On November 26, 2020, the Haitian government published two decrees on national security. The first creates a new national intelligence agency, while the second greatly expands the definition of terrorism. Haitian president Jovenel Moise has been ruling by decree since January when the terms of parliament expired, and has used that power to consolidate the strength of the executive branch. The government has framed the changes as a response to recently increasing insecurity, however the Port-au-Prince Bar Association and various human rights organizations have denounced the new decrees and warnedthat they could be used to increase repression.
Marie Suzy Legros, the head of the bar association, labeled the decrees as “tyrannical” and as the destruction of liberty. “Jovenel Moise has the madness of a dictator,” former Senator Steven Benoit commented in response to the decrees. “He does not realize that we are no longer in 1957,” he continued, in reference to Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier who created his own intelligence agency in the early years of the dictatorship. Even before these recent decrees, 11 human rights organizations had condemned the “dictatorial and unconstitutional” actions of the current administration.
On December 12, the Core Group in Haiti issued a press release “expressing concern” over the new decrees. The Decree on the Strengthening of Public Security, the diplomatic representatives note, “extends the qualification of ‘terrorist act’ to certain facts that do not fall under it and provides for particularly heavy penalties.” The intelligence agency, the Core Group, continued, gives “the agents of this institution virtual legal immunity, thus opening up the possibility of abuse.” Taken together, these decrees “do not seem to conform to certain fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law and the civil and political rights of citizens.”
So, what is in these new decrees?
A New Intelligence Agency
The National Intelligence Agency (ANI by its French acronym) is a technical and administrative institution, whose primary focus is on information gathering and the repression of hostile acts that could be perceived as a threat to national security. Though the new agency will operate under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, the president has the sole authority to name a director general and other high-level positions (Art. 54).
The ANI will be staffed by individuals recruited from the National Police Academy and from the military. The decree includes scant information on the vetting of ANI officers, but notes that recruits will be subject to testing as well as to psychological and moral inquiries (Art. 32). The officers, whose identities will remain anonymous due to national security concerns, will also be armed (Art. 51) . The decree also grants total secrecy to the ANI’s operations. The ANI is authorized to conduct surveillance and will have access to all relevant government databases. Officers will also be able to enter private homes or businesses at any time in order to access documents, objects, or anything else relevant to an ongoing investigation (Art. 55).
ANI officers will not be regular civil servants, but instead will hold a special status, de facto creating a third armed force in the country (Art. 33). The decree also grants legal protection to all ANI officers (Art. 49). There is no possibility for legal recourse in the case of abuse without prior authorization from the president. The agency itself is protected from any legal action that seeks to prevent its functioning or the execution of its activities (Art. 67). The decree offers relatively little information as to how this new agency might be funded.
An Expanded Definition of Terrorism
The Decree for the Reinforcement of Public Security expands the definition of “terrorism” to include such acts as robbery, extortion, arson, and the destruction or degradation of public and private goods.
Articles 1.12 and 1.13, however, go even further and specify that acts of crowding or blocking public roads to obstruct movement are included in this expanded definition. The decree specifies that even so much as placing garbage in a public road would fall under the new definition of terrorism. Blocking roads is a common protest tactic in Haiti, as in many other countries.
The decree also specifics penalties under the new definition. Those found guilty of committing “terrorist acts” can spend from 30 to 50 years in prison and face a fine ranging from two million to two-hundred million Haitian gourdes (about $28,000 – $2,800,000 at today’s exchange rate). The decree states that the penalties cannot be lowered under any circumstance. Individuals can be exempted from punishment if they provide the authorities with information that prevents a terrorist act and leads to the arrest of the individuals or groups responsible.
Oddly, the decree states that, if there are any reservations, the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate has 30 days to introduce a new law in parliament. The parliament has not functioned since January 2020.
This column originally appeared on CEPR.