Crime Bar: Human Rights Claims Don't Have Expiration Dates

Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier leaves the courthouse with his longtime companion Veronique Roy, right, after
Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier leaves the courthouse with his longtime companion Veronique Roy, right, after attending a closed hearing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday Jan. 20, 2012. A judge in Haiti has admonished Duvalier for violating the terms of his conditional release by leaving the capital at least twice in recent weeks. Duvalier is under a judicial investigation for crimes including corruption and human rights violation during his brutal, 15-year rule.(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Last week victims of human-rights violations scored a victory when a Haitian court ruled that their claims against one of the worst human-rights violators in Haitian history, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, could go forward. Duvalier had argued that the torture and crimes against humanity he is accused of took place too long ago for the court to try him.

Duvalier, who was the president of Haiti from 1971 to 1986, is allegedly responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions and detention of political opponents, and for embezzling over 100 million USD from a country consistently ranked the least-developed in the western hemisphere. After fleeing the country in 1986, Duvalier returned to Haiti in 2011 and allegedly had a close relationship with the current president, who at one point suggested granting amnesty to the former dictator. This makes the recent ruling all the more powerful.

In 2011 victims of forced disappearances and torture under Duvalier's regime brought a case charging him with corruption and crimes against humanity. One described the abuse prisoners endured, saying, "I was able to hear people being beaten, dragged in the hallway, and I could hear women screaming as they were being forced to have sexual relations with the guards." Others were starved or tortured, having their hands tied behind their legs and a stick or bar pushed between their limbs.

The charges against Duvalier were dismissed when a judge agreed that too much time had passed for the case to go forward. The new ruling, however, found that there is a basis in international law for Duvalier to be charged with crimes against humanity, and that he can be held responsible for the actions of his regime's military and paramilitary forces.

Though it's still a far cry from justice for victims, Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokesman Reed Brody says, "This decision is a green light. It says, 'Go ahead, there is no legal obstacle to prosecuting these crimes.'" It is even more remarkable considering that Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country at 163 out of 177 countries surveyed. Haiti is but one of many countries where victims of human-rights violations face an uphill battle for justice against rights violators.

In cases like this one, where victims bring cases alleging egregious human-rights violations, the time bar, or statute of limitations, can be a significant barrier to justice.

The American Bar Association has taken note of the deficiency, stating in a recent resolution that all countries should remove the statute-of-limitations provisions on genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, precisely because of the miscarriage of justice that would otherwise occur in cases like the Duvalier case.

In the United States the statute-of-limitations issue may become a more prominent barrier following recent Supreme Court decisions that have made it increasingly difficult for victims to bring human-rights cases in federal court.

Because of these rulings, many cases against human-rights violators will be filed in state courts, where the statute of limitations for personal-injury claims only allows victims one to three years to bring their case. This is often much too short a time bar for complex human-rights cases. The emotional and financial cost of bringing a suit can be great, and victims of human-rights abuses tend to have limited means. Finding a lawyer who will bring a claim for them can be an immense obstacle, but particularly so when they face a categorical time bar.

One recent example of this problem in California is the case Gomez v. Dole. In that case the heirs of 167 people who were executed by Colombian paramilitary death squads -- groups that have been named as terrorists by the U.S. government -- brought suit against Dole, alleging that the company had, through its subsidiary, hired death squads to provide security and protection services to assist it in running its banana operations, causing these horrific executions. The claims of all but two of the plaintiffs were dismissed at the trial level based on the amount of time that had passed. These plaintiffs were left without any remedy for the deaths of their loved ones.

Similarly, victims of Jose Sosa, who helped orchestrate the ruthless massacre of innocent villagers in Guatemala, including dozens of young children, likely have no recourse against him, even though he has been living in California and lied about his past in order to live in the United States. These atrocities happened 30 years ago, and claims would likely be barred by California's two-year statute of limitations.

U.S. courts and legislators should look to the latest decision from Haiti and follow suit. People who suffer the worst human-rights abuses imaginable -- torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, genocide -- must be given the ability to recover and should not be denied justice if they are unable to bring their claims with in only a few short years.