On a sweltering afternoon in Port-au-Prince, I walked with a group of visiting U.S. human-rights lawyers up to a dusty lot filled with shacks, tents, and broken-down buses and cars. These are the makeshift shelters of families who lost their homes in the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010. One family was using a dirty blanket as one wall of its shack. Others had covered the gaps in their ceilings with gray plastic sheets branded “USAID.” One of the residents of the camp gestured toward a hillside packed with more tents and shelters. “From January 2010 until now, nothing has been done,” he told us.  

We walked past temporary toilets. A resident said they’d been “full” for several months. In fact, excrement had piled up high above the rim of the pits. As we moved between shelters, we found a woman squatting between two tents to relieve herself. We saw another woman who had an open wound the size of a baseball on her left foot; she was trying in vain to keep flies from landing on its crimson surface. Insects swarmed over the mix of gray water and raw sewage running through shallow ditches in the narrow passageways between tents.

The residents of this camp are not the only Haitians still suffering the effects of the earthquake. Throughout Port-au-Prince, chalky white chunks of concrete remain piled up where buildings once stood. Nearly every inch of available space in the city is covered with improvised havens of plastic tarp and scraps of wood, serving as uncertain shelter for more than half a million people whose homes were destroyed in the quake. In shelters built on rock and dirt hillsides, residents try to sleep standing up while rainwater and mud pour over the ground beneath them.

Even so, many of these people consider themselves lucky compared to the tens of thousands who were crushed under buildings that collapsed in the quake, including schools, hospitals, and government offices. At many sites throughout the city, it took weeks to finish pulling bodies out from under the tons of broken concrete. Once the bodies were retrieved, workers would pile them next to the street, douse them with gasoline, and set them on fire.

Mario Joseph, a Haitian human-rights lawyer and the director of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), insists that the real tragedy in Haiti was not caused by an act of God: “We had an earthquake, yes, but far too many people died in this earthquake. And that is because we in Haiti have no respect for the rule of law.” Most of those who died in the quake were crushed to death by the collapse of poorly constructed houses perched on steep, over-crowded hillsides. Haitian building and zoning codes prohibited such houses, but the laws were never enforced. Now, rebuilding is stalled because investors are reluctant to finance construction in a country where it can be very difficult to prove legal title to land. Haiti’s constitution guarantees the right to decent housing, food, and health care, but these are promises the government has long been unable to keep. One predictable result of the government’s failure to restore basic social services has been the rapid spread of cholera, which has claimed seven thousand lives since an outbreak began in October 2010. The death toll would have been much lower if the government had been functioning properly but, as Joseph says, “we have this problem of impunity.”

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier began his rule over Haiti in 1971, after the death of his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In 1986, Duvalier fled the country, bringing to an end a two-generation reign of repression and plunder. In January 2011, Jean-Claude Duvalier suddenly returned to Haiti, reportedly in an effort to access millions of dollars in a frozen Swiss bank account. He hoped for the backing of new president Michel Martelly, who has close ties to Duvalier supporters. So far, Duvalier’s calculations appear to be on the mark. A Haitian judge has ruled that Duvalier cannot be prosecuted for human-rights crimes. Although that decision is being appealed, the onetime “president for life” has remained free to move around Port-au-Prince, where he is often seen in high-end restaurants and nightclubs. Martelly has said he thinks Duvalier should be granted amnesty.

“Can you imagine any other country where a former dictator accused of political murders and leaving people to rot and die in prison is allowed to just walk back into his country and remain free?” asks Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “But I think people are just shrugging their shoulders, and saying, ‘Well, that is Haiti.’ In so many ways, Haiti is the floor, the bottom, of what we expect internationally, both economically and in the performance of its government and justice system.”

Haiti’s long history of dictatorships and, more recently, a series of coups d’etat have produced a revolving door of judges and prosecutors with reputations for corruption. A Creole proverb says, Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe—“the constitution is paper, the bayonet is steel.”

Joseph and the BAI are filing civil suits on behalf of some of the victims of the Duvalier-era human-rights abuses, and they have compiled extensive evidence of the financial crimes committed by Duvalier, his family, and his aides. Joseph’s organization and its U.S.-based sister group, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), are leading the appeal of a decision blocking a Duvalier trial on charges of political violence, and they have helped persuade the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations to issue strong calls for a Duvalier prosecution. This is not the first time Joseph and his colleagues have helped prosecute political crimes in Haiti. They obtained convictions and multi-billion-dollar judgments against Haitian generals and paramilitary personnel after a 1994 massacre of civilians in the coastal community of Raboteau. That success is now cited as a template for bringing Duvalier to justice.

“A Duvalier process and trial would mean so much for Haiti,” says Joseph, who grew up in the extremely poor Artibonite Valley area of rural Haiti. “It will help people believe in the system of justice if they see a defendant held accountable who stole our country’s money and killed and imprisoned people. Not only will it let the people know we are a democracy that will seek justice. It will send a signal to current and future leaders that, if they commit crimes, they too will be prosecuted.”

The reconstruction efforts in Haiti are usually represented by images of engineers digging wells, construction workers building houses, and doctors treating the sick. But the physician most associated with relief efforts in Haiti, the Harvard Medical School professor Paul Farmer, places much of his hope for Haiti in the hands of lawyers. “The current justice system’s shortcomings—especially its unavailability to the poor—underlie almost all of Haiti’s problems, including political instability, poverty, violence and corruption,” says Farmer, who helped found IJDH and serves on its board of directors. “BAI and IJDH raise people’s expectations of their leaders and create a viable peaceful avenue for combating the great injustices in Haitian society.” 

 But Haiti is still a place where a lawyer cannot simply file a lawsuit and expect an impartial judge to rule promptly and dispassionately on the merits of the case. Even judges able to resist the temptation of bolstering their meager salaries through bribes are usually reluctant to rule against the powerful in a country with a long history of political violence. 

So Joseph and his colleagues have turned to grassroots advocacy, helping organize demonstrations by the Raboteau victims, as well as a network of families of political prisoners who protested mass arrests after the 2004 coup d’etat. They now encourage and advise camp dwellers, grassroots women’s groups, and even a progressive newspaper, which is housed in BAI’s headquarters. BAI lawyers provide feedback when camp dwellers draft public statements. They also provide legal assistance when camp dwellers get in trouble with the authorities for conducting public demonstrations—such as a recent sit-in that stopped traffic in downtown Port-au-Prince. The lawyers confront judges and prosecutors only when they have community members at their side. “The poor too often have little or no education, so they have problems getting their voices heard,” Joseph says. “Our job is to help their message reach the ears of those who have wealth and power.”

That message must also resonate outside Haiti, given continued international involvement in Haiti’s economy and politics. That’s why attorney Brian Concannon, Joseph’s former colleague at BAI, helped found the Boston-based IJDH after he moved back to the United States in 2004. Together, the Haitian and U.S. attorneys have filed international reports and complaints on behalf of Haitian political prisoners, winning the only such case ever decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Concannon and IJDH help international journalists and lawmakers understand the election abuses that are a routine feature of Haitian politics. (Last year, Martelly won the presidency only after the majority party was barred from the elections.) And the Haitian-U.S. human-rights team has shown a willingness to take on the most powerful global players. In November, after several studies showed that the cholera outbreak was triggered by shoddy sanitation practices at a UN peacekeeper base, BAI and IJDH filed a multi-billion-dollar claim against the United Nations on behalf of five thousand Haitian cholera victims.

Later on the day of our visit to the Port-au-Prince camp, we returned to the BAI headquarters. It was growing dark under the unlit rear shelter where a press conference had been held earlier in the day. Now, volunteer law students sponsored by various human-rights organizations gathered in a circle of folding chairs along with Joseph, the U.S. visitors, and finissants—recent Haitian law-school graduates serving an apprenticeship at BAI.

Joseph invited the young Haitian lawyers to introduce themselves to the visitors. In soft-spoken Creole, they shared stories of personal struggle that mirrored the recent history of their country. A young man named Michel was illegally arrested and held in prison for nine days without charges. A woman named Natasha witnessed both her father and brother being shot in the aftermath of the 2004 coup. Her family could not find a lawyer to pursue justice against the killers. Now, Natasha lives in a displaced-persons camp, where she met a BAI attorney who helped her begin a career advocating for housing rights.

Joseph listens to the finissants’ stories, and reminds the group that these young Haitian lawyers represent more than his country’s reputation for poverty and lawlessness. They also represent the possibility that Haiti will finally reclaim its proud, two-hundred-year-old legacy of liberation. “Haiti is the mother of liberty,” Joseph says. “I hope we are now building a new generation of Haitians committed to human rights.” That commitment will obviously require political activism, but it will also require basic legal reforms. “Since the rule of law in Haiti has been almost nonexistent,” Joseph says, “you have to build it.”

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: View Contents

Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He is a member of the editorial team of the Religion and Socialism working group of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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