Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti: Human rights in a time of disaster

As many of us are aware, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, with most of the destruction occurring in the capital, Port au Prince. The death toll is estimated to be at about 200,000 people, with many people still missing, and another 1.5 million people left homeless. The search for survivors continues, as many people are believed to be trapped inside collapsed buildings, even as more quakes and aftershocks continue to beleaguer the already suffering nation.

Amidst the devastation of the earthquake, the protection of Haitians’ basic human rights should be the top priority. Natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake may destroy infrastructure and order, but they do not alter human rights protections, which require specific protection in such precarious times. Haunting images from the streets of the capital, where thousands of Haitians are now forced to live, show people in great need of food, water, shelter, clothes, and medical supplies. Additionally, the lack of adequate law enforcement personnel in Haiti creates a serious security threat as widespread violence and looting have been reported in Port au Prince.

Because the Haitian government is currently unable to adequately address the needs of its people, the international community has assumed the government’s international obligations by providing humanitarian aid in the form of rescue teams, security troops, and supplies to protect Haitians’ rights to basic needs and security. As required by international standards of disaster relief, special attention must be given to Haitian women and children because of their vulnerability to human rights violations in such an environment. International actors must also ensure that their own activities do not further contribute to human rights violations; aid must be provided equally and indiscriminately.

After basic relief needs are met, protection of Haitians’ human rights must remain a priority. The international community must work with the Haitian government to provide rights beyond basic survival needs, such as the rights to education, health, and work, as well as other political, economic, and cultural rights. International attention must not fade when the initial surprise of the event does and the aftershocks cease. As other survivors of natural disaster will readily attest, the needs of the Haitian people will not end with provision of food, water, and shelter to the displaced persons. The international community should focus on strengthening and rebuilding the Haitian state to provide all human rights protections to its citizens.

The matter of Haitians who seek refuge in other countries, including the United States, must also be addressed. Under international law, individuals have the right not to be forcibly returned to the country they are fleeing if returning would post a threat to their life, security, or freedom. In this regard, the U.S. government has already temporarily suspended deportations to Haiti and has granted temporary protected status to Haitians currently in the U.S., allowing them to reside and work in the U.S. for an additional 18 months. Before initial relief efforts expire, however, the international community should plan how to respect the human rights of Haitian refugees.

The first independent nation in Latin America, Haiti is now widely known only as the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation. The recent earthquake is the latest in a series of hindrances to the country’s progress. To learn a bit more about Haiti, click here for a timeline of key events in Haitian history.

There are many ways for you to aid in Haitian relief efforts. A list of organizations accepting money donations can be found here. Organizations accepting these donations can be found here. For up to date information on Haiti and the relief efforts there, click here.

- By Kacey Mordecai, Legal Intern, International Justice Project

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