Blaine Bookey, Mass Dissent
The Haitian Proverb, dèyè mòn gen mòn, meaning, “beyond mountains, there are mountains,” has taken on new meaning since January 12, 2010. With 230,000 and counting dead, thousands more injured or maimed, and millions pushed into further poverty and despair, Haiti faces enormous challenges. Developing a long-term legal response that advocates for the human rights of earthquake victims and reduces Haiti’s vulnerability to the next environmental, economic or political disaster will play a central role in overcoming those challenges.
Haiti’s devastation exposed the disastrous effects of decades-old policies that systematically undermine the Haitian government and ignore the needs of the majority of its people. The earthquake itself was a natural phenomenon, but its horrible toll is largely the product of manmade factors. The international community, including the United States, implemented neoliberal “adjustments” and austerity measures that flooded Haitian markets with low-cost agricultural products, driving large numbers of Haitian farmers to leave the countryside and move into densely crowded urban slums. In these “bidonvilles,” the government failed to prevent shoddy construction on precarious slopes or to provide safer housing. As a result, victims of these austerity measures – the poor – were some of the hardest hit victims of the earthquake.
To date, relief efforts have fallen short for several reasons. Primary among them, the US-led efforts have adopted a military-based strategy, prioritizing security over the victims’ immediate needs and the long-term welfare of the Haitian state. At a time when there is an unprecedented opportunity to increase Haiti’s capacity, private firms are jockeying for lucrative reconstruction contracts and policymakers are singing the praises of sweatshop factories as the key to Haiti’s economic salvation without paying heed to lessons learned.
Only one cent of every US aid dollar makes its way to the Haitian government that remains unable to provide basic services to its citizens, compared to 33 cents that pays for the military presence. Factors, such as Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and notorious corruption should be good reason for investing in infrastructure and good governance, not for bypassing Haiti’s government altogether. Excluding the government now might expedite aid and relief in the short term, but it will also expedite the return of disaster when Haiti is unable to handle the next inevitable environmental stress.
Guild members Brian Concannon, Bill Quigley, Ira Kurzban, Joel Kupferman, Blaine Bookey and others are coordinating a legal response through the Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network (LERN). LERN lawyers have issued statements urging international donors to follow rights-based approaches to humanitarian and long-term assistance, advocated for more generous humanitarian parole into the U.S. of Haitians who need medical care or have family here, and distributed thousands of fliers (in Haitian Creole) outlining the rights of internally displaced people through our grassroots networks in Haiti. Future projects include fighting for safe housing and minimum labor and environmental standards while developing replicable models for international legal response to large-scale natural disasters.
As it becomes more feasible, the Guild will work with LERN to send a fact-finding delegation to investigate the distribution of aid and the role of the US, among other human rights concerns. Guild lawyers have a long history of bringing attention to injustice in Haiti at times when the media has been absent or negligent in its reporting. In 2004, the Guild sent two delegations to Haiti to investigate human rights violations in the wake of the US-led ouster of President Aristide. Many of the victims of the bloody coup, those living in the poor and densely packed slums of the capital, came from the same neighborhoods that housed the majority of victims of the current tragedy. Their bodies share a final resting place in mass graves in Titanyen outside the capital, a sobering reminder of the pervasive inequality that continues to claim lives and stifle Haiti’s growth.
The people of Haiti have rebounded time and again from catastrophes, giving the world lessons in courage and tenacity. Those of us watching from afar can find hope and comfort in Haitians’ resilience. But we should also get to work to make sure that next time Haitians do not need to rebound from so far down.
Blaine Bookey is the Development Director for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and an attorney with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, Haiti.