“…our biggest case is the case of the UN cholera. We work with people who were, who got cholera, which is an infectious disease that has killed about 10,000 Haitians and sickened another million. We work with the families of people killed and the people who survived cholera to push the United Nations, which brought cholera to Haiti, to act responsibly. Acting responsibly means providing some help for people who lost a lot in the cholera epidemic.”
See the full transcript below:
I’m Brian Concannon. I’m the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and my job is a human rights lawyer. And human rights is a pretty broad concept. It can include things like the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to get together. It can also include the right to clean water, to health care, to education, and to food. And so, because human rights are broad there’s lots of things that human rights lawyers can do.
The common theme of all of that is to do something to help enforce the rights, to help people who are not having their rights respected, to get those rights respected– whether it’s getting more food, whether it’s being able to write whatever they want in a newspaper, or the right to vote.
My particular work is in Haiti, and I’ve worked in Haiti, now, for 21 years. Over that time, we’ve worked on a range of different human rights issues. We first started off on working on political massacres, so we represented people who had their loved ones killed, or people who’d been arrested, beaten up, sometimes jailed for a long time to try to get justice against the people who were responsible for the attacks against them. We did that not just to give people a sense of justice, I think that’s important, but we also did to try to stop those kinds of things from happening again.
A big part of our work is if human rights problems are investigated and where appropriate people are pursued by the justice system in a fair way, that’s going to reduce the amount that these things happen over time. We also work on–although we started off on things like political massacres, we’ve expanded that quite a bit. We work on the right to vote. In a series of elections that just finished in Haiti, we were working to make sure that Haitian voters were able to choose freely their leaders. The type of work we did on that was we wrote reports, we did investigations of problems with candidates, being able to register, of people not able to vote, of people who claim that there were problems with the way votes were counted.
Probably our biggest case, is the case of the UN cholera. We work with people who were, who got cholera, which is an infectious disease that has killed about 10,000 Haitians and sickened another million. We work with the families of people killed and the people who survived cholera to push the United Nations, which brought cholera to Haiti, to act responsibly. Acting responsibly means providing some help for people who lost a lot in the cholera epidemic.
For example, there are families where kids had to be pulled out of school because their mother or father died, and they weren’t able to afford school fees anymore. We’re asking for them to get the money they need to be able to go to school. We’re also working on pressuring the UN to put in the water and sanitation systems you need to stop cholera. And that’s something we’ve been working on for 6 years, and we’ll probably be working on for at least another 10 years.
We found that that kind of long time commitment is necessary. There’s some things you can do in 6 months or a year. But most of the big things- most of the really hard social justice or human rights struggles- require a lot of time. They also require a lot of people working together. There’s a Haitian proverb “men anpil, chay pa lou”, which is “many hands make the load light”. That’s one of the slogans for our work. We’re only a few lawyers and we can’t by ourselves make a difference, but we have, within our organization, we have a staff of lots of other people who aren’t lawyers, but they help out. We also have hundreds, and thousands actually, of people and organizations that are willing to work with us to try to have human rights in Haiti respected.
In terms of what’s challenging about human rights, I think the challenging part is time. A lot of the fights that we’re involved in they take a lot of time. You need to be engaged in them for years, there’s a lot of frustration, you’re losing a lot of the time. You’re often asking yourself whether there’s any hope of success. It’s especially hard if it’s something that’s really important. You see people are suffering or dying, and you really want that to change. It’s hard for that change not to happen quickly. And if you can make the change happen quickly that’s great, but, at least in our experience, often you can’t and you have to figure out a way of keeping yourself sustained and engaged so that you can keep fighting. And all your allies so they can keep fighting until you eventually get that change.
In terms of what’s good about being a human rights lawyer, you know sometimes we win, sometimes we get people, who have throughout their lives they’ve been denied justice and all of a sudden, we give them an opportunity to get justice. We had a very good experience on this recently with the UN cholera case, where after 6 years of fighting, we finally convinced the UN that it did need to take responsibility and they’ve promised to put in clean water and sanitation and give vaccines and to help some of the families that have lost their loved ones. That’s something that’s going to save hundreds of lives, it’s going to reduce misery for thousands of families. So that’s something that we can feel really good about.
We also feel good about how that victory happened. It was because of the Haitian proverb “men anpil, chay pa lou,” we were proud of the role that we played but the best part about it was that we had so many people that were working with us to help make that justice happen.
Having so many people, it’s good because you get results, but it’s also good just because you get a lot of support and you feel better about it and you feel more energized if you have a lot of friends along for the fight.