Haiti: After the Shock, Building a Rights-Respecting Future

JURIST Special Guest Columnist Amanda M. Klasing, of Human Rights Watch says that following the first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, the international community and government of Haiti should allow Haitians to participate more in decision-making and increase accountability mechanisms...
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"What will happen to us?" Guylaine asks me, with quiet resolve in her eyes. The question is not rhetorical. A year after an earthquake rocked Haiti and the world scrambled to respond, Guylaine and her children live in a leaky tent in one of the informal camps that sprouted up on the day that Haiti changed forever. Guylaine is not alone; 20 pairs of eyes stare back at me waiting for an answer. Each pair belongs to a woman.

I don't have the answers they seek, so I ask them what they want. Everyone begins to shout at once, but there is consensus in the chorus. Survival. Food. Clean water. Safe shelter. School for our children. And, jobs.
Each of these women is pregnant. Clasping their pregnant bellies, they fight to have their voices heard for the first time. They tell me their stories. In March, after the government ordered aid groups to stop providing general food distribution, some women used relationships with men to secure food for their children. Other women describe rape or violence in the camps. Others tell of losing their husbands, along with their homes and all that they owned, in the earthquake. One theme is clear in every story: survival. Survival by any means possible.

News stories will run in the coming days about the anniversary of the earthquake. They will recap the size of the disaster, the unprecedented global response, the hurricane and cholera epidemic that have subsequently hit the beleaguered state, and the unresolved political crisis. The stories will also tell of how little has changed since January 12, 2010: how many remain without homes, schools, jobs. They will paint a picture of despair without an exit plan.

A question nagging the human rights community as larger and larger natural disasters destroy more homes, lives, and livelihoods across the globe in poor and struggling countries is when a humanitarian disaster becomes a human rights concern. One answer is provided by the women sitting under this tent with me.
In the year since the earthquake, no one has consulted them. They have had no opportunity to participate in decision-making on the future of their country or their own families. When aid promises are broken, they have had nowhere to turn. When men use positions of economic or political power to exploit these women for sexual favors, they have no options but to submit if they want to feed their children.

When they form relationships with men to normalize their lives or bring stability to their families, they have no access to reproductive health services to prevent pregnancy at a time when a pregnancy could be devastating to their health or their family's ability to feed itself. When they do become pregnant, they do not have access to facilities to give birth and must give birth on the floor of their tent. When they are raped in the camp, impunity is assured, and the perpetrators remain free. When their children are turned away from school because they cannot afford the uniform, they have nowhere to complain.

In the best of times, the human rights community demands accountability, participation and inclusion, and equality and non-discrimination. But these principles should also apply in the worst of times. The international legal framework recognizes human rights as universal and inalienable. Thus, the language of rights is worth no less in discussions about Haiti than discussions about Guantanamo Bay, less than 200 miles away. In the face of unprecedented disaster, the fundamental principles of human rights should be applied most vigorously.

In the year since the catastrophe, as the earthquake is called in Haiti, the international community has pledged billions of dollars in aid. Yet, daily survival remains difficult. Questions abound about what went right and what went wrong and what is to be done now. Now that the shock has passed, the people who have the most to add to the conversation on reconstruction should be included. A rights-based framework can guide the international community on how to accomplish that.

The international community and Haiti's government need to provide space for Haitians in decision-making around "building back better," without regard to gender, education, or language abilities. There are many potential avenues for participation at various levels within the recovery and reconstruction efforts. On the ground, organizations and agencies working in camps should provide mechanisms for participation in camp management and service provision. At the policy level, more women should be included in the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, including representatives from displacement camps.
The suggestion box projects used by some organizations to give a voice to the voiceless have been a symbolic first step but are insufficient to deal with the letters of desperation that were submitted.

Accountability is fundamental to a rights-respecting reconstruction, and Haitians deserve accountability mechanisms as real as the problems they face. The international community and Haiti's government should work together both to provide mechanisms for accountability and to strengthen the judicial system to address rights violations arising in the context of recovery and reconstruction.
The anniversary of the earthquake reminds the international community that the effects will be felt in Haiti for many years. Some have called the quake an acute-on-chronic event, exacerbating problems that existed before. This is also true of the human rights situation in Haiti. The daily violations of a broad range of human rights did not stop with the earth's shaking. Instead, the post-disaster situation has exposed even more clearly the fragility of human rights in Haiti.
The 20 women who sat with me on that recent day, and the hundreds of thousands more like them struggling to be heard, should no longer be cast as victims of an unprecedented disaster. Instead, they should be seen as rights-holders with a stake in their own future, the future of their families, and of their country. This new year should bring a shift in both discourse and implementation toward a greater realization of their rights.

Amanda M. Klasing is a women's rights fellow at Human Rights Watch

Suggested citation: Amanda M. Klasing, Haiti: After the Shock, Building a Rights-Respecting Future, JURIST - Forum, Jan. 9, 2011, http://jurist.org/forum/2010/09/article_url.php.

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