Chris Jochnick recently posed a critically important question when he asked if courts, activists and lawyers really can make a difference on poverty. And I think we can safely say yes. Right now, a partnership between the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, known as BAI, and their US-based partner, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) is the driving force behind a remarkable multi-level, multi-forum, multinational campaign to obtain justice for the victims of the October 2010 Haitian cholera epidemic.
Importantly, the campaign did not begin in a lawyer’s office or in the headquarters of an NGO. It was launched in the streets of Haiti. The Haitian people have a proud legacy of grassroots activism that dates back to history’s only successful slave rebellion and the subsequent ouster of dictators like Jean-Claude Duvalier. So, within days of the October 2010 outbreak, Haitians organized and demonstrated by the thousands outside of UN bases in the country, insisting on jistis ak reparasyon—justice and reparations—for the devastation they experienced.
Ansel/Flickr (Some rights reserved)
A placard from a protest against MINUSTAH on the one-year anniversary of cholera outbreak, for which the UN peacekeeping mission is blamed by many Haitians.
But the basis for my optimism is best illustrated by a scene from a recent morning in the Port-au-Prince offices of BAI. On this particular morning, in an open area behind the building, twenty women from a group living just outside the slum of Cité Soleil are holding a press conference, calling for more women to be appointed to government offices. “Ti machan [women street merchants] and women farmers are the engine of Haiti’s development, so they should be a part of the decision-making,” one of the group leaders tells reporters. The press conference is a follow-up to spirited demonstrations held by hundreds of Haitian women in front of government ministries.
On the front porch of the BAI offices, rebuilt after damage caused by the January 2010 earthquake, five students from a US law school sit in front of their laptops, cardboard boxes of documents at their sides. Recruited by IJDH, the students are spending a school break inputting data on thousands of claims made by BAI clients. These clients are some of the 600,000-plus Haitians who were sickened or lost loved ones in the cholera epidemic, an outbreak triggered by United Nations troops’ reckless disposal of untreated human waste.
Haitian law students have just left the BAI building, on their way to make observations and collect statements at internally displaced persons camps that have not received promised services of toilets and clean water. The BAI’s director, Mario Joseph, who rose from rural poverty to become Haiti’s leading human rights lawyer, is in Geneva on the same day, testifying as part of a UN review of Haiti’s human rights record.
Meanwhile, a man walks out of a room in the back of the building, carrying a stack of newspapers. The newspaper is Haïti Liberté, distributed in the United States, Canada and Haiti, with its Haitian headquarters here at BAI. In 2011, Haïti Liberté, in partnership with the US magazine The Nation and the transparency-advocacy group WikiLeaks, drew from thousands of diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world for a series of damning articles about US policies toward Haiti.
The man distributing the papers is Yves Pierre-Louis, recognizable with his gray-flecked beard and plaid shirt as one of the people in the front lines of several recent demonstrations in and around Port-au-Prince. To Pierre-Louis, the Haitian editor of Haïti Liberté, it makes perfect sense for BAI to be hosting this mix of litigation, community organizing, and international partnerships. Pierre-Louis points to Haitian President Michel Martelly’s platform of “Four E’s”—Education, Emploi, Environnement, and État de Droit (Education, Employment, the Environment, and Rule of Law)—and insists they would not exist but for the people of Haiti demanding the president take action. “Yes, law exists on paper in Haiti,” Pierre-Louis says. “But corruption is so high that poor people cannot afford justice. So we have to hold demonstrations and protests to force the judge to reach fair results and the president to respect the rights of the poor.”
As Jochnick points out, the human rights movement has often struggled to follow an approach of grassroots empowerment and to embrace economic and social rights as a target. But the scene in Port-au-Prince demonstrates that there is at least one model of global South-North partnership that effectively combines traditional human rights tools like litigation with a bottom-up approach, along with a fierce dedication to abolishing the crushing inequities that cause widespread poverty.
Only after these grassroots efforts did the international human rights community begin to mobilize, led by the BAI and IJDH. Now, the campaign includes direct action in Haiti and in front of UN headquarters in New York, advocacy to UN member states, media outreach, an award-winning documentary film, scientific and university reports, and online petitions, among other components of the effort.
And yes, there is litigation against the UN on behalf of thousands of cholera victims. Oral arguments are set to be heard on October 23rd in the case of Georges et al. vs. United Nations et al. The litigation is important, but it does not overshadow the other components of the advocacy. In fact, the cholera case is only one piece of the broad human rights agenda pursued by the BAI and IJDH. The partnership also led the effort to prosecute the former dictator Duvalier for his human rights crimes, was a key part of the coalition responding to post-earthquake rape crisis, and consistently pushes for free and fair elections in Haiti.
My recent book about this partnership, How Human Rights Can Build Haiti, illustrates how human rights advocacy—to the extent that it embraces economic and social rights and keeps a laser focus on empowering grassroots leadership—can truly build Haiti. And it can help build a better life for the rest of the world’s poor as well.