haiti anti corruption protest
Protesters at an anti-corruption protest in Haiti. Photo by Patrice Douge

Allegations of crimes against humanity found in a recent report from Harvard Law School could provide justification for international action to address Haiti’s political and human rights crisis, said William O’Neill, a human rights lawyer and former UN human rights adviser.

“If a country cannot or will not protect its citizens the international community must act to help protect those people,” said O’Neill, at a May 3 virtual conference. He was referencing the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect commitment, which is designed to prevent the worst forms of violence in nations throughout the world. 

An international group of human rights experts and activists called Defend Haiti’s Democracy convened the “Haiti at a Crossroads” conference, to discuss the  country’s ongoing political and humanitarian crisis. In addition to O’Neill, an economist political activists and a former U.S. government official participated in the event. 

The conference was held one week after a report from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said the Haitian government was complicit in multiple human rights violations dating back to 2018. The significance of the April 22 Harvard report and its implications for international action on Haiti were not lost on the panelists. 

Potential international actions

UN member states can act in several ways that do not involve military intervention. Methods include sending security experts to work with the Haitian National Police or sending judges to help Haitian authorities create accountability through the legal system, O’Neill said. 

“There are lots of different things that can be involved that would be more robust in terms of how we can help protect Haitians,” O’Neill said. “Clearly, as we heard, people are afraid to leave their houses.” 

The United States in particular can solve the problem of high-level impunity by sanctioning Haitian officials credibly implicated in crimes or withdrawing their U.S. travel visas. Jose Cardenas, who has held positions as a Latin America administrator for USAID and as a senior state department official, also said this year’s elections, including the constitutional referendum, have very little popular support. 

“Any Haitian official involved in the constitutional referendum or any current Haitian member of the electoral authority should be considered to be sanctionable, for their undemocratic actions,” Cardenas said. “You can influence behavior tactically and strategically.”

Suggested actions for Haitians 

Activist Velina Charlier was direct when characterizing Haiti’s current political and economic crisis, during a May 3 virtual conference about Haiti’s current state. 

“Haiti’s biggest problem isn’t corruption, it is impunity,” said Charlier, an activist who has been involved in the Petrochallenger movement. “We have not seen the Petrocaribe scandal set the tone for better governance.” 

Moreover, the nearly $4 billion embezzled from the Petrocaribe fund could have funded economic development and an alternative to gang life, Charlier said during the event. 

Although international actors can play a role, panelists noted that many of the solutions for improving Haiti’s political and economic fortunes must come from Haitians themselves.

Since 2018, protesters in Haiti have called for different governance, focused on improving social outcomes, said Monique Clesca, a writer and retired UN official. 

Protests “have prompted a call for a different governance system that is not based on corruption,” Clesca said. “We want dignity, we want health care, we want everything that everybody else has [in developed nations].” 

For the current government, led by President Jovenel Moïse, economic objectives have fallen by the wayside, said economist Etzer Emile, of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s gross domestic product has declined for two straight years, per the World Bank, due in part to political instability and COVID-19. 

While the government budget is limited, unsuccessful police operations have wasted millions of dollars that could be used on water infrastructure or youth programs, Emile said. 

With the focus on the constitutional referendum, the economy is not on leaders’ agenda, Emile said. “We really need to work together to bring governance to this country that can pursue social and economic objectives for all, in terms of jobs and better conditions for everyone.” 

Swift reactions and discussion

Broadcast on Facebook Live, the event received 4,300 views. The comments section was also lively and often critical of the suggestions for international intervention.  

“Why is the intervention after the fact and not used as a preventive measure?” wrote one commenter, Sarah Menard. “We Haitians are not ignorant.” 

Other commenters called for new leadership in Haiti and for Haitians worldwide to speak up for the type of country they want. 

The event included pre-recorded remarks from Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Both congressional representatives called for leadership change in Haiti, while Waters said she opposed the constitutional referendum as an illegal power grab. 

Johnny Celestin, a spokesperson for Defend Haiti’s Democracy, moderated the event. Celestin also called for new leadership and spoke out against the referendum, questioning its feasibility amid the climate of insecurity. 

“We ask ourselves, will this help, or cause further chaos?” Celestin said about the referendum. “And are elections truly feasible in the [current] circumstances?”

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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  1. The structural cause of Haiti’s problems stems from the fact that Haitians were the first to dare tell to their oppressors that they would no longer be their slaves. It was a unanimous call among them that it was preferable to die instead of living under the yoke of slavery. The revolutionary war which lead to the freedom of the slaves in the colony of Saint Domingue in 1804 was a tremendous victory, unprecedented in the world. That revolution has had some heavy consequences for the White people at all levels, particularly upon the world economy. For the first time a group of uneducated slaves were able to, with great discipline and determination, foment a revolution to secure a definite victory against the strongest army in the world at that time, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, to secure their freedom. Haiti became the Mother of Freedom. And that was an unforgiven decision. It was unacceptable by almost, if not all, the Caucasian nations. Their deceptions were manifested through an embargo they have imposed on Haiti ever since its independent was declared in 1804. Since the Spanish, the English and the French, who were beaten in the same manner by the slaves-army, were unable to have Haiti renege on its principle that slavery was inhuman, they didn’t want to accept us or deal with us as equal. Their hatred was uttered by one of the racist US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he uttered these words in a declaration on Haiti: “We have to constantly raise the barefoot against the people in shoes and put the people in shoes in a condition to tear each other apart, this is the only way for us to have a continuous predominance on this country of negroes which conquered its independence by the arms. Which is a bad example for the 28 million black people in America.”
    As I have said before, Haitians must understand that the help we need to change Haiti will never come from the outside world, it must come from us. We must understand that we have within ourselves and in our country everything we need to make it happen. Let us organize ourselves to take a first step toward the change you want and it will be manifested. It can be done through love for one another, togetherness, self confidence upon a base of respect. We need to understand that the name of the game is to control us, to keep us from having access to development. The best way to do so is to make sure that our enemies, our so-called Haitians counterparts, the sold-out, are well remunerated to play their roles to keep us divided so the corps-group can better position themselves to make of our country their strategic reserve while steeling our resources. Haiti needs our understanding and unity so our future can be a better one. It is up to us daughters and sons of Haiti to say the last word. This is in each other where our hope can truly be shaped and strengthened.

  2. Very important to do something as soon as possible. A very representative group from civil society is taking interesting step to suggest some key points of an alternative.

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