Haiti Archives 1995-1996
18/05/95 HAITI-U.S.: Military Verdict Casts Doubt on Human Rights Posture by Farhan Haq

Copyright 1994 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.

Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

NEW YORK, May 18 (IPS) – Human rights advocates worry that the court-martial of a U.S. soldier who tried to investigate atrocities at a Haitian prison may reveal the true depth of U.S. concern for human rights.

They wonder why Cpt. Lawrence Rockwood was discharged Sunday from the U.S. Army for his attempted investigation of Haiti's dreaded National Penitentiary while other officials who turn a blind eye to atrocities have gone unpunished.

Rockwood was found guilty by a military court last Saturday on four counts of disobedience and refusal to follow orders, stemming from his actions last Sept 30 when he single-handedly drove to the National Penitentiary to check reports of abuses.

''It's disappointing on human rights grounds that he will be penalised for what was clearly a well-intentioned effort to check conditions at the National Penitentiary,'' says Allyson Collins, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. ''His instincts may have been correct.''

Collins notes that the prison, located in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, had acquired a reputation as a tough detention centre where supporters of then-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were brutally treated and under-fed.

''We had suggested before the United States went to Haiti that that be a site which they secure,'' she added. ''It was unclear how the people who ran the prison were treating prisoners.''

Rockwood, a 15-year Army veteran from a solid military family, defied his superiors in going to the prison alone to determine whether prisoners were being abused.

Although he was promptly arrested by the military, the Penitentiary was later investigated. Sure enough, dozens of prisoners were found emaciated and bent over from their confinement in cramped, poorly-maintained cells.

''The unresolved tragedy of the Rockwood case is why the Multi- National Force, an overwhelming force in unquestionable control and with a mandate to rectify military abuses, would not authorise a six-km trip to a downtown prison to investigate serious human rights violations,'' argues Rob Weiner, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Rockwood was detained for his interest in investigating abuses, but the U.S.-led Multi-National Force (MNF) of more than 20,000 soldiers stood by as the then-ruling military junta cracked down on protesters, the advocates argue.

''Rockwood was just one of many U.S. troops who were upset about the U.S. command in Haiti'' following the MNF's landing there in mid-September, says Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees.

''Haitians were celebrating (the MNF entry), but at the same time, the Haitian military was clubbing people to death while soldiers stood by,'' McCalla adds.

That disparity reflected a brutal reality: Although the MNF was there to restore the exiled Aristide to power, they were seeking to co-operate with the brutal military regime which had ousted him.

''The (U.S.) Army has yet to square its conduct with its legal obligations and President (Bill) Clinton's public call for an end to human rights abuse in Haiti,'' Weiner argues.

One activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, wonders why the military was so severe with Rockwood — a hero to ordinary Haitians — but lenient on the disrespect shown by other U.S. troops toward Clinton and the United Nations.

''The soldiers in Haiti were always insulting Clinton and the United Nations. That's also disobedience,'' he contends.

Rockwood's lawyer, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, contends that his client was serving Clinton's stated intentions for the mission — which included protecting human rights — by defying instructions not to visit the jail.

''I felt human life would be lost,'' Rockwood said at his trial. ''I am personally responsible for carrying out international law. That is the Nuremberg Principle.''

But the military court did not agree with Rockwood's contention that the post-Second World War Nuremberg Principles — which compel all officers to prevent crimes against humanity — applied in his case.

Lt. Col. Robert Newberry, the military judge, refused to hear testimony on the human rights conditions in Haitian prisons, including reports of atrocities at the National Penitentiary.

The jury found Rockwood guilty of disobeying orders, of disrespect, and of conducting an unauthorised investigation — charges for which he could have faced more than six years in prison. Instead, the jury discharged him and fined the soldier two- thirds of his pay and allowances.

But many activists fail to see Rockwood's lack of jail time as a victory. McCalla complains that the verdict still punishes Rockwood severely for his belief in human rights, but allows the government to mute criticism for its own stance.

He adds that it also helps send a message to dozens of other U.S. soldiers in Haiti who also objected to the MNF's seeming inattention to human rights that the Army will remain firm against all indiscipline.

''They want to maintain the rigid discipline the U.S. Army is known for,'' McCalla says. ''When you train them to kill, you want them not to think about who they're killing.'' (end/ips/fah/yjc/95)

Origin: Washington/HAITI-U.S./


[c] 1994, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)

All rights reserved

May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service outside of the APC networks, without specific permission from IPS. This limitation includes distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media and broadcast. For information about cross-posting, send a message to <ips-info@igc.apc.org>. For information about print or broadcast reproduction please contact the IPS coordinator at <ipsrom@gn.apc.org>.

Main Index Index Haiti Index