Human Rights Watch
In light of today’s briefing to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations, Alain Le Roy, on the humanitarian situation in Haiti, we write to bring to your urgent attention our preliminary recommendations to improve human rights and humanitarian protection in Haiti, based on an in-country field investigation completed on February 12, 2010. During its mission, the Human Rights Watch team visited 15 of the largest camps for the displaced in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel (housing 5,000 to 35,000 individuals each), and interviewed over 150 individuals-camp residents, local officials, staff of the international relief agencies and UN bodies, as well as local activists and NGOs.
It is clearly a matter of serious concern to all that despite the large-scale international effort to help the victims, the majority of the 1.2 million people left homeless by the earthquake continue to be in desperate need of vital assistance and protection. We are particularly concerned that efforts to acquire land needed to allow relief agencies to establish camp sites that meet international standards are progressing slowly. In the absence of such camps, hundreds of thousands of Haitians may have to persist in squalid, unsafe conditions which could become deadly as rainy season begins. The current camps also lack security leaving their residents, in particular vulnerable groups and women and girls at risk of violence. We believe that to address this, it is important that priority be given to the following issues:
Shelter and living conditions
None of the camp sites visited by Human Rights Watch had shelters erected in accordance with international standards, such as those set out by Inter-Agency Standing Committee in their Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters. The vast majority of the displaced live in makeshift huts made of wooden poles and pieces of cloth; very few have received tarpaulin cover. According to the update from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on February 16, relief agencies have so far distributed only 17,000 family-size tents-thus reaching less than 10 percent of people in need of shelter; additionally, 87,000 tarpaulins were distributed.
All of the camp sites visited by Human Rights Watch were severely overcrowded, and with one exception had no proper sanitation facilities (latrines and showers), or no sanitation facilities at all. According to OCHA, only 5% of latrines are in place in the camps.
Many of the large camp sites currently located on hill sides are in danger of being flooded once the rainy season begins in late February-March.
In order to decongest the existing camps and relocate people from unsafe areas, it is necessary that more suitable and appropriate land be made available for humanitarian relief efforts. In this regard, one obstacle is that much of the land which could be used for such efforts is privately owned. The requisition or expropriation of private property for the public interest, in situations such as these, when accompanied by due process and fair compensation is permitted by international law. The Haitian constitution also provides for such measures. However there is little evidence that meaningful efforts have been made to negotiate the land acquisition and secure proper land titles. It is essential that this be given priority and that the Haitian government is urged to proceed promptly in accordance with international law to acquire the necessary land, and that this be done in a non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory manner. When such lands are available to be used to provide shelter for the displaced, relocations should proceed on a voluntary basis, taking into account groups with special protection needs.
In addition to people who lost their homes but stayed in their original locations, over 500,000 people, according to the latest UN estimates, have left Port-au-Prince for outlying departments. The massive influx of the internally displaced puts an enormous burden on the receiving rural communities, with certain households hosting up to 38 people. Efforts to distribute relief aid and increase the provision of services, such as medical assistance, to the displaced in outlying departments and to the host communities should become an integral part of relief efforts by the Haitian government and the international community.
With large, overcrowded camp sites located in open areas, security of the displaced people living there is a growing concern. None of the sites visited by Human Rights Watch in Port-au-Prince had a permanent security presence, nor benefited from regular security patrols; the vast majority had no lighting.
Human Rights Watch interviewed representatives of Haitian National Police as well as other security forces currently present in Haiti, including troops with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and UN Police. While all of the forces have been involved in providing security to humanitarian convoys and food distribution sites in the city, there is clearly a gap with respect to provision of security at camp sites.
The lack of security presence at camp sites renders camp residents and in particular women, vulnerable to various forms of abuse, and affects the ability of relief agencies to deliver and distributed much-needed aid to the displaced.
Increased vulnerability of women
The conditions in the camps make women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and other forms of violence. The lack of security presence at camp sites, the lack of lighting, inappropriate shelter which often forced women to share makeshift tents with complete strangers, and the lack of proper sanitation facilities increase women’s exposure and sense of insecurity.
The distribution of food coupons exclusively to women, while a welcome step to ensure their access to food, at the same time could also add to their insecurity as long as the arrangements are not made to ensure that women can maintain control over the food after they leave a distribution point.
In the course of the investigation Human Rights Watch documented three cases of rape, as well as a case of attempted rape and several incidents of domestic violence. All three rape cases happened in the course of one week at the same camp site in downtown Port-au-Prince. All three were gang rapes, and the camp residents believed that the perpetrators were still in the camp. Yet, despite the efforts of a local activist to report the incidents and get the police involved, there has been no response, and no security forces have come to investigate or to patrol the site.
Documentation of gender-based violence in the post-earthquake situation has been extremely challenging given that the existing reporting mechanisms have collapsed, the women’s shelters stopped functioning, and women’s groups themselves suffered major losses and many of their offices have been destroyed. Most international and local workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch believed, however, that the cases of gender-based violence are likely underreported, and the numbers will increase unless urgent measures are taken to address the factors conducive to sexual abuse.
Access to Food
With the exception of one camp site in Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince, none of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch at large camp sites in Delmas, downtown
Port-au-Prince, Petionville, and Cité Soleil have received any food assistance in the form of cooked meals or rice rations.
Reports from OCHA and World Food Program (WFP) suggest that WFP’s two week “food surge” program has reached over 400,000 households with a two-week ration of rice. However the program did not reach some of the large camp sites for reasons that appear to include the location of distribution points far from the camps, the absence of security arrangements that would allow distribution to take place at large sites, and the reliance on local officials for distribution of food coupons- who have reportedly targeted primarily the households in their constituencies. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about two reports it received that local officials responsible for food distribution allegedly sold or otherwise withheld food coupons that they were supposed to distribute.
The most vulnerable groups of the displaced-people with disabilities, pregnant women, and women with small children, in many cases could not participate in the program as it required the coupon holders to walk, often long distances, to distribution sites, and then carry 25 kg bags of rice back.
In light of these findings, Human Rights Watch believes that urgent attention needs to be given to implementing measures which reduce women’s vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, in particular at large camp sites. Such measures could include the erection of shelter that would provide women a certain degree of privacy, ensuring security presence at camp sites and availability of reporting mechanisms for problems, ensuring women’s access to safe and hygienic sanitation facilities, and ensuring that women have access to accurate information about various forms of assistance. We would also encourage further monitoring and evaluation of food distribution strategies to ensure that the food assistance reaches the most vulnerable groups, including women, children, and people living with disabilities at camp sites.
In addition, Human Rights Watch would make the following recommendations:
- Urge MINUSTAH to support the Haitian government in making all necessary efforts to acquire suitable land plots for the establishment of new camps in accordance with international law, and ensure that the titles for the allocated land are legally valid;
- Urge MINUSTAH to provide security at camp sites to protect camp residents, especially women, and to provide security to enable relief agencies to distribute much-needed aid especially for the most vulnerable among the displaced. MINUSTAH should coordinate with other security forces present in Haiti, including Haitian National Police and the UN Police to meet security requirements;
- Urge all UN member states to suspend any involuntary return of Haitian migrants to Haiti until such time as conditions conducive to sustainable returns in safety and dignity are established.
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