Haiti’s human rights challenge

Two weeks after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, its people are confronted with a human rights crisis. Amnesty International has identified some of the country’s biggest human rights challenges and outlined a plan that puts protection of human rights at the core of relief and reconstruction efforts.

Exploitation of children
With families separated and schools destroyed, thousands of children in Haiti have been left without protection. The most vulnerable could become prey to the traffickers.

There is also a risk that children could be caught in irregular adoption processes – a risk increased by the interest of families abroad who would like to adopt Haitian children orphaned by the earthquake. Haitian institutions also have a lack of capacity to determine the status of children and ensure their rights are protected Separated and unaccompanied children might wrongly be considered orphans.

International adoption should be a last resort, used only after domestic alternatives have been exhausted. The Haitian authorities must ensure children are not taken out of the country without the completion of formal legal proceedings for international adoption.

Family tracing should be a priority for the international community, the Haitian authorities and international aid agencies.

Security and law enforcement
The Haitian government’s ability to ensure the rule of law has been severely undermined by the earthquake. Establishing a functional justice system to deal with the most serious crimes should be a top priority.

There is a growing concern that prisoners convicted of violent crimes who escaped from Port-au-Prince’s National Penitentiary are trying to regain control of the most deprived and vulnerable communities.

In response to this threat, community members have organized themselves to prevent gangs from taking over communities. However, this could put community members at risk of spiralling violence. Amnesty International has received reports of lynchings and incidents of mob justice where alleged looters have been killed.

There are also reports of alleged looters being shot by police. Haitian authorities must ensure that firearms are only to be used by police in self-defence and as a last resort. The Haitian authorities must also set up a provisional detention centre, as the country’s main prison has been destroyed and other detention centres are overcrowded.

Rights of the displaced
Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless by the earthquake and many have fled the devastated areas.

Displaced people must be supported to make voluntary and informed decisions about their future. Any relocation of internally displaced persons from camps or disaster areas must be voluntary, unless the safety and health of those affected requires evacuation. They should not be coerced in any way, including through the suspension of assistance. All displaced persons have the right to return to their former homes unless safety issues prevent it.

Violence against women
In post-disaster situations, women and girls are often particularly at risk from sexual violence, exploitation by traffickers and reduced access to sexual, reproductive and maternal health services. Their disadvantage in accessing aid is well documented.  
Those involved in the relief and reconstruction efforts must ensure that the prevention of all gender-based violence, in particular sexual violence, is integrated into their work.

Accountability of international forces
More than 10,000 US troops, 150 military personnel from the Dominican Republic and 800 Canadian soldiers have been deployed in Haiti to provide security for the distribution of aid.

The terms of deployment and rules of engagement must be clarified from the onset and respected by all international forces The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) personnel must also be governed by strict rules of accountability. In the past, leaving accountability for violations solely to the discretion of troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions has lead to impunity for serious human rights abuses.

Haiti’s foreign debt
In 2009, international financial institutions and other creditors cancelled US$ 1.2 billion of Haiti’s foreign debt. Despite this, Haiti still owes hundreds of millions of dollars to its creditors.

The repayment of this debt now represents an unacceptable burden on Haiti’s population and national economy. Amnesty International has called on all creditors to cancel Haiti’s debt. Insistence on repayment would hinder Haiti’s ability to meet its human rights obligations.

All financial resources available to Haiti in the years to come must be channelled to reconstruction programmes that ensure Haitians’ welfare and access to basic services, and equitable and sustainable development.

Image caption: Men fight over a bag of rice during UN food distribution, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, © AP GraphicsBank