Haiti six months on

Port-au-Prince, Haiti six months after the earthquake. © OHCHR/Gianni MagazzeniSix months on from the January earthquake in Haiti – the largest urban natural catastrophe in recorded history – the enormous relief operation slowly shifts its focus and starts the process of fundamental change and reform of the country’s systems of governance. These long-term programmes are aimed at achieving for Haiti a future which offers real economic, social and political progress.

A senior official from the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR) describes the “huge willingness” he found there to address both the immediate problems of survival and the underlying structural flaws critical for sustained progress and recovery.

Gianni Magazzeni, Chief of the Americas, Europe and Central Asia Branch in OHCHR has just returned from a visit to Haiti and in this interview describes and assesses the situation there.

Q. What was your immediate impression when you arrived in Port-au-Prince?

It is still really striking when you come into the country and see so much devastation – the incredible combination of density of population and the amount of destruction. All through the shanty towns most of the dwellings are destroyed but people are still living there in very poor conditions - in rudimentary tents often even without toilets.  Life is very precarious for the one point four million people who remain displaced.  The population is no longer receiving food handouts from the international community and in some places we were told people had to pay for water distributed near camps. It will take many, many years for Haiti to recover from this terrible event.

Q. What are conditions like in the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs)?

It is not a good picture.  From a human rights point of view there are still major areas of concern; protection is a major issue, that is, ensuring the safety of women, vulnerable groups such as children, the disabled and elderly; all the basics remain hard to come by – housing, health services, food, employment. All of these problems are magnified when instances of discrimination take place or when impunity for human rights violations challenges the credibility of state institutions as well as international organizations.

Q.  What is the role of the UN Human Rights office in Haiti?

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has worked in an integrated fashion with the UN peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH) in Haiti for many years.  Following the earthquake there has been a particular focus on addressing immediate protection gaps, particularly for internally displaced people, women,   children and persons with disabilities. The Human Rights Section of MINUSTAH with the support of OHCHR and UNHCR is responsible for identifying, locating and acting on specific protection issues together with other humanitarian organisations in Haiti. The Section, which lost colleagues during the earthquake, is doing a great job in very difficult circumstances.

Q.  What is being done to address these issues?

We work with our partner UN agencies, the national human rights institution (OPC), NGOs, as well as with key government ministries especially the Ministry of Justice and the local security forces to try and provide additional protection. In saying that, one has to acknowledge that rule of law institutions, including police forces, were weak before this disaster, they then suffered greatly in the quake and much of their supporting infrastructure was destroyed.  In terms of immediate responses, lighting in the IDP camps is crucial - measures which reduce the opportunities for sexual and gender based violence. 

Q. We know the international community has mounted a huge operation there. What have the local population been able to contribute?

It was really good to see a number of the communities in Port au Prince organizing to clean away the rubble and acting to address their problems.  There is a cash-for-work program up and running: people receive a daily stipend for helping to clear away the wreckage. There again though there can be problems. The earthquake has left an estimated 2 to 4 thousand amputees in a place where people with disabilities suffer severe stigmatization.  Early reports suggest these people have less access to humanitarian aid generally and the cash-for-work programmes.

Q. What is the focus now the international operation in Haiti has moved into the recovery phase?

Haiti is also facing a huge rule of law challenge. This is recognized by key figures in the government and civil society who understand that it is critical for Haiti’s future that the police, the judiciary and the public sector are all strengthened, in line with minimum international standards.  This means in practical terms ensuring that on-going and future initiatives are in line with a comprehensive strategy for the rule of law which identifies goals for the judiciary, the police, prisons administration and the OPC, over the next 5 to 10 years. This strategy, however, must be developed and owned by key Government Ministries and state entities, especially the OPC, and then implemented with the support of the international community.

Q. A final impression?

We have to continue advocating for a human rights perspective in these situations because it is an essential precondition for a successful transition from an emergency relief phase to recovery.  To use UN Special Envoy Clinton’s words we should use the opportunity presented by this dreadful event “to build back better”. The people of Haiti are absolutely crucial in all of this: without their active engagement and support in the recovery it cannot happen.  With the assistance of the international community Haitians can aspire to rebuild the country with stronger national protection systems and rule of law institutions and become a model for other countries to follow.

30 July 2010