Message from Jeena Shah, Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network Fellow
Reports this past week of MINUSTAH shooting at persons demonstrating against the cholera epidemic brought to my attention that what I have seen over and over again in the two months I have been in Haiti is the repression of displaced Haitians seeking to vindicate their right to adequate living conditions. In a period of 36 hours, our team of housing rights lawyers at the BAI witnessed three separate instances of state agents suppressing attempts by displaced persons to exercise their right to associate freely.
The first instance occurred during a demonstration organized by camp leaders and the BAI on the ten-month anniversary of the earthquake. On yet another hot, sweaty, and dusty morning, members of dozens of grassroots groups and camps rallied together outside of the Prime Minister’s office to protest the upcoming elections while they are still living under tents. I chanted along with the other protestors “Kolera ap touye, nou pa ka sipote l (Cholera is killing, we cannot bear it).” And I held a red card in my hand along with the other protestors, as we verbally handed them out to President Préval, Prime Minister Bellerive, MINUSTAH, the United Nations, and international NGOs, for their abject failure to provide displaced persons with decent housing and decent living conditions ten months later. I asked one grassroots organizer, Dieula, why this protest was important to her. Over the past month, she has become a friend of mine – she is a mother of two, living in a camp in Cité Soleil, and she has one of the most powerful voices on a megaphone that I have ever heard. She explained to me, “we organized this protest because we have been living under tents for the past ten months, and the state and NGOs have been stealing the money [meant for reconstruction]. And now a serious problem of cholera has come, but we cannot afford treated water. We are fed up.”
The protest was generally peaceful. Some cars were physically stopped from entering the road next to the Prime Minister’s office, but that was basically the point of the protest. We needed to be seen and heard by those in power. And then it happened. I witnessed a heated argument several yards away from me. A police official tried to take a picture of one of the demonstrators – a young man. This was viewed as an act of intimidation. As I watched the young man try to evade the photo and the exasperated look on his face, I felt my frustration rise – peaceful demonstrations cannot even take place without some act of intimidation by those with power.
While one half of our team was at the demonstration, the other half had gone to court. Jean*, a young man living in a displacement camp, has been attempting to organize other displaced persons against the threats of evictions they have been facing. Threatened by Jean’s exercise of his constitutional rights, the purported owner of the land on which his camp sits tried to bring charges against Jean for supposedly posing a threat to camp residents. When BAI lawyers went to court with Jean, the team identified several constitutional due process violations committed by the judge, including possible corruption. Our legal team knew that had BAI not been present, Jean would have been arrested and thrown in prison without a shred of evidence. While that did not happen, the judge did advise Jean to leave his camp. When the other lawyers de-briefed me later that day on what had happened in court, I felt my frustration rise once again – community organizing cannot even take place without some act of intimidation by those with power.
The third instance occurred at a camp the following day where our legal team was holding a training on the right to housing and the government’s responsibility to provide its citizens with decent housing. As we navigated our way through the largest camp I had visited in Port-au-Prince since I arrived in Haiti, we passed by a huge open area of the camp filled with a large video screen, loud music, and posters of the Inite party (the political party currently in power) littered everywhere. When we arrived at the site where our grassroots organizers were meeting, we learned that our training was actually supposed to be held in the open lot we had just passed, but that members of the camp committee, who did not appreciate a training that would share anything negative about the current government, organized another event to block our training. Those members of the camp committee even approached our group and began threatening violence. We went ahead with our training anyway. Though the new place was much smaller, the attendance definitely was not. As one of our lawyers, Patrice, lead a fiery presentation of the camp residents’ human right to decent housing, we heard a rock crash on top of the tin roof we were crowded under. I felt my frustration rise for the third time in 36 hours – a human rights training cannot even take place without some act of intimidation by those with power.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of our clients.
Jeena Shah is an American-trained international human rights attorney working with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince as a Lawyers Earthquake Response Network Fellow for one year.