electoral Council. While $30 million for new elections may seem costly, this price tag amounts to less than two weeks of the U.N. security force’s proposed budget for 2011. Furthermore, the Haitian government must have a democratic mandate to manage issues like public health and the investment of billions of dollars of aid.
Only new, fair elections can lead to a just outcome. Let’s insist that our government take responsibility for its moral failure and offer logistical and financial support to carry out inclusive elections in Haiti.
Keane Bhatt served in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008 to 2010. He helped organize the returned Peace Corps volunteers’ petition to Hillary Clinton. Please add your name to the thousands demanding that the U.S. support inclusive elections in Haiti at http://bit.ly/fairelection.