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We Must Protest

October 2004

I’ve just returned from the conferences of Grantmakers Without Borders (GWoB) and the National Network of Grantmakers in Miami. These conferences brought together hundreds of people who have in commom that they are trying to change the face of philanthropy in this country. GWoB is trying to increase that tiny percentage of U.S. philanthropy (less than 3%) that supports work outside of the U.S., while NNG is a leading voice for “social change philanthropy” in this country.

For obvious reasons, both conversations are of great interest to Grassroots International, so we participated actively in both conferences. We worked as presenters or as moderator in three workshops: one on land rights in Guatemala and Brazil, one on using popular education techniques to stimulate public discussion on the war in Iraq and one on human rights in Haiti today. For the Haiti workshop, we facilitated the visit of Pierre Esperance of The Haitiam Human Rights Platform (POHDH) and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR). Pierre was also a featured speaker at the primary international activists formum at the NNG conference.

Pierre spoke quite eloquently about the difficulties of doing human rights work in Haiti today. The Latorture government attacks human rights work because organizations like NCHR and POHDH highlight government human rights violations and criticize the government for doing nothing to attack the continuing problem of impunity in Haiti.

The former members of Haiti’s military and paramilitary death squads certainly don’t like the human rights activists that have been the primary voices in Haiti denouncing their past and present abuses of the Haitian people.

As if that wasn’t sufficient pressure on Haiti’s human rights community. perhaps the harshest criticism of human rights groups in Haiti today comes from those previously associated with the Lavalas government. They didn’t like the fact that human rights organizations openly criticized human rights violations occurring under the government of Jean Bertrand Aristide, and they feel that those same organizations have been slow to denounce violations against Lavalas members under the current government.

It is important to note that we are not talking about only verbal criticism here. The former military and paramilitary personnel and the members of pro-Lavalas gangs are all armed and operating with almost complete impunity in today’s Haiti. No civilian can move safely in Port-au-Prince today. Pierre and his friends working with the nine member organizations of POHDH must move with special care. I honestly would not want to be in their shoes…even for a day.

On the question of the Lavalas criticism, Pierre was very clear in Miami. NCHR and POHDH have denounced, and will continue to denounce violations carried out by anyone against those associated with the former President. At the same time, they will continue to insist that former Lavalas officials be called to account for violations they committed during the period of Lavalas rule. They will, likewise, continue to denounce the lawlessness of armed gangs associated with Lavalas.

From our perspective, it is quite proper for human rights activists to demand legal prosecution for those guilty of human rights abuses in all periods. In Haiti, unfortunately, this requires being willing to denounce the actions of a wide range of state and non-state actors.

I should say here that all of this happens in the real world of Haitian politics. Around the time of President Aristide’s departure, some of those in the Lavalas government moved quite quickly from being perpetrators of serious human rights violations against Lavalas opponents to being the victims of abuses by those ex-military and paramilitary people who helped remove Aristide from power. This put the human rights community in the challenging position of both demanding the punishment of these people for their abuses while in government, and protecting them against violations in the post-Aristide period. There are few examples in the annals of human rights work of people making this turn “on a dime” and there was certainly some lag time in Haiti, as well. If you can imagine yourself in this situation, you can probably see why this lag time occurs.

All of this takes on curious hues here in the United States. If you read the websites of pro-Aristide groups in the U.S. (and even some of the comments on this Grassroots Journal), you will see elaborate arguments suggesting that people like Pierre Esperance are actually the problem in Haiti today. We certainly believe that groups like NCHR and POHDH could be more effective in their struggle against impunity, but we prefer to contribute to that struggle by entering into partnership with POHDH and making sure that people in our country hear their views.

In general, we prefer to speak positively about the work we support rather than engage with the attacks on our partners and our work that are commonplace in our unique political environment. But when people begin to single us out by name and slander our partners in a charged environment like Haiti today, we must occasionally protest.

With ex-military and paramilitary groups gaining power each day and Lavalas gangs carrying out their own “Operation Baghdad,” to suggest that those doing their best to end impunity are the problem in Haiti is nothing short of absurd. Just like those of us hunched over our computers in this country, human rights activists in Haiti are human beings and, as such, have strengths and weaknesses. They are, however, the best hope for building respect for human rights in a situation where the odds are heavily stacked against them. As such they deserve our support, and–from Grassroots–they will continue to receive it.

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