Partnering for Rights: Rebuilding Haiti after the Earthquake

The human rights community has been sharply split over Haiti since the late 1990s. From one perspective, Haitians’ main problems consisted of civil and political rights violations–brutal tactics used by leaders once beloved by all, corruption in ministries, and the withering of democratic ideals. From another point of view, the Haitian people were suffering grave violations of their economic and social rights as a result of the deliberate hobbling of the government by the international community’s neoliberal policies and blocking of aid. Like most polarized discourses, this one held kernels of truth and also missed big parts of the picture. The fact is that the widespread, pervasive denial of the most basic economic and social rights in Haiti–to food, water, and healthcare–has, since the founding of the republic, been intertwined with the inability of the nation’s poorest people to access justice on a daily basis. It’s time to put to bed the idea that civil and political rights compete with economic and social rights, or that one set of rights is more crucial than the other.

Haiti has itself had a complicated relationship to the concept of human rights. Born of the audacious idea that the French declaration des droits de l’homme actually referred to all human beings–including those who were brutally enslaved–Haiti has been ostracized and punished by the international community ever since. Sometimes this ostracism has come through the discourse of human rights itself. Perhaps the best historical example is the crushing indemnity the fledgling Haitian state was coerced to pay to France in the name of the right to property in 1825–a payment by a newly free people as the price of freeing themselves. More recently, the international community–led by the United States–blocked in 2001 a series of loans aimed in part at rehabilitating and extending the health and water systems–crucial to the fulfillment of the rights to health and life. Amid allegations of faulty parliamentary elections, the United States used the language of civil and political rights to halt disbursement of loans that would have funded clean water systems and improved sanitation for Haitians in poor communities. In addition, the U.S. government’s years-long policy of sending foreign aid to non-governmental organizations while bypassing the government helped weaken the already fragile Haitian state’s ability to effectively govern. By definition, NGOs rarely construct infrastructure and public works. They do not organize elections or pay the salaries of judges and police officers. Improving human rights through NGOs alone, therefore, is a fool’s errand.

Now, as Haitians suffer in the shadow of ruined government ministries charged with ensuring basic services; as individuals who have languished for years without trial walk free after their prison walls cracked open; and as the international community meets in northern capitals to plot Haiti’s future, it’s time to adopt a single rights-based standard for the recovery and development of Haiti. This time, it’s crucial that the discourse of human rights not be used to defeat state-building and popular participation. As the budgets of large U.S.- and Europe-based humanitarian aid NGOs swell, the international community owes it to the Haitian people to adopt the same human rights standards for itself that it has used to critique the Haitian government. This rights-based standard–which requires capacity-building, transparency, accountability, and participation–should apply to all efforts to improve the situation in Haiti.

To ensure capacity-building and participation, the international community–donor states, large NGOs, and the United Nations–must partner closely with the Haitian government and the nation’s people in its relief and rebuilding efforts. The aim should be to fortify and expand a public infrastructure that ultimately belongs to the Haitian people. Without this, NGOs may create privatized systems that are not accountable to the population. Rebuilding and construction should be based on plans designed with the participation of the Haitian population. Using the model of Zanmi Lasante (Partners In Health), which has successfully partnered with the Ministry of Health for decades, organizations should join with their counterparts in relevant ministries to improve public systems and invest in Haitian human capital. Food aid organizations should work closely with the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that their aid does not displace local markets. Water assistance should be undertaken in cooperation with the Ministry of Public Works so that the management of new purification plants and kiosks are accountable to the Haitian people. New schools should be built in conjunction with the Ministry of Education and made available to children for free. The bulk of the work–and thus, the bulk of the salaries for this work–should go to Haitians, not volunteers or consultants from rich countries. When expertise is needed, it should be sought in Haiti; if it can’t be located inside the country, Haitians in the diaspora should be recruited as a matter of priority, and investment should be made in training Haitians.

To ensure accountability, the international community, led by the United Nations, should commit to transparency from top to bottom. The United Nations Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, should set up a monitoring body that would function openly–perhaps through an interactive website modeled on, coupled with popular means of communication in Haiti (like the radio)–where every single dollar of aid pledged to Haiti can be tracked. Analysts should be enlisted in donor states to ensure that their governments deliver on promised aid, and Haitian monitors should be employed to report on what is actually happening on the ground. Progress and obstacles alike should be made public, and human rights violations must be reported and redressed. A complaints system should be put in place to ensure that when things go wrong, some redress is available, no matter the identity of the perpetrator. This dual-direction transparency would go a long way toward fostering accountability for both donors and recipients.

Finally, recognizing that human rights principles must govern engagement with Haiti means that the international community should forgive Haiti’s remaining international debt. Without complete debt relief, the Haitian government will be required to commit resources to loan repayment that could otherwise go to fulfilling the human rights of the population to food, water, and education. It also requires dismantling the unfair agricultural subsidies that northern states pay to their farmers, which have undermined Haiti’s domestic and export agricultural markets. Removing the shackles of unfair trade and debt will allow Haiti to build an economy that serves its people instead of international creditors. The language of rights may have become hollow in recent years as advocates spoke past each other, but these principles can now guide the rebuilding of a ravaged nation founded on the idea that human rights could free us all.

This paper was originally delivered at “Haiti in Context: Perspectives on the Current Crisis” a roundtable/teach-in organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU, January 20, 2010.

Margaret Satterthwaite is Associate Professor of Clinical Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU School of Law. Along with collaborators from CHRGJ, Zanmi Lasante, Partners In Health, and the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, she co-authored
Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti (2008). The same team is now collaborating on a project on the right to food in Haiti. Sattterthwaite worked for the Commission nationale de vérité et de justice in 1995 and has worked on human rights issues in Haiti in a variety of capacities since.

margaret sattherwaite