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Judicial Reform in Haiti



NOTE: In March 1995, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights published No Greater Priority: Judicial Reform in Haiti. The pamphlet provided the reader with a quick synopsis of conditions in which the Haitian judicial system had evolved, together with several short-term and medium-term recommendations for reform to the government of Haiti and the international community. To access the French language version of this pamphlet, please select this link: La réforme judiciaire en Haïti.

The analysis remains valid today. We are making it available to you and to others. Please feel free to distribute. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Haiti's Judicial System

The question now is whether the new legal culture
will be accepted by ordinary South Africans.
Instead of seeing the law as the state's weapon of oppression,
will they respect it as an independent force
that can sometimes indeed be a shield against the state?

Anthony Lewis,
Revolution by Law, The New York Times, Jan. 13, 1995

Anthony Lewis wrote with reference to South Africa, but his words resonate in Haiti today. Among Haiti's many priorities, reforming the justice system is near the top of most people's lists. Judicial reform, creating a new police force, revamping Haiti's horrendous prison system, and investigating past human rights violations are essential in this delicate transitional period from dictatorship to democracy. Without fundamentally changing how justice is administered, human rights guarantees will be fragile and the rule of law a pipe-dream.

Haiti's justice system does not function. Moreover, powerful members of Haitian society, the military and certain wealthy industrialists and landowners in particular, have long prevented it from functioning. The law has indeed been used as a weapon to oppress and terrify.

Haitian justice lacks everything: resources, competent personnel, independence, stature and trust. Court facilities are a disgrace, courthouses often indistinguishable from small shops or run-down residences in Haitian cities and towns. Judges and prosecutors, ill-trained and often chosen because of their connections or willingness to comply with their benefactors' demands, dispense justice to the highest bidder or to the most powerful.

The OAS/UN International Civilian Mission to Haiti did a nation-wide study of the justice system in late 1993 after the Mission was evacuated to the Dominican Republic.[See Analysis of the Haitian Justice System with Recommendations to Improve the Administration of Justice in Haiti, Working Group on the Haitian Justice System of the OAS/UN International Civilian Mission to Haiti (MICIVIH), March 17, 1994.] Among its human rights monitors were lawyers who observed trials, pre-trial hearings and police work. The observers presented information and concerns to judges and prosecutors on specific human rights violations, including evidence indicating participation by the military in human rights abuses and inhumane prison conditions. Observers inquired about developments in criminal investigations in cases brought to the judiciary's attention by the Mission. Based on this experience, the Mission's human rights monitors identified problems that plague the administration of justice throughout Haiti. Among the most serious are:

  • The armed forces, including the army, police, rural section chiefs, attachés and members of the armed paramilitary group Front pour l'avancement et le progrès haïtien (FRAPH) threatened, beat and sometimes killed judges, prosecutors and lawyers. The most egregious example was the execution in broad daylight of Justice Minister Guy Malary on October 14, 1993. Port-au-Prince Chief Prosecutor Laraque Exantus, who was named to the prosecutor's office by Minister Malary, was abducted from his home in early February 1994 and has never been seen again. Exantus was responsible for several sensitive criminal investigations, including the Malary killing. Wealthy, absentee landowners hire soldiers or local enforcers to intimidate judges and lawyers representing peasants involved in land disputes. Judges and prosecutors admit that they are too afraid to issue an arrest warrant or investigate cases involving the military, para-military groups or certain civilian supporters of the military.
  • Corruption and extortion thrive at every level of the justice system. Salaries are low and venality is high. People pay the police to arrest a rival; prosecutors and judges demand payment before opening an investigation or issuing an order. Section chiefs arbitrarily impose taxes that are not found in any law and then threaten those who refuse to pay with prison or a beating. Jailers demand payment before a family is allowed to bring food to a detainee and also extort money from desperate prisoners to avoid beatings or even worse treatment. Sometimes families are able to buy a relative's release from prison.
  • Most judges and prosecutors are poorly trained and lack motivation. Many judges, especially the lowest-level juges de paix, have never been to law school, have received no specialized training to be judges and show little interest in receiving such training. In 1990, the UN Special Rapporteur on Haiti, himself an eminent French jurist, once offered to look into training possibilities in Europe for Haitian judges, the then-head of the Haitian Supreme Court responded that it was not necessary since Haitian judges already knew all they needed to fulfill their duties.
  • Courts lack even rudimentary materials necessary to function. Most have no electricity or phones. Copy machines, let alone computers or faxes, are unheard of. Most judges and prosecutors do not even own the texts essential to their work: the Civil Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code. Record-keeping is in complete disarray with barely legible orders and decisions, some dating more than 10 years ago, tacked to walls and doors.
  • Most Haitians view lawyers, judges -- virtually anyone connected with the justice system -- with well-deserved scorn and contempt. People will avoid contact with the system unless it is the last resort. It is expensive, corrupt and largely mysterious since all the laws and most of the proceedings are conducted in French, a language most Haitians can barely understand and only a wealthy elite can speak or read. Haitians try to resolve disputes on their own, sometimes in inventive and acceptable ways appropriate to a country with deep poverty and high illiteracy; sometimes in deplorable ways best described as vigilante justice.
  • The most powerful sectors of Haitian society -- the wealthiest families, government officials, and most of all the entire military apparatus -- have enjoyed virtual impunity. Soldiers have never been prosecuted in civilian courts for abuses committed against civilians despite the constitutional requirement that these cases be heard in civil courts. This impunity fuels the cycle of violence and the population's cynicism about justice in Haiti.
  • Haiti lacks a professional police force. Until very recently, the police were members of the armed forces who received no police training. Members were rotated in and out of the police and army; in some cases an officer literally had two uniforms hanging in a closet and would pick out the appropriate one -- police blue or military khaki -- depending on the month or the assignment. Haiti's police did not walk the beat, investigate crimes, or do other normal policing functions. Rather, they beat people, rode in trucks with high caliber weapons, and shot first and asked questions later, and then only to interrogate the poor person who fell into their hands about his or her presumed political opinions or activities. The police were for hire not only to the rich, but would arrest someone on a mere complaint based on flimsy evidence provided by a jealous neighbor, jilted lover, or ambitious farmer who wanted more water from the irrigation canal or a piece of particularly fertile land. Law enforcement is intensely political and personal, not neutral and objective.
  • Although Haitian law creates elaborate procedures governing arrests, detention, and prison inspections and monitoring, all these procedures and protections are systematically breached. Most arrests are accomplished without benefit of a warrant. The person arrested often has no idea why she has been detained. The family often does not know where the person is or whether they have even been detained or simply abducted. In reality, there is no difference between a warrantless arrest and an abduction. Without a paper trail, the person slips into the black hole of Haitian detention centers, both official and unofficial. These centers uniformly fail to keep registers as they are required to do under both Haitian and international law. Unofficial detention centers, of course, are illegal. So access to family, lawyers, medical care, in short, the outside world, is impossible. It is precisely during these extensive periods of incommunicado detention that the detainee is most at risk of being tortured or beaten or killed.
  • Conditions in Haitian prisons and detention centers are inhumane and cruel. Most often decrepit remnants of garrisons built by the U.S. occupying forces 70 years ago, with some even dating from the French colonial era in the 18th century, these prisons lack all basic services: electricity, potable water, toilets, medical supplies. Even in a country as desperate as Haiti where most of the population does not have access to such facilities, the prisons are materially worse. Detainees are kept in close, overcrowded quarters, and prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor. Women prisoners are not segregated from male prisoners. Sexual abuse is common; tuberculosis, HIV and other viral diseases are easily transmitted. Children are kept with adults. Haitian law requires a separate facility for youthful offenders, but this requirement, as with many issues relating to rights, exists purely on paper. A Haitian proverb summarizes well the attitude toward the legal system: Law is Paper, Bayonets are steel. [For an extensive analysis of the Haitian justice system, which identified many of the same problems highlighted by the OAS/UN's Justice System Working Group, see Paper Laws, Steel Bayonets: The Breakdown of the Justice System in Haiti (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) (1990).]

Despite these overwhelming problems and deadly risks involved in trying to enforce the law, some courageous judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers have tried to do their jobs. They, and all Haitians, deserve an independent and fair justice system that will guarantee rights and punish those who commit abuses. In this period of transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, reforms to the Haitian justice system are urgently required. To show that the government intends a definitive break from the past where arbitrary rule by the strongest prevailed, President Aristide's government, and principally the Minister of Justice, should implement the following reforms:

Immediate Action

  • Assess the competence and independence of all currently serving prosecutors (the commissaires du gouvernement) and replace those deemed unfit to serve or those named by the illegal coup governments with new, recent graduates of Haiti's law schools. These new prosecutors should undergo an intensive training session on the rudiments of criminal investigation and procedure, preferably taught by experienced Haitian lawyers and prosecutors brought from France (especially the Créole-speaking French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe) or other Civil Law, Napoleonic Code countries. International human rights law should be a central component of this training. Specialized expertise available through the UN Office on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (Vienna) should also be sought.
  • All judges, new and old, should receive expedited training, again preferably from senior Haitian judges with substantial participation from French judges, again from the French Caribbean to the greatest extent possible. Training should focus initially on the justices of the peace who have by far the most frequent contact with the Haitian population and who are the least trained and most ill-equipped for their work and then extend to investigating judges and senior trial and appellate court judges. International human rights law should be a central component of this training.
  • Salaries should be raised for all judicial officials to a level commensurate with their education and experience.
  • The government should seek assistance and advice from the UN Development Program (UNDP), U.S. A.I.D. and other bilateral donors, to reinforce the Justice Ministry. Programs should include training personnel in the Justice Ministry on management, administration, and document preservation and retrieval.
  • International donors should provide equipment (or funds for same) necessary to run a court system properly, for example, to facilitate distributing copies of the basic legal codes to all judges and prosecutors: copy machines, case management training and equipment, vehicles, fax machines and computers. Funds to pay salaries on an emergency basis to prosecutors, judges and Justice Ministry officials should be allocated so that the system can actually function and Haitians can see that the government is committed to reforming and reinforcing justice.
  • Prison personnel -- guards, administrators, and inspectors -- should be hired and receive intensive training on proper prison administration. The Justice Ministry should name a Director-General of Prisons to manage and oversee the transformation of Haiti's penal system. All unofficial detention centers must be closed. A census of all prisons must be completed and registries established showing who is in prison, why, date of entry and current judicial status. All children in Haitian prisons should be immediately released and appropriate shelter found for them. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Crime Branch and others with relevant expertise should be sought to train prison personnel, help establish monitoring mechanisms and provide essential services: drinking water, latrines, food and medicine.
  • The government, in choosing who will enter the new police academy, should place the burden of proof on those applicants who served in the army or police to show that they did not order, commit, tolerate or cover up human rights violations. Otherwise, all currently serving members of the Forces Armées d'Haïti (FADH), should be presumed to be unfit and ineligible for any law enforcement position. FADH members may overcome this presumption by presenting evidence from people in the area where they served or from government officials showing that they carried out their duties in a professional and nonviolent way.
  • The government should launch a public education campaign on human rights and justice that would inform people about the steps undertaken to reform and revitalize justice in Haiti. All media should be used, especially the radio. The UN Human Rights Center (Geneva) should be ready to offer its expertise in human rights education.

Medium-term Action

  • The Commission to Reform the Legal Code should begin work as soon as possible to revise and modernize Haitian legal texts. This Commission should consult with Haitian jurists, legal scholars and practitioners from France and other Civil Law countries to insure that Haitian law incorporates all necessary provisions to guarantee human rights. In particular, the Criminal Procedure Code should be revised to clarify responsibility for criminal investigations and to establish time limits to complete reports and penalties for failing to meet these obligations.
  • All laws should be translated into Créole and court proceeding should be conducted in Créole if any of the parties request.
  • The government should establish a national system of legal aid to represent defendants in cases involving serious felonies for free. This system could also provide for paralegals and law students to represent people for less serious offenses before the justice of the peace, the initial trial court which treats the large majority of cases.
  • Codes of professional conduct governing lawyers, judges and prosecutors should be drafted and adopted; disciplinary procedures, with full due process guarantees, should be established to determine if someone has violated the code of conduct and appropriate sanctions imposed.
  • Law schools need an injection of substantial resources. Classrooms are in a deplorable state and there is no law library. Professors must receive a decent salary. Uniform standards for graduation and admission to practice need to be established and enforced.
  • A Judicial Academy must be established to provide initial training for new judges and ongoing professional training for serving judges.
  • The government must create new judgeships, especially at the justice of the peace level. Port-au-Prince has only four justice of the peace courts for a population of at least 1 million; other jurisdictions suffer proportionately similar shortages.
  • The Ministry of Justice must create a Juvenile Court to hear matters involving children. Homes for juvenile offenders, with counseling, rehabilitation, training and education programs, should be established.
  • The government should encourage the creation of different alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that avoid the expense and delay of formal litigation. Arbitration, mediation and counseling services could resolve a huge number of disputes and be more appropriate in an impoverished country where most people cannot afford a lawyer.


The intervention by the U.S.-led multinational armed forces under U.N. Security Council Resolution 940 (July 31, 1994) has broken the back of the military's dominance of law enforcement and the administration of justice. The opportunity to effect sweeping changes to a decrepit and despised judicial system has never been greater or more necessary. While the reforms described above are necessary to erect the rule of law in Haiti, they are not sufficient. Haitians must permanently eradicate military interference in the courts, the police and the prisons. Implementing these reforms will both make it much less likely that the military or any sector will ever have such power again and help Haitians succeed in their struggle to create the rule of law.


This report was written by William G. O'Neill, a consultant to the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. It is based on his own research and that of a Working Group on the Haitian Justice System established by the Organization of American States/United Nations International Civilian Mission (MICIVIH). Before joining the MICIVIH, Mr. O'Neill was deputy director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. He is the author and co-author of several reports on human rights, including Paper Laws, Steel Bayonets (1990) which examined at length the administration of justice in Haiti.



NCHR's Strategy

  See also:
Judicial Reform in Haiti
  La réforme judiciaire en Haïti
  Human Rights News
  Archived Human Rights News
  Overview: Mass Expulsions and Deportations
  IACHR Decision of Sep 14, 2000
  CEJIL: Comunicado de prensa
  Related Links
  Campaign Overview
  How You Can Help
   Restavèk: Four-year-old Servants in Haiti - Haiti Insight Dec '96 / Jan '97
  Contact Information
  Open Letter to the Haitian National Police
  Open Letter to the Haitian Minister of Justice
  December 2001 Report
  NCHR Calls on Haiti's President to Ensure Safety of Human Rights Advocates
  NCHR Pays Tribute to Jean Léopold Dominique
  Event Photos
  The Sound of Silence
  more on . . .
    Jean L. Dominique
    Michèle Montas
    Michael S. Hooper

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti (1994)


Peacebuilding in Haiti: Findings of the International Peace Academy regarding challenges to peacebuilding in Haiti.

  Peace Brigades International, Haiti: Reports from the PBI contingent in Haiti on conflict resolution and political challenges.
  Situation of Human Rights in Haiti: Report of the UN Commission on Human Rights, 1996.
  MICIVIH OEA/ONU: La police nationale d'Haiti et les droits de l'homme
  State Department 1997 Haiti Report
  Haiti Held Hostage
Report of the Watson Institute
  Amnesty International Report
HAITI Steps Forward, Steps Back: Human Rights 10 Years After the Coup (27/09/2001)


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