Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Demand a human rights approach to rebuilding in Haiti: A guest column

by Jeanne M. Woods

By Contributing Op-Ed columnist

March 10, 2010, 4:29PM

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January, thousands of its citizens are reversing a trend that has defined life in Third World countries for decades: They are migrating back to the countryside.

haiti_earthquake_day_of_mourning.jpg People raise their hands Friday during a national day of mourning in front of the national palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. / The Associated Press

Policies promoted by multinational corporations and enforced by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund forced peasants off their land and into urban factories run by foreign corporations. No longer able to feed themselves, the people became dependent on expensive imports or food aid that further undermined their agricultural sector.

What will happen to these traumatized survivors upon their return to their villages? More important, who will decide?

A huge donors’ conference is scheduled for later this month at United Nations headquarters in New York. Throngs of governments, financial institutions and charitable groups will converge to map out a strategy for Haiti. Who will receive the billions sure to be generated, and for what projects? And where are Haitians as this agenda is set?

Those who want to help Haiti must demand a “human rights approach” to its rebuilding. This is an approach mandated by international law: the right of Haitians to determine their destiny.

A human rights approach requires a focus on people’s basic needs. It includes the construction of hospitals, schools, and agricultural infrastructure — employing local people — especially in the countryside, where the majority of Haitians live. It requires an agricultural policy that emphasizes the ability of people to feed themselves, rather than growing a single crop for export.

Thanks to this unfathomable disaster, some of Haiti’s international loans have been “forgiven” – loans that required Haiti to pay $1 million a week in interest to wealthy countries. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has introduced a bill that would cancel $800 million owed the U.S. That’s a good start, but a human rights approach is about more than money.

We in New Orleans have witnessed a non-human rights approach to post-disaster re-building. When Hurricane Katrina (and U.S. government ineptitude) engulfed our city, The Wall Street Journal published a “blueprint” for its rebuilding. It included proposals like ending affirmative action and annulling pro-labor laws. Not long afterward, most public housing developments, though not severely damaged by the storm, were bulldozed. Those who lack the means to come home appear to have been forgotten.

We should not let this happen to Haiti. Will people now earning the legal minimum of $3 per day see their wages further degraded in the name of development? Will rural land be turned over to foreign agribusinesses?

Will Port-au-Prince be rebuilt as a First World showcase in lieu of building and maintaining affordable housing, schools and clinics?

Or will Haiti be a first again?

Will it repeat its glorious revolutionary history, this time reconstructing the country not along lines of color and wealth, but on the basis of fundamental human rights?

Jeanne M. Woods is the Henry F. Bonura Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University in New Orleans, where she teaches international law and human rights. She is the author of “Human Rights and the Global Marketplace: Economic, Social and Cultural Dimensions.” She may be reached at

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