Let it be death

Kweisi Mfume

February 07, 1992|By Kweisi Mfume

IN THE past months, Coast Guard cutters off Florida have been less occupied with drug smugglers than with an enemy the Bush administration seems to fear more -- Haitian refugees.

About 15,000 Haitians kept at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba appear to have exhausted their legal challenges and are to be forcibly repatriated to the island nation they risked their lives to flee.

According to lawyers for the Haitian Refugee Center, forciKweisiMfumeble repatriation violates the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which says that "no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion."

But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that this language does not bind the U.S. government because "the individual Haitians who are plaintiffs in this case have not reached United States territory."

They have not reached United States territory because the Coast Guard intercepted their vessels before they could reach it and took the passengers to a U.S. naval base -- a trick Judge Joseph W. Hatchett of the 11th Circuit said (in his dissent) "makes a sham of our international treaty obligations and domestic laws for the protection of refugees."

The administration, disguising its legal point as a moral one, insists that it interdicted the Haitians in this case only to save them from their sinking ships. In fact, interdiction of Haitians has been Coast Guard practice since 1981, when, under a treaty agreement reached between the Reagan administration and the Duvalier regime in Haiti, the administration gained authority to forcibly repatriate any Haitians bound for the U.S. who are seized in international waters. It is an agreement the U.S. has with no other country, and it is expressly designed to keep Haitians out of the United States.

When pressed to defend repatriation, the administration draws a distinction between economic and political refugees, claiming, in effect, that while it cannot send Haitians back to die by gunfire, it can send them back to starve.

The distinction is phony. It is not a distinction the government respected when welcoming refugees from the Soviet Union, Hungary, Cuba or other communist regimes. Nor was it a distinction it respected when it prevailed on Hong Kong to accept the boat people waiting in its harbor.

Moreover, even if one accepts the distinction in principle, it doesn't apply in this case. These refugees' lives and freedom will be threatened when they return.

Last month in Venezuela I met with democratically elected, now exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He spoke adamantly against repatriation, claiming that any Haitians who fled under the illegal regime would be at great risk upon their return.

Amnesty International echoes that view, saying that Haitian refugees face certain persecution if they are repatriated. And in December 1991, the New York Times reported 73 Haitians who voluntarily returned from Venezuela were arrested and interrogated by police on their arrival.

Meanwhile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States estimates that there have been 1,500 murders since the September coup. Citizens have been forced out of their homes and into the countryside to escape the violence, and in a recent event of alarming boldness, out-of-control Haitian police invaded a meeting of Rene Theodore -- a Haitian politician proposed as Mr. Aristide's prime minister -- and, as if to send a message, machine-gunned his body guard.

Why does the administration step on the fingers of these people as they try to climb the ladder to a new life? There are many theories. One is that President Bush refuses to let the Haitians enter for fear of alienating Floridians in advance of the November elections. Others say it's racism, claiming that the only feature that distinguishes Haitian refugees from welcome refugees is the color of their skin. Whatever the truth of these claims, it's clear Mr. Bush doesn't believe our society doesn't have the capacity to assimilate these people.

It's a sad chapter in American history when we no longer have room for people brave enough to risk their lives for freedom. When Patrick Henry, speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775, said, "Give me liberty or give me death," he displayed a courage and a love of liberty that for generations has symbolized the best in America.

When the Haitians now quarantined in Guantanamo stepped on their leaky vessels to depart the land of their birth, they also were saying, "Give me liberty or give me death." As U.S. officials force them back into the hands of those whose terror they fled, they are whispering, "Then let it be death."

Kweisi Mfume represents Maryland's 7th District in the House of Representatives.

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