Skip to main content

The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, is investigating complaints about a potential conflict of interest involving the author of a recent article that found systemic human-rights violations in Haiti despite the presence of a Canadian-led United Nations police force and peacekeeping mission.

The study, co-authored by Athena Kolbe, found that 8,000 Haitians have been slain and 35,000 women and girls raped since the ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in early 2004. Ms. Kolbe said that according to local Haitians, Canadian peacekeepers made death threats against them during house raids, and sexual advances against women while the peacekeepers were drunk and off duty.

However, Ms. Kolbe herself is now the subject of controversy after revelations that the 30-year-old master's degree student at Wayne State University's school of social work in Detroit used to be an advocacy journalist who wrote under the name Lyn Duff and worked at a Haitian orphanage founded by Mr. Aristide.

"How can Kolbe/Duff's research into the issues of human-rights violations be regarded as objective when she herself states that for 3.5 years she worked with the Lafanmi Selavi centre for street children, where she befriended Aristide himself and presumably some of the boys who later left the centre . . . [who]then acted as armed enforcers?" Charles Arthur, co-ordinator of the British-based Haiti Support Group, wrote this week in a letter of complaint to The Lancet.

"There is a concerted international campaign to distort news and manipulate information about Haiti with the apparent aim of repairing the reputation of Aristide. I am concerned The Lancet has unwittingly been used as part of the pro-Aristide propaganda campaign."

Nobody from The Lancet was available to comment yesterday, but Ms. Kolbe said the magazine is investigating, and she is confident it will find no conflict of interest.

"The Lancet would have appreciated hearing it from me and not from an outsider," she said in an interview. "But it's not like they wouldn't have published the article. The findings aren't at issue."

Ms. Kolbe said she used to write articles under the name Lyn Duff -- an old nickname and her mother's surname -- but wanted to go by her father's surname and her real first name once she entered academia.

She also said that from 1994-1997, she worked at an orphanage founded by Mr. Aristide, met him several times, and was an admirer of the then-president. Some of the children at the orphanage maintained links with him. "I am not a supporter of Lavalas [Aristide's political party] I have warm feelings toward Aristide, but I am critical of some of his decisions."

She and her co-author, assistant professor Royce Hutson, defended the results of their survey, which has prompted some groups to call for a parliamentary inquiry into Canada's role in Haiti.

Mr. Aristide's first term in office was interrupted by a 1991 military coup and his second ended abruptly on Feb. 29, 2004, after a rebellion of thugs and ex-soldiers forced him out. He argues the United States forced him into exile.

Canada sent 450 soldiers to Haiti in March, 2004, part of a UN peacekeeping mission of 6,700 soldiers and 1,600 police. The soldiers left in August that year, and there are currently 66 police officers in Haiti leading the UN police force.

The Lancet peer-reviewed study of 5,720 randomly selected Haitians living in the capital found that in the 22-month period since Mr. Aristide's ouster, 97 had received death threats, 232 had been threatened physically and 86 sexually. According to survey respondents, one-third of those who issued death threats were criminals, 18 per cent were Haitian National Police and other government security agents and another 17 per cent were foreign soldiers. Only 6 per cent were Lavalas.

Mr. Arthur said these findings contradict independent human-rights investigators who report that many of the violations have been committed by criminals, Haitian police and anti-Aristide groups -- as well as Lavalas supporters. "My concern is that either the conduct or interpretation of the research was skewed or biased in order to exonerate Fanmi Lavalas/Aristide supporters from accusation of involvement in human-rights violations," he said in his letter.

Nicholas Galletti, with Rights and Democracy, a Montreal non-governmental organization, said the author's background further calls into question a study "based on flawed methodology" whereby responsibility for crimes is attributed to groups without a proper criminal investigation or trial.

However, Prof. Hutson says the study acknowledges the limitations of having to rely on subject recall.

"The charges of bias are baseless. We were aware Athena had written under another name and found no conflict. Our concern is the way UN soldiers are interacting with Haitians."