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Protecting Human Rights in Haiti

December 2012

On March 28, 2012—more than two years after the devastating earthquake—884 displaced families living under makeshift tents and tarps in the displacement camp of Gaston Magron in Port-au-Prince were busy putting their children to sleep when bullets suddenly began flying.  A gang of thugs had broken into the camp searching for the camp’s security volunteers, apparently in retaliation for being stopped from entering the camp previously.  They shot and killed three people, wounding several dozen others including a pregnant woman.  They set fire to tents, raped several women and girls, verbally threatened terrified camp residents, and then left.

When staff from Grassroots International’s partner, the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), arrived to investigate the incident, they discovered that the UN soldiers charged with protecting the camp returned to the safety of their bases at 4pm each afternoon, leaving the residents to fend for themselves at nighttime.
“Now we have nothing to sleep in, and the heavy rain and hurricane seasons are approaching.  We have nowhere to go that is safe.” said one of the victims.

After the shooting, families began abandoning the camp to find a safer place for their children. Some left the camp each night to find some place to sleep, while others with nowhere to go continued spend the night in the camp, lying in constant fear that they and their children could be attacked again at any time.

The staff from POHDH’s human rights project continues to press the police to provide permanent patrols at the camp and conduct a search for the gang members. They are publicizing the situation through the newspapers and radio interviews, and are urging authorities to provide emergency assistance to the attacked families.  They are also speaking with camp families to fully document their situation and living conditions, as well as educating them on their rights to safety, shelter, and food.

Since that time, POHDH’s presence and efforts have helped improve security, police are providing more protection and the camp residents have formed a more active human rights committee to defend their basic rights to security and lodging. 

Tragically, human rights abuses are all-too-common throughout Haiti’s capital and other cities. The situation has not been helped by the hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and slow government response.

Fortunately, POHDH, a coalition of eight human rights groups, is hard at work monitoring abuses and standing up for the rights of everyday citizens. On any given day, its staff can be seen working with families in a displacement camp, meeting with a Haitian minister on policy issues, or negotiating with a UN commander to press for further accountability from the UN’s military force.

Since its founding in 1991, POHDH has grown to become an important and respected voice for advancing human rights in Haiti. And Grassroots International has partnered with POHDH in this work since 1993.  The POHDH coalition is one of the reasons that, despite the current challenges, there have been advances in human rights since the dark days of the Duvalier dictatorship—a time when even just mentioning the words ‘human rights’ was a risky business.

For the POHDH, human rights are a critical step in the Haiti’s path towards democracy, justice and prosperity. This is particularly true in the context of the natural (and human made) catastrophes that have battered Haiti. Since the massive 2010 earthquake, POHDH has particularly focused on the rights of people living in the displacement camps.   The earthquake killed at least 300,000 people, wounded half a million, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. An estimated 500,000 displaced people still live in camps, many in extremely precarious conditions in clear violation of their human, social and economic rights.

With a focus on harnessing grassroots people power, the POHDH has helped set up a network of human rights monitoring teams in the camps, largely run by the displaced people themselves.  These teams monitor abuses, educate camp residents about their fundamental human rights, and help residents advocate for the respect and fulfillment of those rights. There are now teams in 30 of the displaced people’s camps.

A key task has been to help the camp residents gain the skills and confidence to advocate for adequate housing and shelter. Because of this work, they have been able to prevent evictions and residents are joining hands to gain the right to stay on the land, and demand better housing. Getting local authorities and the government to respect and implement the human right to adequate shelter and housing is why POHDH regularly meets with officials to push for a more effective response to camp residents’ demands, particularly with regard to the government fulfilling its responsibilities for rebuilding the country.

The situation of women is an important area of work for the POHDH.  Reports have described high rates of sexual violence in Haiti s displacement camps and even the exchange of sex for food. Antonal Mortimé, the coalition’s director, notes that “discrimination towards women was, and still is, widespread and tolerated in Haitian society, because the [erroneous] concept of women’s inferiority and their mandatory subordination is so deeply rooted in the culture.”  POHDH has been working with the Haitian National Police to encourage prompt, impartial, and effective investigation of reports of sexual violence.

UN soldiers are allegedly the cause of numerous violations.  Yet less than five cases out of 758 allegations of UN soldier misconduct in the past five years have been brought to court.  Rosy Auguste of coalition member, the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights says, “Haitians are very skeptical of MINUSTAH [the UN’s military force in Haiti] because on the one hand, they stand for peace, but on the other hand they are committing human rights violations.”  Among the allegations last year were a number of severe abuses of authority within MINUSTAH, including the torture of three Haitians by Brazilian soldiers, the kidnapping and rape of a minor by two Pakistani soldiers, and the beating of students.

“MINUSTAH spends their money on expensive cars and big guns, but what Haitians need are more schools, hospitals, roads, better farming equipment and a stronger justice system,” says Mortimé. The rights violations and the cholera MINUSTAH introduced into the country have soured Haitian opinion of the force.  Needless to say, the vast majority want to see them go.  POHDH regularly meets with UN commanders to push for resolution to the violations, and bring a stop to further human rights abuses.

There is still a long way to go and the circumstances are very challenging. But with the eight organizations that make up the POHDH working on multiple fronts across the nation, important steps are being taken to develop a culture of respect for human rights in Haiti.

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