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?”