The OAS and Human Rights in the Caribbean

By David J. Padilla and Elizabeth A. Houppert

Taken from “Democracy and Human Rights in the Caribbean” edited by I. Griffith and B. Sedoc-Dahlberg.

The Inter-American system, which dates back to the First International Con­ference of American States in 1890, was consolidated, strengthened, and recreated as the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948. There were twenty-one original member states of the OAS: the Spanish-speaking American states, Brazil, Haiti, and the United States. The decolonization of the Caribbean has led to the inclusion of almost all of the English-speaking islands, as well as Belize, Guyana, and Suriname. With the addition of Canada in 1990, there are now thirty-five member states of the OAS.1 Cuba is a member of unique standing, deemed to have "suspended itself" from the organization in 1962 for embracing principles contrary to the Charter.2

The purposes of the OAS are articulated in its Charter: to strengthen the peace and security of the continent; to promote and consolidate representa­tive democracy; to ensure the pacific settlement of disputes; to provide for common action in the event of aggression; to seek solutions to political, ju­ridical, and economic problems; to promote economic, social, and cultural development; and to limit conventional weapons in order to devote "the largest amount of resources" to economic and social development.3

During World War II, the American states had convened an Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace to examine the conflict and its consequences and to prepare for peace. The Inter-American Treaty of Recip­rocal Assistance, a mutual defense pact, was subsequently adopted in 1947. Until very recently the priorities of the OAS, and its activities in the hemi­sphere in general and in the Caribbean specifically, were viewed within the context of the Cold War. Nascent guerrilla movements were spawned in the early 1960s following Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba, and insurgent movements challenged the ruling elites in many areas of Latin America. The OAS both observed and participated in the struggle between the super­powers.

This chapter reviews the role of the OAS with respect to human rights in the Caribbean. The first section provides an introduction to the Inter-Amer-ican human rights system, its mandate, functions, and activities. The second section covers three specific cases that illustrate the various types and levels of OAS involvement in the Caribbean: Grenada, Suriname, and Haiti. A third section offers some concluding observations.

The Inter-American Human Rights System

The Inter-American system for the protection of human rights was initiated concurrently with the adoption of the Charter of the OAS in 1948 by the Ninth International Conference of American States. Elaborating upon the Charter-based duty of member states to respect, without discrimination, the fundamental rights of the individual, the 1948 Conference adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.4 The American De­claration, like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights adopted seven months later, recognizes a broad range of civil and political rights and free­doms. Significantly, the declaration acknowledges that the state does not confer rights upon individuals; rather, "the essential rights of man ... are based upon attributes of his human personality." In 1959 the ministers of foreign affairs of the member states established the Inter-American Commis­sion on Human Rights (IACHR), the initial inter-Amcrican mechanism to promote respect for the human rights as set forth in the American Declara­tion while the member states considered how a treaty-based system could be elaborated.5 This development was not realized until the 1969 adoption of the American Convention on Human Rights.6

The commission is composed of seven members who are elected to four-year terms by the OAS General Assembly from the panels of candidates pro­posed by member states. Whereas the European and African Human Rights Commissions were established as convention institutions, the Inter-Ameri­can Commission was created by resolution and evolved into its present func­tions and competence. The commission's initial statute, adopted in 1960, was tentative, enabling the commission to receive and study information concerning human rights and to make recommendations to the member states. In 1965 the statute was strengthened, and an individual petition sys­tem was articulated to institutionalize the commission's receipt of and re­sponse to complaints concerning human rights violations. This enhancement of the commission's competence was critical, as the individual petition pro­cedure remains a key component of the commission's oversight process. The evolution of the commission continued with its elevation to the status of a principal organ of the OAS through the adoption of amendments to the Charter in 1967. The amended Charter designated the IACHR "to pro­mote the observance and protection of human rights and to serve as a con­sultative organ of the Organization." The Charter amendments also antici­pated the adoption of an Inter-American convention on human rights, which upon entry into force would determine the structure, competence, and procedure of the commission. The American Convention on Human Rights was adopted in 1969 and entered into force in 1978 when Grenada became the eleventh member state to ratify it.7 This ratification played an important role in the inter-American human rights system, as the entry into force of the American Convention transformed the legal and institutional nature of the system. The commission now acts as a convention institution in relation to member states that have ratified the convention and as a Char­ter organ in relation to nonratifying member states.

The American Convention also established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as the systemic institution capable of exercising binding ju­ridical authority. The court is composed of seven judges, nominated and elected by convention parties to six-year terms. It is empowered to exercise its binding jurisdiction only at the request of the commission or a state party where all states concerned have ratified the convention and expressly ac­cepted the court's compulsory jurisdiction. It may exercise its advisory juris­diction at the request of a member state, the commission, or other qualified organs of the OAS. Additional instruments promulgated to complement the American Declaration and the American Convention are: the Inter-Ameri­can Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture (1985); the Additional Pro­tocol in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—"Protocol of San Salvador" (1988); the Protocol to Abolish the Death Penalty (1990);

the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons (1994); and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradi­cate Violence Against Women (1994).

The commission has three primary functions among its many activities:

processing individual cases; conducting on-site visits; and preparing and publishing special studies and reports. Any person or group may lodge a complaint alleging that a member state has violated a protected right. The rights protected are those of the convention in the case of ratifying states or those of the American Declaration in the case of nonratifying states. Inter­state petitions may be lodged only where all the states concerned have ac­cepted the commission's competence to consider such cases.

The processing of complaints by the commission only varies slightly de­pending on whether it is exercising its convention-based or declaration-based jurisdiction. According to the most basic requirements the claimant must: (1) provide basic facts that allege a violation by a member state of a protected right; (2) indicate that scope for legal redress in the state concerned has been exhausted, although this requirement is subject to im­portant exceptions; (3) present the petition in a timely manner; and (4) not have previously brought the complaint before another international body. Once an appropriately founded petition has been reviewed, the commission informs the government of the complaint and requests a response. Any reply is transmitted to the petitioner, who may in turn submit observations thereon. Should the government fail to respond, the commission may decide to presume the facts of the denunciation to be true.8 The commission may also conduct its own inquiry into the complaint by holding hearings or con­ducting an on-site investigation. If a petition indicates that a person's life or physical integrity is in danger, the commission may adopt special measures to respond to the urgency of the situation.

The commission approaches human rights issues in member states by at­tempting to work with the member state involved in seeking a resolution. Public censure or other measures perceived to be more "adversarial" are re­sorted to only when cooperation has been unsuccessful. Whenever possible the commission will offer to facilitate a friendly settlement between the par­ties to a case." If that is not possible, the commission will issue its conclu­sions and recommendations on the case and forward them to the govern­ment for action. Where a violation is found, the commission will generally recommend that the government investigate and determine responsibility for the breach and that it repair the breach, compensate the victim, and de­sist from further violations. Should the government fail to comply with the recommendations within the specified period of time, the commission will either publish the report, or, in the case of member states that have ratified the American Convention and accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, it may decide to bring the case before the court.

In cases in which the court determines that a violation of a protected right has occurred, the ruling will generally direct that the victim be ensured of the future enjoyment of the right concerned and that the consequences of the breach be remedied and the victim compensated. As of December 1994 the Court had issued thirteen advisory opinions, with one pending before it, and seven opinions in binding cases, with four then under consideration.

The commission is empowered to conduct on-site investigations of spe­cific cases, or, with the consent of the government concerned, it may carry out an on-site visit to assess the overall situation of human rights or a specific problem in a member state. The activities of a visit generally include meet­ings with government authorities, usually with key representatives of the branches of government and of the ministries with special responsibility re­lating to human rights. The delegation meets with representatives of various social sectors, community leaders, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. The delegation often splits into working groups to travel to different sites. The commission delegation also receives individual complaints during on-site visits. The commission's first on-site visit was under­taken in 1961 in the Dominican Republic. The commission's visit initiated an intensive involvement that resulted in additional visits in 1963, and again in 1965 and 1966. The visits varied in scope. The first was to investigate complaints of widespread violations; the second was initiated to investigate a particular case but was expanded to assess the overall situation; the third was a wide-ranging protective action taken at the request of rival factions during a period of civil strife.10

As noted earlier, the commission also pursues its mandate through the preparation and publication of reports and special studies. It publishes an an­nual report that includes: a summary of its activities; individual case reports;

updates on the situation of human rights in selected member states; thematic studies, including discussion of areas in which further action is required to advance respect for human rights in the hemisphere; and the commission's observations and recommendations in that respect. Thematic studies allow the commission to gather information, to explore new issues, or to compre­hend the dimensions of a problem of regional or hemispheric scope and ad­dress it comprehensively.

The commission also publishes special country reports on a regular basis, most often in conjunction with an on-site visit to the member state. This type of report includes: a review of recent activities of the commission in re­lation to the country; a contextual overview of the domestic legal frame­work; a detailed analysis of the situation of human rights in the member state in terms of compliance with the American Declaration or Convention; and observations and recommendations aimed at resolving specific issues and en­hancing respect for human rights. The special country report has proven to be a valuable tool because it contains a comprehensive examination of the human rights situation and provides a means to approach large-scale viola­tions of human rights not easily or adequately addressed by the individual case process.

Case Studies


Grenada became a member state of the OAS in 1975 when it ratified the Charter. Three years later it hosted the annual General Assembly of the OAS in its capital, St. George's. Despite its record in the area of human rights abuses, it was under the Eric M. Gairy regime that Grenada became the eleventh OAS member state to ratify the American Convention on Human Rights, thereby bringing the treaty into force. It was speculated by some that this action was intended to placate the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter and to make Grenada a more palatable site for the General Assembly. During the Assembly, Gairy's opposition mounted a political demonstration protesting the prime minister's heavy-handed political tactics, which included police brutality, laws aimed at controlling public demonstra­tions and meetings, confiscatory property laws, and political gerrymander­ing. Riot police were summoned, and they opened fire on the crowd, killing one person and wounding several others.11

Against the backdrop of the growing strength of the combined opposition to the Gairy regime (which had won six seats to the Grenada United Labor Party's [GULP] nine in the 1976 elections), the radical New Jewel Move­ment (NJM) led by Maurice Bishop ousted Gairy in a predawn coup d'etat on March 13,1979, while Gairy was out of the country.12 The OAS adopted a wait-and-see attitude. No special meeting of foreign ministers was con­vened and no condemnation was issued.

Bishop's takeover permitted the installation of the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG) and its own brand of repression. This included the con­fiscation of the Torchlight newspaper and the Catholic Focus, a church bul­letin. The first occurred on October 13, 1979, when army chief Hudson Austin, implementing orders of the PRG, closed the newspaper "in the in­terest of peace, order and national security." The Torchlight, which was owned by the Trinidad Express, brought its case before the IACHR. With respect to both publications, in its 1982/83 annual report the commission stated: "[IJn accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights, [it] has been acting as agent for peaceful solution in order to reach a solution [sic] to this case based on respect for human rights, taking into account that the parties in dispute have accepted its participation."13 In another case, re­ferred to in the same annual report, the commission noted: "In Grenada, Leslie Pierre, editor of the 'Voice,' has been under arrest without charges since 1981 because of the government's opposition."14

During the rule of the PRG, numerous persons were detained without due process of law, but very few formal complaints were brought to the at­tention of the commission. This may perhaps be explained in terms of Grenada's relatively new membership in the OAS, the absence of an orga­nized, effective, nongovernmental human rights organization on the island, and the unfamiliarity of the Grenadian people with the commission and its procedures. While in power the PRG abolished habeas corpus for political prisoners, suspended the country's constitution, and refused to call elec­tions.15 Another issue that faced the OAS while the PRG was in power was the exclusion of Grenada from the multilateral assistance provided by the United States through its Caribbean Basin Initiative. Grenada's ambassador to the OAS complained bitterly about this discrimination in the spring of 1983, and the point was underscored by Prime Minister Bishop himself in a subsequent protocolary speech to the Permanent Council.16 While the legal issue of differential treatment of potential beneficiaries of multilateral aid was still being debated in the OAS, events overtook the controversy.


Frictions within the NJM leadership led to the murder-massacre of Mau­rice Bishop and some of his supporters on October 19,1983, prompting the invasion by U.S. armed forces on October 25, in concert with forces by the governments of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).17 The OAS played no role in the invasion. In contrast to the United Nations (UN) Security Council, which condemned the U.S. invasion as a violation of international law by an 11-1 vote, the OAS Permanent Council split largely along regional lines. The member states of the OECS spoke strongly of their need to take preemptive defensive action and their request for U.S. military assistance. The majority of Latin American spokesmen, on the other hand, criticized the intervention in varying degrees. The debate ended without the adoption of a resolution.18

After the invasion, several additional individual petitions were presented to the commission alleging human rights violations by U.S. military forces and the new provisional government of Prime Minister Nicholas Brathwaite. The first petition alleged U.S. responsibility for mistakenly bombing a men­tal asylum and thereby killing more than twenty patients. The petition by Disabled Peoples International was apparently deemed by the commission to have been resolved when the U.S. government rebuilt the mental health fa­cility and compensated the relatives of the victims.19

The second case brought against the United States was presented on be­half of Bernard and Phyllis Coard and fifteen other NJM leaders charged in Bishop's death. Here the petitioners alleged violations of the defendants' due process rights, particularly their having been held incommunicado on U.S. naval vessels and interrogated without the presence of counsel. This case was declared admissible as a procedural matter in February 1994, and the IACHR will proceed to consider the matter on its merits.20 It may be noted that Bernard Coard and his codefendants were originally condemned to be hanged, but pursuant to a request from the IACHR, the death sen­tences were commuted to life imprisonment. This was done in line with the commission's long-established policy of objecting on humanitarian grounds to the imposition of capital punishment.21

The final case, which was still pending before the commission as of De­cember 1994, was brought against the new government of Grenada. The petition alleges that the Coards and the others charged with responsibility for the October 19 killings were subjected to physical mistreatment during incarceration and were detained in inhumane conditions.


Suriname, a crown colony of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for two cen­turies, gained its independence in 1975 and became a member of the OAS on June 8, 1977.22 By 1980 the people of Suriname were sufficiently weary of the real or perceived corruption in the government that they largely


welcomed the coup d'etat led by Sergeant Desi Bouterse and a group of fel­low noncommissioned officers who were angry about their low salaries. Within two years, however, the "revolution" turned ugly. For example, on the night of December 7, 1982, fifteen ofSuriname's most prominent lead­ers were arrested at their homes, taken to army headquarters at Fort Zee-landia, and executed.

For peaceful Suriname, the event was traumatic. Internationally, indigna­tion was translated into sanctions from which Suriname is still trying to re­cover. First, the Netherlands ended development assistance of some $100 million, part of the separation agreement from the mother country.23 The United States also suspended its $1 million of annual development aid. Mul­tilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Develop­ment Bank also ceased assistance.

In June 1983 the IACHR conducted the first of several on-site human rights observations in Suriname. During that visit Lieutenant Colonel Bouterse (he had promoted himself) defended the deaths of the fifteen as necessary to protect the revolution. In its report issued in October of that year the commission cited the military government for violations of the right to life, physical integrity (specifically including torture), and personal liberty. The commission found the government responsible for the denial of due process and for restrictions on the freedoms of press and assembly as well as for the dictatorship's violation of the political rights of the citizens of Suriname to elect their own government.24 The investigation also in­volved the taking of testimony from some of the widows and relatives of the executed men, from their location in exile in Amsterdam and Leiden, Holland.

The commission made another on-site visit in 1984, during which it, inter alia, visited political prisoners and insisted that the murderers of 1982 be brought to account. Lieutenant Colonel Bouterse reiterated his insistence that the murders were the result of "revolutionary necessity." The commis­sion's more comprehensive second report, published in 1985, further docu­mented large-scale human rights violations as the dictatorship sought to consolidate its hold on power.25

By 1986 Suriname's political and human rights situation had become even more complicated. On the one hand, a slow process had been set into mo­tion to adopt a new constitution, an undertaking that would lead to elec­tions and the restoration of formal democracy in 1987. In an effort to im­prove its human rights image, Suriname ratified the American Convention on Human Rights and accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in late 1986.26 On the other hand, some ofSuriname's Maroon population began rebelling against the military au­thorities in mid-1986. Faced with increasingly harsh conditions in the inte­rior and violations of their treaty rights, a small number of Maroons under the leadership of Ronnie Brunswijk, a former Bouterse bodyguard, formed a guerrilla organization called the Jungle Commando.27

Forays by the Jungle Commando were met by broad and merciless repres­sion against the Maroon population in general, culminating in a massacre at a Djuka village called Moiwana in the fall of that year. The IACHR (among other governmental and nongovernmental human rights organizations) re­ported that over 200 persons, including women and children, had been slain in cold blood.28 One result of the slaughter was the formation ofSuriname's first nongovernmental human rights organization, under the leadership of educator and Djuka tribesman Stanley Rensch. Rensch's organization, among other things, presented denunciations to the IACHR in connection with numerous wrongful deaths. One was the murder of seven Maroon boatmen in Atjoni, in south-central Suriname, a case that became known as Aloeboetoe et al. v Suriname.19 The second was the death of a returning Suri­namese immigrant, who had allegedly hanged himself while being held in in­communicado detention by the military police in 1987. This case became known as Gangaram Panday v Suriname.30

Both cases were processed by the commission, which in due course found the government of Suriname responsible for the violation of the right to life of the various victims. Both cases were then taken by the commission to the Inter-American Court for litigation. In the matter of Aloeboetoe, the govern­ment eventually accepted responsibility and was ordered to pay an indemnity of $453,000 to the boatmen's next of kin.31 In Panday, the court held that there had been an illegal detention but that there was insufficient proof to conclude that the victim had been tortured or murdered. Suriname was or­dered to pay $10,000 to the victim's widow.

The commission conducted further visits to the country in 1987 and 1988, and Suriname continued to be subject to commission reporting into the early 1990s.32 Progress toward true democracy stumbled in December 1990 when Bouterse's allies in the armed forces staged another coup d'etat. However, prompt and intense international pressure forced the holding of elections several months later. OAS actions included the observation of na­tional elections by expert observers in 1991, the negotiation of the peaceful return from French Guyana of thousands of Maroons and Amerindian refugees who had fled Suriname during the civil war of 1986-1987, and the eventual disarmament and demobilization of the Jungle Commando and several Maroon and Amerindian surrogate forces that had been sponsored by the army. The secretary-general's representatives also cooperated with the Surinamese government in the defusing and removal of mines. In addition, they provided technical assistance in civil education and worked on projects to strengthen democratic institutions.33 The OAS continues to maintain a reduced presence in Suriname to monitor compliance with the peace accords.

This account is at best a thumbnail sketch of the events of the 1980 Suriname and of the constructive role played by the OAS through three its organs—the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter American Court of Human Rights, and the General Secretariat. Each these OAS bodies made crucial contributions in the factual reporting of developments in Suriname to the political organs of the OAS—the Permanent Council, the Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers, and the General Assembly. They also served to pressure the parties to reduce human rights violations, to free political prisoners, to negotiate truces, and to reach and implement peace and disarmament accords. In some exemplary cases, the commission was able, through the Inter-American Court, to obtain more damages for human rights victims. Similarly, the OAS played a critical role in inducing the various actors in Suriname to adopt a constitution (and later  to effect key amendments) and to hold free and fair elections. Though Suriname faces many difficulties, civil processes have been set into motion,democracy has been restored, and the country has an opportunity to address the social and economic challenges that confront it.


The case of Haiti illustrates dramatically the essential linkage between a functioning system of representative democratic governance and the mainte­nance of the conditions necessary to guarantee respect for human rights. The tragic history of Haiti, with its cycles of escalating violence and repres­sion and deteriorating human rights, has warranted numerous crisis inter­ventions by the IACHR and the political organs of the OAS. Haiti holds the dubious distinction of being the subject of nine special reports (with two fol­low-up reports) by the commission—the most on a single member state.

The successive regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude were characterized by the practice of severe, widespread human rights violations coupled with the extension of impunity to the perpetrators. It was hoped that the triumphant inauguration of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, on February 7, 1991, would mark the end of abusive authoritarian rule. Instead, the September 30, 1991, overthrow of the Aristide government threw Haiti back into a regime of political repression and persecution and into a new cycle of grave human rights abuses.

The IACHR began responding to complaints of human rights violations in Haiti almost as soon as it became operational. Prompted by the gravity of the complaints, in the fall of'1962 and again in the spring of 1963, the com­mission requested the consent of the Haitian government to conduct an on-site visit to assess the situation. The government ignored the first request and adamantly refused the second, arguing that such requests

constituted in­terference in the internal affairs of the republic.

The political organs of the OAS followed with particular concern the ten­sions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic after the inauguration of Dominican President Juan Bosch in 1963. The Duvalierists were then carry­ing out a particularly vicious spasm of terror in Haiti. A few months after Bosch's inauguration, Duvalierist police took over the Dominican embassy in Port-au-Prince and also invaded the grounds of the Dominican ambas­sador's residence. Bosch appealed to the OAS, which approved the dispatch of a delegation to Haiti to investigate. The delegation returned almost im­mediately, however, having been clearly rebuffed.34 Duvalier was not swayed by OAS pressure; his assumption of the presidency for life was itself in viola­tion of the OAS Charter provisions concerning representative democracy.

In 1967 the commission published a report on the situation of Haitian citizens repatriated by Dominican authorities during the spring of 1966.3S Denunciations received by the commission reported that some of these citi­zens had been executed in the Haitian border area of Tilori. In 1968 the commission published the report, "Haiti and the Right of Political Asylum," which set forth the commission's findings and analyzed the likely conse­quences of the government's denunciation of international conventions on the right of asylum.36

Despite the government's continued refusal to consent to an on-site visit, the commission issued a comprehensive special report on the situation of human rights in Haiti in 1969. The report notes the 1963 suspension by de­cree of a number of constitutional guarantees, which enabled the govern­ment to deprive specified citizens of their Haitian nationality and to confis­cate their goods and property.37 The report contains the pertinent parts of complaints received throughout the mid-1960s concerning arbitrary and in­communicado detention, torture, and the massacres of scores of people at a time, including entire families, committed by the military, by the Tonton Macoutes, and by others under government order.

In 1977, under the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. In response to a government invi­tation, the commission conducted an on-site visit to Haiti the following year and reported its findings.38 Though the commission noted some improve­ment in the human rights situation during the initial years of the regime, the government was found to be responsible for numerous violations of the right to life and physical integrity. The almost permanent "state of siege" had eliminated any separation of powers and had restricted legal guarantees. Many people were subject to detention without procedural guarantees and without access to counsel. The right of political participation and the enjoy­ment of economic, social, and cultural rights were determined to be virtually nonexistent. The commission recommended specific measures, such as the repeal of several laws to bring domestic legislation into line with the Ameri­can Convention, and other actions to remedy the violations identified. The commission also called upon international organizations to provide aid to improve socioeconomic conditions.

In early 1986, just weeks before he went into exile, Jean-Claude Duvalier had invited the commission to conduct another on-site visit. That visit was aborted, but in July of that year Haiti's National Governing Council issued a new invitation, and the on-site visit was held from January 20 through 23, 1987. The commission perceived advances in the freedoms of expression and association, but it criticized the status of the right to personal liberty and of due process and noted that detainees were held in deplorable conditions.

Prompted by the tragic outcome of election day, November 29, 1987, in March 1988 the commission requested, and was granted, consent to con­duct another on-site visit. General Henri Namphy's assumption of power on June 20, 1988, prompted the Permanent Council of the OAS to meet on June 29. The Permanent Council reaffirmed the Charter principles of re­spect for representative democracy and human rights and requested the commission to examine and report to the next General Assembly on the sit­uation of human rights in Haiti. The commission delegation carried out the on-site visit in Haiti from August 29 through September 2,1988, and issued a special report later that year.39 The commission's report particularly em­phasized the urgent need to establish a timetable for free and fair elections to be held to establish a democratic civilian government. In light of the tragic disruption of the 1987 elections and the population's doubt that the mili­tary would turn over power to a popularly elected civilian government, the commission recommended that international election observers be utilized to supervise the electoral process.

After General Prosper Avril's assumption of power in September 1988, the Permanent Council of the OAS requested that the commission conduct another on-site visit to Haiti and continue "giving priority attention to the human rights situation in Haiti." It also recommended that the OAS secre­tary-general dispatch a mission of election observers (if so requested) to the upcoming election.40 While the commission was attempting to set the terms for the visit, General Avril was replaced as the head of government by Presi­dent Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, who consented to an on-site visit that took place from April 17 through 20, 1990. As a result of the visit, the commis­sion submitted a special report to the 1990 OAS General Assembly meeting in Paraguay that emphasized as critical the establishment of the security nec­essary for the people to express their political will in the forthcoming elec­tion. As an initial step, this would require the establishment of respect for basic human rights—personal freedom, free expression, assembly, and associ­ation. It would also require that those accused of committing grave human rights violations be brought to trial. Citizens had reported a complete lack of effort to investigate or punish those responsible for violations—sustaining a climate of fear that would be likely to disrupt the next election.

The OAS and Human Rights in the Caribbean                     43

The commission emphasized the critical importance of professionalizing the police and army, of separating the two forces, and of subordinating both to civilian control. The delegation also recommended that the disarming and disbanding of paramilitary groups and armed militias be made a priority. Further, the commission noted that the system of Section Chiefs (persons appointed by the armed forces to maintain security in rural areas) was a major cause of the climate of fear. The commission emphasized that only under the appropriate conditions of respect for human rights could Haiti se­cure democratization. In light of the commission's report, and with particu­lar concern that the next election be held in conditions of security for the voters, the General Assembly approved a resolution entitled "Support for the Democratic Process in the Republic of Haiti."41

While election preparations proceeded, the commission received informa­tion that the human rights situation was deteriorating further. The commis­sion dispatched a small delegation to investigate from September 10 through 14, 1990, and the full commission visited Haiti from November 14 through 16, 1990. In its 1990/91 annual report, the commission published an update on the situation in Haiti and noted with encouragement that the election had been conducted successfully and peacefully, as validated by OAS and UN electoral observers.42

The ouster of constitutionally elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by the military both challenged and frustrated the OAS, initiating a period of intensive action on the part of the political organs of the OAS and the com­mission. The Permanent Council of the OAS met in emergency session im­mediately after the coup. It condemned the violent interruption of the con­stitutional exercise of power in Haiti and demanded the restoration of the democratically elected president.43 On October 1, 1991, the commission is­sued a press release expressing grave concern over the events comprising the coup, which constituted violations of political rights and other fundamental rights and freedoms. In an emergency meeting the following day the minis­ters of foreign affairs of the OAS drafted and adopted a resolution designed to embargo and diplomatically isolate the illegal regime.44 The ministers called upon the IACHR "to take all measures within its competence to pro­tect and defend human rights in Haiti." During the suspension of the consti­tutional government, the commission conducted three on-site visits to Haiti and issued three special reports to the General Assembly of the OAS.

During its October 1991 period of sessions the commission consulted with President Aristide, the secretary-general of the OAS, and the represen­tative of the Haitian mission to the OAS and subsequently dispatched a spe­cial delegation to Haiti in December 1991 to gather information, identify specific problems, and assess prospects for the commission to continue its work there. The delegation reported to the Permanent Council that the grave institutional crisis, extreme poverty, political polarization, widespread violence, and the lack of a democratic tradition had created a highly volatile and dangerous situation.

In February 1992 the OAS sponsored the meetings that led to the Wash­ington Accords, which were later abandoned as impossible to implement. The subsequently adopted Florida Declaration requested the assistance of the international community in finding a political solution and specifically requested that the OAS send a civilian mission to Haiti. The OAS dispatched a delegation to Haiti from August 18 through 20, 1992, as a means of re­opening negotiations and as the first step toward initiating an OAS civilian mission. This led to negotiations in Washington between the envoys of Pres­ident Aristide and Marc Bazin, which resulted in the authorization of an eighteen-member civilian mission to be sent to Haiti to contribute to a re­duction of the violence, encourage respect for human rights, help to assess progress toward a political settlement, and assist in the distribution of hu­manitarian aid. The OAS civilian mission began its work in September 1992. After only three months, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the mis­sion that there was no legal basis for their presence and that it could not guarantee their safety. The OAS and the UN nevertheless continued efforts to strengthen and expand the civilian mission. In February 1993 an en­hanced joint mission was established with the principal mandate of ensuring respect for human rights in order to cultivate conditions for the restoration of democracy.45

After the ouster of President Aristide, the commission repeatedly re­quested the consent of the de facto government to carry out an on-site visit. The de facto government responded that as it had already consented to the presence of an OAS civilian mission, which was assessing the human rights situation, a commission visit was not necessary. In spite of this lack of coop­eration, the commission nevertheless prepared a special report on the human rights situation in Haiti in 1992, by relying on complaints received from vic­tims of violations and information from human rights groups operating in­side and outside of Haiti.

The commission again met with President Aristide during its March 1993 regular period of sessions and at his behest requested consent to conduct an­other on-site visit. After a period of nonresponsiveness from the de facto regime, the visit was permitted and carried out from August 23 through 27, 1993. The commission delegation met with political leaders and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with members of the OAS/UN civilian mission, and with representatives of various nongovernmental organizations and social sectors. Commission working groups traveled from Port-au-Prince to the Central Plateau and Arbonite regions. In the course of the visit, the commission received many complaints of violations of the rights to life, liberty, and security, and of the rights to freedom of expression and as­sembly. The commission verified that the extant climate of fear and repression was prompting the large-scale internal displacement of persons fleeing their homes and living in hiding. Many persons seeking to provide informa­tion to the commission insisted on clandestine meetings, fearing reprisals by the military authorities.

The commission issued press releases on September 24 and October 15, 1993,46 expressing deep concern over killings and other violent acts perpe­trated by neo-Tonton Macoutes paramilitary groups against Aristide sup­porters. The releases specifically noted the assassinations of well-known Aris­tide supporters Antoine Izmery and Minister of Justice Guy Malary. Also cited were reports of violent demonstrations organized by the Haitian Front for Advancement and Progress (FRAPH) and other paramilitary groups, car­ried out with the support of police, in which citizens were threatened and terrorized and diplomatic personnel and journalists were threatened and harassed.

In the face of the worsening situation of human rights in Haiti, the com­mission made another on-site visit to the country from May 16 through 20, 1994. The delegation confirmed a marked deterioration in the human rights situation since its August 1993 visit and pointed to "an increase in the num­ber and brutality of human rights violations by the Army, FRAPH, and other paramilitary groups working in tandem with the military (attaches) in the country's interior."47 The commission reported on numerous extrajudicial executions, disappearances, kidnappings, and torture and described the prac­tice of mutilating bodies for the purpose of terrorizing the population. The commission also drew special attention to the use of rape as an instrument of terror against the wives and female relatives of supporters of the democratic regime. The overall human rights picture in Haiti was "one of very serious deterioration in the most elementary human rights ... all part of a plan to intimidate and terrorize a defenseless people."48

The commission has also taken special action to meet human rights conse­quences outside of Haiti generated by the crisis, most critically with respect to the plight of Haitian refugees. A case has been opened against the United States, based on the claim that the forcible return by authorities of "Haitian boat people" intercepted on the high seas, without any screening of asylum claims, is a violation of the American Declaration. On March 12, 1993, the commission issued precautionary measures in the case, calling upon the United States to halt its practice of repatriation without asylum screening and to ensure that Haitians in the United States are not returned without such screening.

Large numbers of Haitians fled to the Bahamas as well, creating a poten­tial flash point: The Bahamian government lacked sufficient resources to deal with the influx, and the situation generated considerable social tension. The commission received information that there were between 40,000 and 50,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants in the Bahamas—equivalent to almost 20 percent of the Bahamian population.49 The commission carried out an on-site observation in the Bahamas in May 1994 to assess the situation ' more fully. On the one hand, the delegation expressed concern as to whether Haitians were being accorded adequate due process in the determination of their refugee status in the Bahamas and whether those being detained were held in adequate conditions. On the other hand, it recognized the contribu­tion of the Bahamas in hosting a large proportion of Haitians fleeing violence and repression in their home country and in extending to them access to basic social services. The commission noted with dismay that while the interna­tional community had vociferously condemned the situation in Haiti, virtually no state had been willing to accept fleeing Haitians, and it called upon the in­ternational community to provide support to the government of the Bahamas in its efforts. The commission reiterated that the solution to the situation of Haitian refugees was linked to the restoration of democracy in Haiti, a task in which "all the states of the hemisphere must share responsibility."50

The commission visited Haiti again from October 24 through 27, 1994. The delegation met with President Aristide and expressed its "profound sat­isfaction with the restoration of the democratic regime" as well as its interest in collaborating with his administration in addressing the human rights chal­lenges that lie ahead. Among the issues identified by the commission as pressing are: the disarming of the paramilitary groups; the establishment of a legitimate police force and an effective judiciary; a review of prison condi­tions and the status of those incarcerated; and "an accounting of exactly what happened during the military dictatorship and, in particular, a detailed review of the human rights violations suffered by the Haitian people.'"'1 These are just some of the prerequisites for establishing a civil society based on respect for the rule of law.


Decolonization in the Caribbean region occurred largely in the context of declared acceptance of parliamentary democracy and respect for democratic institutions and ideals—with respect for civil and political rights expressed as the counterpart of this political-institutional framework. The reality of the relationship between the governors and the governed in the region has his­torically been far more complex, and the commitment to democratic practice and respect for the individual has been subject to notable exceptions. The cases presented here, for example, arose in the context of a breakdown in constitutional protections and a concomitant rise in human rights abuses.

In Haiti as well as in Grenada, Suriname, and the rest of the Caribbean, respect for human rights has been and continues to be inextricably linked with the pursuit of participatory representative government. In the post-Cold War era, the regional consensus on the validity of democratic po­litical systems and the common interest in free market economic reform pro­vide a new basis for hemispheric cooperation.52 "The Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System," adopted by the OAS General Assembly in 1991, explicitly recognizes that the current political and economic climate presents a new opportunity for cooperative ; regional action to advance the basic purposes of the OAS.53 The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as the OAS's principal human rights I mechanism, has played and will continue to play an important role in confronting the failings in democratic practice and in strengthening democratic institutions in order to enhance the respect for and observance of human rights in the hemisphere.

The case studies demonstrate some of the lesser-known but very impor­tant work of the commission and the OAS. For example, in the case of Suriname, the commission played a significant role in chronicling and drawing international attention to very grave human rights violations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights adjudicated two contentious cases against Suriname. The political organs played a critical role in observing and provid­ing technical assistance to the 1991 electoral process. The OAS maintained an observer presence throughout the pacification process, and it continues to carry out projects in Suriname through its Unit for the Promotion of Democracy. Other components of the OAS have played an important role throughout the Caribbean. For example, the Inter-American Economic and Social Council and the Pan American Health Organization have sponsored initiatives in the areas of development, education, and health.

Most Caribbean member states have been very supportive of action by the OAS and the commission in the field of human rights. Barbados, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Haiti, and Jamaica are party to the American Convention; Antigua and Barbuda is currently pursuing ratification. Suri­name and Trinidad and Tobago are party to the Convention and have ac­cepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court. This repre­sents important progress in the process of consolidating the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights. The Caribbean member states could play an even more significant role in the Inter-American human rights system if they all would ratify the Convention and accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court.