When a major earthquake clobbered Haiti in January 2010, a shift in how international officials talked about solving the country’s ills was already under way. Starting with then-U.N. special envoy, Bill Clinton, the word “aid” had fallen from use, in favor of the new buzzword in international development: “investment.” The term was sexier, more optimistic and promised something not only for recipients but also givers with diminishing economic and political confidence: a return.
After the catastrophe, investment fever was everywhere, expressing itself in hundreds of millions of dollars poured into efforts to scale up Haiti’s moribund export sector, particularly in low-wage textile factories, tourism and niche-crop agriculture, such as mangoes. Another directly related trend was the investment of money and political capital in a new president, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a former pop musician whose core governing principle — expressed, in English, at his inaugural address — was to create “a new Haiti open for business, now.” Anything that threatened those investments, and the further investments they were meant to attract, could expect a cold reception.
That’s the greeting that awaited Michel Forst, the visiting U.N. independent expert on human rights in Haiti, when he returned to Port-au-Prince last November. His ensuing report was an ice bath in reply. Forst alleged police torture and pervasive judicial corruption, deteriorating security, crackdowns on press freedom and a general inadequacy on the part of Haiti’s leaders — including Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe — to uphold the rule of law. He invoked the recent cases of Serge Demosthene, a groundskeeper allegedly tortured to death by police trying to elicit a confession in the killing of a major Haitian banker; and Calixte Valentin, a Martelly adviser arrested on murder charges but freed months later by a “judge believed to have been appointed solely for the purpose.” Forst even took a swipe at the United Nations for failing to “throw light on the causes of the outbreak of the cholera epidemic” its peacekeepers are suspected to have caused. (Evidence suggests U.N. soldiers introduced the disease, previously unknown in Haiti, by contaminating a major river with their sewage. With more than 8,000 dead, the U.N. has refused to apologize, and recently rejected a petition for redress.) “I cannot hide from you my concern and my disappointment in the face of how the situation has developed in the fields of the state of law and human rights,” Forst explained, as he presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last month.
The report was Forst’s last as the U.N.’s expert on human rights in Haiti. Upon finishing his presentation, the French official announced that despite being eligible for an additional, sixth year on his term, he was resigning immediately “for personal reasons.” As if to underscore the improbability of that explanation, the council’s president, Remigiusz Henczel, thanked Forst for his work, “Regardless of the reasons for your resignation.”
To Haitians who had been following the story, it seemed clear that Forst hadn’t jumped on his own. “Michel Forst is very attached . . . to the rule of law and fight against impunity while we have a government that acts arbitrarily and encourages impunity and corruption. ” Haitian human-rights campaigner Pierre Esperance told the newspaper Haiti Progress.
Private interviews with officials familiar with Forst’s departure, granted on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, confirmed this view: that a breakdown in relations with President Martelly, exacerbated by impatience inside a U.S. State Department invested in the Haitian administration’s credibility, resulted in his dismissal. At first, those sources said, the Caribbean nation’s president simply wanted the human-rights council to deny the pro-forma yearly renewal of the independent expert’s mandate entirely. Eventually, pressured by allies who wanted to see the position maintained, Martelly relented — under the condition that someone other than Forst take over the position. “They felt Forst never really helped them at all. He’d just come to pontificate,” one diplomat explained.
Forst’s critics blasted him for arrogance. But the departing official — who remains the voluntary chairman of the committee coordinating all U.N. special rapporteurs worldwide, and whose day job is secretary-general of the French government’s national human-rights council — wasn’t finished. In a parting op-ed reprinted in Haitian newspapers and made available to foreign journalists, he poked his opponents where it hurt, rejecting the notion that Martelly’s Haiti is “open for business” at all. Noting that economic development is linked to the rule of law and stability to human rights, he hoped for a Haiti where “human rights proclamations will finally become real.” (In late 2012, Forst had been even more blunt, telling a press conference: “Haiti is not ready at this time for the return of large companies.”)
The irony is that many of the same concerns Forst expressed are shared by many in the governments and organizations whose money and influence hold sway over Haiti’s leaders — including the United States — and even by Martelly himself. Forst praised many of the government’s efforts, including the dismissal of 79 police officers in November 2012, including chief inspectors, found guilty of crimes ranging from rape and drug trafficking to falsifying credentials. Aware of international concerns, Haiti’s president and prime minister — who both embarked in the middle of l’affaire Forst on investment — seeking tours of the Caribbean and West Africa — have affirmed they are in a “war against corruption.” But Forst seems to have broken an unwritten rule against criticizing the government’s efforts in public.
Haiti has long suffered from an often-unfairly negative image abroad. Its current government knows that to attract serious investment, that image has to change, and has been aggressive about pushing back against negative publicity — no matter the source. Regardless of whether any specific initiatives were threatened by Forst’s condemnations, it seems clear that his tone was no longer welcome. (The Haitian government did not respond to a request for public comment.)
Specifics may become clearer over time. Forst’s departure recalls the late-2010 dismissal of another outspoken diplomat — Organization of American States permanent representative Ricardo Seitenfus, who saw his contract expire after he criticized the heavy hand of the international community, particularly U.N. peacekeepers, in Haiti. In retrospect it seems clearer that Seitenfus was causing problems by airing public grievances at a moment when the OAS and other major players were embroiled in a debate over how and whether to intervene in a shambolic postquake presidential election. Following his dismissal, the OAS presented a highly controversial report alleging fraud in Haiti’s vote count that would have benefited the then-ruling party of President Rene Preval. That report, backed strongly by the Obama administration, upended the electoral tally, and paved Martelly’s path to the presidency.
Then, as now, it’s not that the international community was reticent to make its opinions felt in Haiti — even those far more condemnatory than Forst’s ultimately toothless reports. But when investments are on the line, it’s usually advantageous to keep embarrassing facts far from view. As one Western diplomat told me, “We find it’s better to beat them up in private than in public.”
Jonathan M. Katz is the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011.