Friday, May 20, 2011

Working for human rights in Haiti: A struggle with wide scope and deep roots

Published in the Peace Office Newsletter, April-June, 2011, Vol 41, No 2 (Note: Obviously since the presidential inauguration took place on Saturday, the context in Haiti has changed a bit since I wrote this piece. Still, I think the fact that voter turnout was so low - 16.7% - and that the OAS basically reversed the results of the election's first round without conducting a ballot recount - which is what allowed Martelly into the second round - makes the discussion of the right to vote every bit as relevant).

“Until the first time I went to do an interview in a prison, I didn’t think it was possible to break the Haitian spirit,” recalls Meagan Peasgood, an MCC worker seconded to RNDDH, Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, or the National Human Rights Defense Network. “It’s that spirit that attracted me to living here—the pride and strong sense of history that prevail over Haiti’s difficult reality.”

Meagan found herself waiting in a hot, foul-smelling room. The back door opened and a prisoner shuffled in, head and shoulders down, back bent. He didn’t make eye contact and never once raised his head. He barely answered her questions. He was nineteen years old, and had been in prison for more than five years after being accused of stealing a telephone. Two years after his arrest he was taken to court, but the judge never saw him. He was transferred to this particular prison after the earthquake in January, 2010, and did not know if his family was still alive.

“I had to tell him that I wasn’t there to get him out of prison. I didn’t know how to show him that I think he is a human being, so I offered to call his family for him.” Meagan left the prison having absorbed the despair and brokenness of the place. When she returned to tell the prisoner that his family now knew he was alive, she experienced a redemptive moment—he finally looked her in the eyes and thanked her for treating him like a person.

This experience was key to Meagan’s understanding the importance of RNDDH’s work: the tedious but important work of interviewing prisoners, the advocacy work carried out by legal staff in connecting with prosecutors, and following up to make sure that case files exist for each prisoner. Meagan draws hope and energy from the human to human interactions that she believes sets RNDDH’s work apart from other human rights organizations in Haiti. “How we understand dignity and respect has much to do with how we understand who we all are as created in the image of God. We are all deserving of basic human rights. That’s an applicable concept even when you’re sitting across from a prisoner that might be charged with raping a minor.”

While Haitians have been fighting for their rights since Haiti’s inception as a nation of freed slaves at the beginning of the nineteenth century, their ability to exercise political and civil rights has been limited. Indeed, human rights organizations could not function openly for the twenty-nine years that Haiti was ruled by the brutal dictatorships of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier between 1957 and 1986.

Nonetheless, even under the Duvalier regimes, clandestine groups of rights advocates fought to regain public freedom. One such advocate was Antonal Mortime. “On February 6, 1986, Haitians once again proclaimed our liberty in the document that is our constitution and that we call the Maman Lwa, or Mother Law, of our country. That’s what tells us that we have our sovereignty.” Mortime is now the director of another MCC partner organization, Plate-forme des Organisations Haitiennes des Droits Humains (POHDH), or the Platform of Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights, a collective of eight of Haiti’s leading human rights organizations (including RNDDH). MCC Haiti began partnering with Haitian human rights organizations in the early 1990s.

Mortime stresses that from 1987 up to the past decade, “everyone concentrated on the promotion of our civil and political rights because we had lost them; that’s why these rights are historically considered more important in Haiti.” And yet he notes that Jean Jacques Dessalines, the hero of the Haitian revolution, asked the question, “‘How will these new Haitians live?’ and started promoting economic rights through equalized land distribution.” As Mortime puts it, “That’s the same question we need to be asking today.”

Thus Haitian human rights organizations have increasingly shifted their focus to rights categorized as economic, social and cultural (ESC). According to Mortime, “Since 2000, Haitian human rights activists have realized that if we don’t promote our ESC rights, our civil and political rights are also menaced. This is why, today, it’s necessary for us to work towards all—the rights of people to food, to housing, to education, to healthcare, to live in a safe environment—all of this is the package that makes up our sovereignty, that makes up a country where every person is a full citizen.”

Kurt Hildebrand, MCC Haiti’s country representative underlines this point. “In recent years, the problems Haitian organizations identify stem more often from an unresponsive government than a repressive one.” This is increasingly the case after the earthquake on January 12, 2010, that killed over 200,000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and buildings. As a report by POHDH put it: “It’s normal for the earth to shake, but not normal for it have the results it did here; and the way that the State has responded has been even more catastrophic than the catastrophe itself.”

It is not only the Haitian government, but the international community—foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, and multi-lateral institutions—that has inhibited the human rights of Haitians in the wake of the earthquake, according to both POHDH and RNDDH. The fundamental issue they highlight is a lack of sovereignty or self-determination—the need to allow Haitians to decide what is best for their country and themselves. Pierre Esperance, the executive director of RNDDH, believes that one of the largest challenges to human rights work in Haiti is that “the international community doesn’t work through Haitians or Haitian civil society to try to reinforce key state institutions. They don’t consult Haitians [in order] to correct any of the structural problems in Haiti.” With MCC’s support, both organizations are currently monitoring international assistance to ensure that it is carried out through a human rights framework that truly takes into account the needs of the people.

The most recent challenge has been Haiti’s presidential and legislative elections, marred by irregularities, incomplete registries, charges of fraud, and widespread protests. According to Esperance, this was the most undemocratic election in Haiti since 1990. After having reviewed RNDDH’s election monitoring reports (including those of MCC staff) from each of Haiti’s ten departments or regions, Esperance says that the polling deprived people of one of the most basic civil rights of a democracy, the right to vote. “These elections have been a step backwards for Haiti.” As three-quarters of the cost for the elections was provided by the international community, he believes that it is a failure not only of the Haitian government but of the UN and the Organization of American States, who are both present in Haiti with a mandate to support the electoral process.

“We’re ready for democracy. It’s the institutions here to accompany us that aren’t able to help us get there,” says Mortime. “We’re so ready that people in the countryside walked for miles and miles to vote. In the city, they came out in spite of violence.”

For this very reason, human rights education is an important component of both organizations’ work. Systemic change in Haiti, the kind of change which would afford all Haitians access not only to the right to choose their leaders, but also to secure housing, adequate food and clean drinking water, requires change from the bottom up. It requires that Haitians are aware of their rights and of how to fight for them. In addition to measureable improvements that can be linked to the work of RNDDH such as a marked decrease in prolonged pre-trial detention and rights violations in prisons, Esperance says that Haitians have a better understanding of their rights. “Many citizens now know their rights and responsibilities. And they are also aware of the international conventions in place to protect those rights.”

Both RNDDH and POHDH are active reminders that, as Mortime reiterates, “There are many Haitians that want to fight for change. They believe in change. They may just need help in making their voices heard.” And so, through funding, material aid, and staff secondments, MCC assists in giving voice to our partners. “We’re honored to stand alongside these brave organizations that are defending the rights of all Haitians, especially the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among them,” says Hildebrand. But MCC supports human rights work in Haiti in many other ways as well. Esperance reminds us that “It’s not just in partnering with Haitian human rights organizations” that MCC supports human rights. “MCC’s work in agriculture—that’s human rights work. Everything that MCC does in Haiti, directly and indirectly, helps to uphold human rights.”

Alexis Erkert Depp is MCC Haiti's Advocacy Coordinator.

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