Tim Fenster, The Stylus
March 5, 2012
When the January 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, the island nation was briefly thrown into the international spotlight.
However, Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), said issues that caused more than 200,000 deaths in the earthquake plagued Haiti long before the disaster struck.
Poverty, poor building practices and ineffective building code enforcement in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince fueled the earthquake’s devastation, Concannon said during a Friday, March 3 lecture at the College at Brockport.
Concannon was in the area to receive the White Dove award from the Rochester Committee on Latin America (RCLA) for defending human rights in Haiti, associate history professor Anne MacPhersonsaid.
MacPherson said she thought Concannon was the perfect person to address issues facing Haiti, which have largely fell out of the public’s attention.
“He’s someone who’s worked in solidarity with the Haitian people for about 10 years,” MacPherson said.
Early in the lecture, Concannon noted that two people died in the structurally-secure National Palace, while slums in the hills around Port-au-Prince were largely wiped out.
“Anyone walking through those [slums] before the earthquake knew that they were death-traps,” Concannon said. “Everybody knew that (the slums had) very precarious housing, and why would people move their families into what they knew was precarious housing? Because they had no other choice.”
Haiti’s building code was good enough to point out homes shouldn’t be built on these hills, but the government wasn’t effective enough to enforce the code, Concannon said.
“It’s very important to always keep in mind that Haiti’s earthquake was to some extent a natural disaster, but the fact that 200,000 or more died was really an economic disaster,” Concannon said.
The aftermath of the earthquake still plagues many Haitians.
According to a January 2012 report by Oxfam, an international confederation of non-profit organizations, more than 500,000 Haitians are still homeless, living in tents or under tarpaulins.
Haiti has received much international aid, but Concannon said that in some instances this aid is actually hurting the recovery.
For example, America sent Haiti a lot of food aid, but this actually increased hunger because it put many poor Haitian farmers out of business. Concannon said reports show a direct correlation between food aid and hunger in Haiti.
Furthermore, UN aid workers stationed in Haiti caused an outbreak of cholera in October 2010, which has killed tens of thousands of Haitians, Concannon said.
“The UN’s liability is absolutely clear — it’s clear that they introduced the cholera (and) it’s clear that this was an extremely negligent action,” Concannon said.
The UN has an agreement with the Haitian government that protects the organization from lawsuits. However,Concannon said it’s also the UN’s responsibility to provide an “alternative mechanism” for compensation, which he said it has not done.
“The UN has not done so — they have refused to address any of the problems they caused,” Concannon said. “They’ve set up some things, but it’s nothing comprehensive. (There is) no compensation for the people who lost the only wage-earner in their family or lost everything they have.”
Therefore, Concannon said he helped file an $800 million to $1 billion lawsuit against the UN on behalf of 5,000 victims of the cholera outbreak. If properly allocated, this money could save some 10,000 lives, Concannon said.
In order to be effective, Concannon said the recovery effort must go beyond the immediate problems of hunger, disease and homelessness caused by the earthquake.
“It’s a situation where you have a lot of deep-lying problems and then it was given a stress that, because of those fundamental problems, caused a lot of acute problems,” Concannon said. “Just getting rid of the acute problems is not going to make Haiti stable. You have to address some of the longer-term problems.”
Therefore, IDJH has been working to empower poor and neglected Haitians.
After the earthquake, IDJH noticed a surge in rape and violence against women, which it addressed by distributing whistles and teaching women how to fend off potential rapists, Concannon said.
The group also organized night patrols, which eliminated all reported rape cases at one camp, Concannon said.
IDJH has also been working to fight the poverty and inequality which allowed for the creation of the hillside slums that collapsed during the earthquake.
“By establishing the rule of law, [we are trying to] level the playing field so that poor people are able to enforce their basic human rights,” Concannon said.
Concannon also urged the dozens of Brockport students in attendance to help support the reconstruction of Haiti. He said there are three things Americans can do:
One, people can stay informed, while also being weary of what they read about or hear from the mainstream media. Concannon said there are reliable sources of information on the Internet.
Two, people can “stay engaged as a citizen and as a consumer of media,” Concannon said.
Three, one can volunteer and/or donate to the recovery effort.
“There are a lot of local organizing in Rochester that you can do to try to [promote] justice in Haiti,” Concannon said.
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