Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Selective Memory at the United Nations: Human Rights in Haiti

By Todd Howland, Director of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, MaximsNews Column

Selective Memory at the United Nations: Human Rights in Haiti

UNITED NATIONS – 1 March 2006 / Bodies at the United Nations set the world�s standards for human rights law, but the UN still chooses to ignore these laws in many of its own activities in places like Haiti.

It pontificates about how sustainable peace can only be achieved through the respect of all human rights or through human security, but it ignores these ideas when structuring its own field operations.

The international community functions under an outdated notion of who is bound by human rights law.

Human rights and humanitarian law are debated intensely at the UN before determining whether it must intervene in a crisis, but once the UN � acting on behalf of its Member States � actually decides to intervene, the relevance of human rights law is quickly forgotten.

When it comes time to actually incorporate its own insights and empirical data about achieving sustainable peace, best practices are set aside in favor of bureaucratic turf and the self interests of individual Member States.

The United Nations seems to be suffering from a case of selective memory. Political and bureaucratic concerns trump human rights obligations in the organization and operation of international interventions because Member States and UN bureaucrats don�t think they are bound by human rights law in these situations.

When it comes time to spend money and assign experts to these missions, human rights priorities are often put on the backburner.

For the sake of the mission�s bottom line, the human rights situation on the ground is not as important for Member states writing the checks as is the desire to keep missions from becoming too broad.

Donors only want to pay for the blue helmets and the administrative infrastructure to support them. Typically less than 1% of the peacekeeping budget goes toward any project other than sustaining the peacekeeping operation.

The argument goes that any non-peacekeeping spending should be done through voluntary contributions by Member States.

These contributions come from bilateral or multilaterals who will work with government for on average two years to develop a very, very large project so that money can be released and the project implemented.

The problem with this method is that normally the host government which has received peace mission is weak and/or dysfunctional.

These two methods are maintained, while the human rights situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.

Haiti is probably one of the best examples of how adherence to these methods, for bureaucratic and political reasons, has in fact negated the UN�s ability to measurably improve Haitians� human rights, regardless of millions of dollars being spent supposedly to benefit them.

The UN Peacekeeping mission to Haiti’s annual budget averaged over twice the budget of the government of the Republic of Haiti.

This is not even considering the budgets of other international organizations in Haiti such as the Organization of American States mission, the International Development Bank, World Bank and all the Member States with missions and projects in Haiti or NGOs and corporations.

Together the international community in Haiti is exponentially better resourced than the government. Why should the Republic of Haiti be the only actor held accountable for improving the rights of the Haitian people? Why should Member States and their agents enjoy the moral high ground but no accountability?

There is something wrong with this picture where Member States can pat themselves on the back and say they are going to help poor Haiti and the poor Haitians.

While they may or may not have had a human rights obligation to intervene, the reality is that once they intervene and begin to make promises and spend money, there is no accountability. Good intentions or PR is not enough.

Just as in general principles of law, the Good Samaritan has no obligation to intervene, but if he or she does, the intervener is held to have legal obligations.

Also in general principles of law, we find joint enterprises and joint enterprise liability. The international community is part of the joint enterprise of bringing sustainable peace and the respect of the full spectrum of human rights to Haiti.

There should be shared responsibility and accountability. There is a need to clarify that Member States don�t leave their human rights obligations at home and don�t eliminate them by acting through sub-contractors like the Organization of American States or the UN.

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a point; the UN needs to be held accountable, but so do its Member States.

It is overdue for Member States to take their human rights obligations seriously and recognize that human rights law provides a framework for government action both inside and outside their own countries.

There is a great need to clarify what human rights obligations exist and how states should be held accountable in an intervention by the international community.

For that reason our organization, with other human rights groups, has brought an action to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that will be heard this week.

Our position is that each Member State has legal obligations which require them to measurably improve the human rights situation in the countries where they commit resources.

As someone who has worked inside UN efforts to bring peace and improve the human rights situation, having it known and understood that human rights law provides a framework and benchmark for success, would have helped to restructure to maximize our contribution to improving the human rights situation.

This is true for Haiti.

In Haiti there was no hot war. But every day in Haiti people die from preventable disease and from lack of drinkable water and access to even rudimentary health care. Each Member State intervening in Haiti has an obligation to improve that reality.

So much could have been accomplished in the last couple years with modest resources, even less than what was spent; if the international interventions were structured in a way to measurably improve the human rights situation.

While not every project would be a guaranteed success, certainly many projects would have helped to transform lives and give the Haitian people some control and influence over the resources being spent in their name.

This experience in and of itself is mandated by human rights law.

Political participation in the decisions affecting them is a fundamental to human rights law.

Why it can be ignored at a time of crisis is far from legally sound, especially when it is the people�s participation and empowerment that can help to build the basis for a sustainable peace through laying the foundation for good governance.

In the end UN�s Mission should be about helping the people UN rhetoric claims these interventions are about.

If this is ever going to change, UN Member States can not forget their human rights obligations at the time when the dispossessed of the world are depending on them to remember.

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