The media loves talking about lawlessness in Haiti (ad infinitum), which often leads to graphic depictions of ubiquitous violence. Many Haiti activists retort that these narratives brim with “unattributed false statement[s].” They point to the testimony of journalists like Sebastian Walker: “Haitians are among the most friendly, peaceful people I’ve ever encountered.”
Those informed by the mainstream media typically conclude that Haiti’s “lawlessness” necessitates more UN troops to impose security, while the justice-minded bemoan the “myth of Haiti’s lawless streets.” At this point, dialogue usually ceases as each side retires with their preferred conclusion.
Framing Rule of Law Issues Effectively
Human rights attorney Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), however, frames rule of law issues in a manner that allows for overcoming this impasse.
This framing was illustrated at a recent IJDH event, where Concannon poignantly illustrated the human impact of Haiti’s weak laws:
Much of the mortality of the earthquake in Haiti was really a consequence of the failure of the rule of law. If the rules for zoning and the rules for building codes had been enforced, some people would have died… but many fewer – probably a tiny fraction.
… [Haitians] are unable to enforce the basic rights… that keep us from living in misery or great vulnerability. Those include things like contract rights, property rights, the right to a fair wage… the right of families to child support, and the right to education. The inability to enforce these rights… reinforces the cycle of poverty and prevents people from breaking out of it.
A Recipe for Starting Conversations, Not Preventing Them
Two aspects of his framing are particularly significant for the purpose of this discussion.
First, he identifies specific rights – such as contract, alimony, and education – that can actually be evaluated. Saying a place is “lawless” is catchy, but doesn’t mean anything. More importantly, the word “lawless” impedes conversation because one camp always adds “…and violent” as soon as that label is applied.
Second, he identifies a specific process: enforce one’s rights. This too promotes dialogue and action, because one can identify socio-economic and political factors that either facilitate or prevent enforcing rights.
More significantly, framing it as a question of the ability to enforce rights places dignity and empowerment at the center of the law discussion. Those advocating a military response to weak laws believe outside actors can impose the rule of law on Haiti. By contrast, capability can be nurtured or encouraged, but it can’t be imposed (PDF).
Influencing the Rule of Law in Haiti: Case Studies
Following the belief that specificity spurs dialogue, we analyze three actual examples of how outside interventions affect the rule of law in Haiti. We’ll assess them in terms of the framing outlined above.
Two of the examples involve the UN presence, which merits extra attention because at $850 million per year it’s the largest effort to “enhance the rule of law in Haiti.” The third example involves the work of IJDH.
The UN and Rule of Law in Haiti
(In)ability to Seek Criminal Justice
Last year, a 16-year-old Haitian named Gérard Jean-Gilles was found hung by a wire from a tree inside a MINUSTAH base. He worked for the Nepalese troops running errands, cleaning, and translating. At the time of his death, he had recently been accused of stealing $200 from Joëlle Rozéfort, a UN interpreter.
Many alleged that Rozéfort, who was believed to be dating the chief of the base, arranged his death. Rozéfort subsequently ignored three subpoenas from a Haitian judge summoning her to court.
The UN says Jean-Gilles hanged himself. However, rather than assisting the investigation by bringing in Rozéfort, the UN blocked legal proceedings by transferring her to a different part of Haiti. Edmund Mulet, then head of MINUSTAH, said the UN would continue to block investigations “barring a decision by the UN Secretary lifting her immunity.”
The immunity law prevents UN members from being tried in Haiti. However, the law applies to foreign officials and soldiers, whereas Rozéfort is a Haitian citizen. Scott Sheeran, a peacekeeping law expert at the University of Essex, says the idea that immunity applies to Rozéfort “is not a good faith interpretation of the law.”
In this case, the UN’s actions obviously suppressed the criminal law system.
(In)ability to Exercise Right to Child Support
Rose Mina Joseph, a 17-year-old resident of Port Salut, gave birth to a baby boy on Sep. 16. The father is a Uruguayan UN soldier. According to a letter from the UN, the soldier was sent home for having sex with a minor.
As for child support, the UN claims they’re “following up on [it].” However, Joseph reports that she only received one payment, well before the baby was born. Again, UN immunity prevents Haitian courts from enforcing her right to child support.
The Paradox of the Using the UN to “Enhance” Rule of Law in Haiti
These cases illustrate a striking paradox.
The UN brought 12,200 soldiers and many other officials to Haiti. They interact with Haitians daily, often in heated or violent contexts. However, none of these people are accountable to Haitian legal institutions. That means every Haitian who interacts with the UN only has legal protection at the UN’s discretion.
Additionally, the UN employs many locals like Rozéfort, which creates an even worse problem. While foreign soldiers may be punished at home for crimes committed in Haiti, Rozéfort effectively answers to no country’s legal authority unless the UN lifts her immunity.
The result is that Haitians can find themselves in a situation where they lack legal protection after an encounter with the UN. Haiti activists decry the “culture of impunity” among peacekeepers, but this implies something even deeper: under current arrangements, the UN is structurally incapable of enhancing the rule of law in Haiti.
The UN’s legitimacy to promote the law is irreparably compromised because it removes so many from the law’s reach. More importantly, observing the UN’s example undermines the people’s trust in the Haitian legal system. Last week’s protests demanding “justice for Jean-Gilles” prove that these cases send a clear and enduring message: the law only works for those in power.
The Role of Framing
The framework described above enabled us to sidestep the debate about whether the UN has bad intentions or whether it does more good than harm. Instead, we assessed whether the UN positively or negatively affected the ability of the Haitian legal system to function in a specific situation.
IJDH and the Rule of Law in Haiti
Access to Responsive Legal Services
The third example we consider is the work of IJDH and its sister organization in Haiti, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). One of their recent projects is the Rape Accountability and Prevention Project (RAPP).
The standard UN response to a problem like sexual violence is to provide physical security via military presence. As we’ve discussed, this leads to selective suppression of Haitian legal processes. Yet their approach is the inevitable consequence of defining Haiti’s problem as “general lawlessness.”
Conversely, IJDH/BAI identified a specific problem: victims of sexual assault were often ignored or treated with indifference by the legal system. Articulating a specific problem created the basis for an effective response. IJDH/BAI focused on increasing access to the legal system, and ensuring that the system responds.
To do this, they provide victims of sexual assault legal services to help them navigate the system and to encourage accountability within it. In pursuing their goal, they partner with grassroots groups of victims seeking justice (e.g. FAVILEK) and providing post-assault services/counseling (e.g. KOFAVIV).
We argue that IJDH/BAI’s targeted, effective approach is only possible because they articulate an actionable problem: the Haitian legal system’s failure to serve victims of sexual assault. They bring this same mindset to all of their major initiatives.
The contrast between this approach to enhancing rule of law and the UN’s approach cannot be overstated. Rather than addressing general “lawlessness” with a security intervention, IJDH/BAI assist Haitians in enforcing specific rights. By accompanying people through the system, they not only empower them to enforce their own rights, they also improve the system’s capacity to perform its duties.
The contrast begins with different ways of framing rule of law problems in Haiti. We at HJA proudly support IJDH as a partner group because they frame and approach rule of law issues in a way that will create sustainable, structural change.