Grassroots International

Human Rights in Haiti

Highlights from a March 10, 2004 Grantmakers Without Borders Conference call on the Human Rights Emergency in Haiti with Pierre Esperance of the Platform for Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH)

« In Haiti everything is priority, but our number one priority is putting an end to impunity. Haiti needs reconciliation, and there can be no reconciliation without justice, » said Pierre Esperance, Treasurer of POHDH and director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR).

In the wake of the overthrow of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, the work of human rights monitors and activists in Haiti is at a critical juncture. In a conference call on 3/10/04, Mr. Esperance spoke about the urgent need for continued monitoring of human rights abuses; legal, medical, and technical assistance for victims of abuse and internally displaced persons; and, critically, an end to impunity and a re-vitalization of Haiti’s police and judicial systems.

Asked who should train the police and the judiciary, Mr Esperance responed, « Well, Haiti’s friends-the OAS, Canada, the U.S. and France-can do this work. But they can’t do this work well if they don’t work with the Haitian social actors, with civil society organizations, human rights groups, women’s groups. »

POHDH, a coalition of nine organizations, has been a critical force in the documentation of human rights, the defense of victims and the promotion of political reforms that will promote and protect human rights and democracy since its founding in 1991. Mr. Esperance is a long-time human rights activist in Haiti. He himself was the victim of an assassination attempt in March 1999, when advocating for the OAS to stay to ensure that the Haitian judiciary would function fairly and independently.

Putting the current situation in context

Haiti’s current political crisis is rooted in the questionable elections of May 2000. Under Artistide’s presidency, there have been serious and systemic humans rights violations, including political assassinations and the use of sexual violence as a tool of terror and repression. These violations have accelerated during the last few months leading up to Aristide’s departure on February 29th.

Since the uprising against Aristide reached a peak in the first weeks of February, the national police force and local government representatives have increasingly been victims of violence from armed rebel groups and former members of the military. At the same time, opposition leaders have also been targeted by armed pro-Aristide groups. As the rebels advanced on Port au Prince, the violence intensified.

Thousands of individuals have been displaced from their homes and villages and an estimated 100 people have lost their lives. Several hundred homes and businesses have been burned to the ground. Lavalas supporters have targeted the opposition-both civil society groups and political opposition members.

On Sunday, March 7th, a peaceful demonstration of tens of thousands was held demanding that Aristide be tried and imprisoned and that cooperation be embraced. At the end of the demonstration, bands of armed pro-Aristide gangs began firing on the crowd. Six people were killed, including a Mexican journalist, and dozens more were wounded. The violence was quelled by the Haitian National Police and the U.S. Marines.

During the past three years, the Lavalas Government has provided weapons to street gangs in the popular neighborhoods [shantytown and slums where the poor live] and there are significant numbers of them who are still ready to use these weapons against those they see as responsible for the departure of Aristide. Under Aristide, the police and the judicial system became politicized and have failed to retain their independence. Many unskilled and unqualified people were named as judges and police officers during the last few years of the Aristide regime.

Now the police force is very, very weak and need to be trained and professionalized. The same is true of the judicial system. This is further complicated by the death threats and intimidation that have caused twenty judges to flee the country.

Because the police force has been violating the rights of Haitians for the last three years, people do not trust them now, Mr. Esperance said. This makes it hard for victims of abuses to come forward and to provide adequate security for victims from everywhere.

POHDH Role

The POHDH plans to provide technical and legal assistance to those whose rights were violated in the past three years under Aristide’s government. In the past 8 months, POHDH has received 40-60 requests from people needing legal support and assistance.

After Aristide came back in 1994, there wasn’t enough help from international human rights groups to prosecute the abusers, the corrupted and the drug dealers. POHDH does not want this to be repeated again.

Haitian human rights groups need to provide emergency assistance to victims of violence and resettlement for the internally displaced. They also need to monitor international forces and provide reports on their work while continuing to monitor the police, the judiciary, the prisons, the local authorities and the new government.

We have to create a better environment in Haiti for members of the Diaspora to return, and to invest in their home country, Mr. Esperance said.

« The situation has calmed down somewhat, but we still need disarmament. The police and the new government have a lot to do. Over the three past years, many people in the Lavalas government were involved in the crimes and human rights abuses. They have to be arrested right away, » Mr. Esperance said.

He added that international troops in the streets provide some security, but stressed the need to support the police. They need technical assistance and they need adequate training, he added.

« The Haitian population needs your support, » he said. « Women’s organizations, labor organizations, and human rights organizations need your support. We need to rebuild our institutions. We need to provide legal assistance for the victims of Aristide and the victims of the uprising. We need to continue to monitor the human rights situation. We need to help the internally displaced. »

For more information on POHDH and NCHR, please visit www.nchrhaiti.org.