Foreign Policy Blogs

How serious the crime?

The return of former president Jean-Claude Duvalier was a shock to Haiti, both in terms of surprise as well as the frisson that it sent through much of the population. Associated by some with a time of stability, “Baby Doc” Duvalier was more commonly known for the brutal legacy he continued in his father’s footsteps. After all, strong-armed dictatorships are some of the calmest places on earth, as long as you don’t have to interact with the regime itself.

Haiti has been through some of the worst stresses any country has experienced in the past few years, with already weak rule of law compounded by a devastating earthquake and a disputed election. Thus it is to its credit that officials (if briefly) detained Duvalier on charges of corruption and embezzlement. The fact that he is now apparently living well in villa with a view may unfortunately be par for the course.

Amnesty International would like Duvalier to face much more serious charges, including crimes against humanity for human rights abuses committed under his regime. Many Haitians would agree. The Haitian government has said they will investigate these crimes, but it is likely to be a much more uphill battle than the corruption charges.

Since corruption is something in which nearly all those in power engage in some form (after all, we know that “power corrupts”), and since cracking down on a leader who illegally enriches himself is generally universally popular, corruption can be a handy way to put someone behind bars when other crimes were too vague or too delegated to others to mount a successful prosecution. Of course, a few years in jail for corruption does not match the dishonor and punishment of being convicted for crimes against humanity, but the more years go by, the fewer people have memories of those anyway. Why not stall a bit by getting him out of the public eye and doing so with a broadly popular mandate to boot, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what corruption fighters had in mind. Corruption should be prosecuted, but not to the exclusion of more serious crimes. Brutal dictatorships tend to be corrupt, but they also tend to order the repression of opponents, torture of detainees, and extra-legal execution. If only it were as easy to hold someone accountable for those crimes as it is to let him make a friendly visit back to his home country.