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Institutionalizing Human Rights in Haiti

NCHR's Human Rights Program



I. Introduction

Since the return of constitutional government to Haiti in 1994, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights has focused on three tasks designed to encourage the institutionalization of democracy and respect for human rights: the strengthening of Haitian civil society, the training and deployment of the new Haitian National Police (HNP), and the reform of a corrupt and despised legal system. Attacks on the HNP in 1996 with the HNP increasingly using unwarranted force in response, the on-going paralysis of the Haitian justice system, and local organizations continuing to struggle to promote human rights awareness in their communities, have confirmed the decision to make these areas priorities for NCHR but have also demonstrated the need for additional effort and support if NCHR is to continue having an impact on reinforcing the rule of law and respect for human rights in Haiti.

This is particularly so with judicial reform, an area in which the United States government is playing the principal role through its funding of a multi-year, $18 million dollar program administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The hope for meaningful justice in Haiti lies with the USAID initiative -- no other institution, domestic or international, has a significant role in this area. Unfortunately, the project's first six months have turned out to be disastrous. NCHR has closely followed the program since its beginning and heavily criticized the organization and management of the USAID subcontractor in Haiti, resulting in late 1996 in a USAID reappraisal and subsequent reorganization of the project.

As the only human rights organization with offices in both Haiti and the United States, NCHR has established a sound record of careful analysis and reporting on the human rights situation in Haiti and has seen many of its recommendations on securing improved observance of human rights adopted by the Haitian authorities. NCHR has ready access to key decision-makers in Washington, the United Nations and other capitals important to Haiti (Canada, France and the Dominican Republic). This unique access to on-the-ground information and opinion combined with NCHR's presence in the US creates the potential for us to help shape international efforts to improve the Haitian police force's respect for human rights, reform the Haitian judiciary and strengthen the capacity of grass-roots groups to protect rights, based on accurate and timely assessments of the situation in Haiti and local needs as identified by Haitians themselves.

II. Strengthening the Capacity of Haitians to Protect and Promote Human Rights

While Haitians have relied on the assistance of the United States and the international community to restore democracy and political and economic stability, responsibility for the consolidation and preservation of democratic institutions and equitable economic development now rests with the Haitian people themselves, particularly the 70% of the population living in serious poverty who suffered the most under Haiti's past military and civilian dictators.

Unfortunately, the military regime's campaign in 1991-94 to destroy all community groups left Haitian civil society weak and divided. While key neighborhood groups, peasant organizations and other non-governmental entities no longer have to hide or fear death or systematic persecution, their ability to effect change or have their voices heard is limited. Having had no experience electing and lobbying public officials or working with a rights-respecting police force or an honest and competent justice system, the essential cooperation and trust between the population and government officials, especially law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, is lacking, undermining efforts to improve the HNP and the justice system and encourage the full participation of the poor in political life and economic development.

In 1995, NCHR launched its long-standing plan to offer an intensive training program on human rights to interested grassroots activists in Haiti. Ultimately, it is expected, this program should help Haitians create a civil society characterized by broad knowledge of and respect for human rights principles, and individuals and organizations advocating before all levels of government institutions, including the courts, the prisons and the police.

The first sessions were held in April and June 1995, training fifty enthusiastic activists representing peasant organizations, urban neighborhood committees, women's groups and other popular organizations from six of Haiti's nine geographical departments. NCHR's Haiti office had come to know all the organizations involved before or during the coup period, and most included members who had been victims of the military regime's abuses. NCHR specifically requested that organizations send women wherever possible, and 40% of the participants in the initial two sessions were female. Since almost all of the participants are extremely poor, NCHR covers all session expenses, including transportation, meals and lodging.

Given the enthusiastic response to the preliminary sessions, NCHR staff determined to develop an advanced program for reinforcing and supplementing ideas and skills already shared. About 35 of the activists who attended either of the two training sessions held earlier in 1995 also took part in a follow-up session in November. Presenters at the advanced training section included a trainer from the Haitian Police Academy, a Haitian lawyer, a leading human rights activist, and the coordinator of the Organization of American States/United Nations Civilian Mission's (OAS/UN Mission) office in Port-au-Prince. The bulk of the "skills" component was taught by NCHR staff members from the Port-au-Prince office with assistance from NCHR Senior Consultant William O'Neill, a former OAS/UN Mission legal director and Deputy Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Documents (the Haitian constitution, human rights treaties, posters and educational materials -- all in Creole with plenty of illustrations) donated by the UN Mission and Project Democracy (a USAID-funded project) were given to the participants, who in their written evaluations once again awarded high marks for the program's instructional methods and the usefulness of the material covered.

As of early 1996, this action program had already provided popular movement activists with an understanding of their fundamental human rights, how these rights are reflected and guaranteed in Haitian and international law, and the basic tools and techniques of human rights monitoring: investigating, interviewing, advocacy and report writing. In addition, the program introduced participants to staff members of the Haitian Justice and Truth Commission, the OAS/UN International Civilian Mission in Haiti and others in the Haitian and international professional human rights community. The program informed these activists of legal, medical and other resources available for victims of human rights abuse. Furthermore, it suggested approaches for obtaining justice for victims of abuse, particularly for those who suffered violations during the period of military rule from 1991-1994, by offering assistance in preparing dossiers for presentation in the courts. The training also emphasized strategies for presenting information, concerns and complaints to the new police, how to conduct prison visits and how to communicate with elected representatives in regional and national legislatures. NCHR's training focuses on the practical, not the academic or theoretical. Role playing, solving hypothetical problems based on real life cases, and identifying issues that concern most Haitians on a daily basis form the core of the training course. NCHR promotes the notion of "training the trainers" by requesting that participants share what they learn with members of their organizations or communities once they return home.

The training program also reinforces NCHR's work in its other core areas, the police and justice systems. For example, several course participants provided valuable information on the performance of the HNP which the NCHR conveyed to the Director General and Inspector General of the police and to trainers at the police academy who all agreed that based on these observations, the HNP needed to pay greater attention to community policing principles. NCHR also plans to include the views of program participants in its up-coming report on the police.

NCHR's Port-au-Prince office has continued to expend enormous time and effort throughout 1996 offering intensive training courses for Haitian human rights advocates. Four sessions (each lasting five days) have been offered with an average attendance of 30, usually half of whom are women. Participants have come from all parts of the country, often traveling great distances with enormous effort involved. One participant from southwestern Haiti had to take two boats and one public taxi to arrive 24 hours after she began her trip. In response to suggestions from participants, the course was lengthened from its original four days so that more time is given to certain subjects and new issues are covered.

In July and August 1996, staff from NCHR's Port-au-Prince office traveled throughout Haiti to interview participants in the training courses and other appropriate parties to evaluate the effectiveness and utility of the NCHR training in promoting awareness of human rights and in enhancing the protection of these rights. NCHR representatives interviewed participants, their colleagues and others in the area (lawyers, members of other popular organizations and where possible, observers from the OAS/UN Civilian Mission to hear their assessments and gather suggestions on which subjects and skills need more attention in subsequent training sessions. The results of this survey are still being compiled and analyzed, but initial reviews indicate that the training has been most useful. Participants surveyed said they would like to see longer training sessions with the chance to do more follow-up work in subsequent training.

The need to expand the training programs

The recent disturbing events in Haiti, including a rise in apparently politically-motivated killings, the targeted assassinations of police officers with a resulting increase in police misconduct and deteriorating civilian-police relations, and the Malary trial fiasco have led many commentators to question the underlying stability of Haitian democratic institutions. With the international civilian and military missions scheduled to leave Haiti by the middle of 1997, NCHR believes that there is an urgent need to expand the highly successful grassroots training and education program. Program expansion is focused in the following areas:

1. Expanding the training sessions. NCHR's plans for the 1997 calendar year call for six training sessions, four on the fundamentals of human rights monitoring, reporting and promotion and two more advanced courses scheduled for late Fall. NCHR plans to add two more days to each session, and one or two subjects will be added to the curriculum. In carrying out our program, we have come to realize that including too many issues for discussion within the limited number of days over which the course was held was eventually counterproductive as it did not allow the trainees sufficient time to digest the materials and be confident that they understood the basic principles involved. Although participation in our courses has generally been high, we believe that a much higher level of involvement could be achieved, should enough time be allowed for the trainees to become acquainted with each other and with NCHR staff and session leaders, and with the course materials. More importantly, lengthier sessions might be instrumental in building among the trainees the confidence necessary to see themselves as trainers in their own rights as they go back to their hometowns and their villages armed with a newfound knowledge of human rights and begin to teach their colleagues and friends in the grassroots groups.

2. Providing refresher and advanced sessions. Refresher, follow-up sessions are critical to help those trained maintain and deepen their knowledge and skills. NCHR will hold such sessions twice each year in Port-au-Prince. The classes will also permit participants to discuss with other trainees and NCHR staff the usefulness of the course materials and methods to their work in the period since they completed the initial weekend session. This evaluative component of the program should help NCHR ensure that its design fulfills the needs of the participants, allowing for curriculum improvements as suggested in the participant evaluations. These sessions are an invaluable opportunity for the participants to describe their work, successes and failures to each other which is an extremely powerful learning tool; these discussions also reinforce a "team" approach which mitigates feelings of isolation and frustration, especially in rural Haiti where vast sections remain difficult to reach and communications are non-existing. The participants will come to understand that others face similar challenges and that they are part of a burgeoning Haitian human rights community.

3. Adding mediation and conflict resolution to the basic training menu. This means finding appropriate experts in this field and developing Creole language training materials. Based on extensive interviews and its own long and deep involvement studying the patterns of repression, violence and rights violations in Haiti, NCHR is convinced that mediation and conflict resolution training could be enormously helpful in not only stemming tension and resolving disputes quickly and at low cost, but that the police and justice system will also greatly benefit from the application of proven methods of mediation. NCHR has initiated preliminary discussions with the International Human Rights Law Group, an organization with extensive experience in training local NGOs in mediation and conflict resolution in Zaire and Cambodia. The hope is that by combining country and subject matter experience and expertise, NCHR and the Law Group could offer a solid training component on these issues.

4. Developing video-based training courses. NCHR is also seeking to package the training program into an informative videotape program that could be made available to a larger number of people and groups and could be a useful tool to the trainees as they seek to inform their peers of human rights work. Recording the presentations of speakers, especially those who may not be able to attend future training courses, will enable NCHR to use these recordings again with little or no cost. Many grass-roots organizations may soon have periodic access to videotape players in their home regions, either through a school or church affiliation. These groups could then present NCHR training on-site without the expense and effort of voyaging to Port-au-Prince. Thus, NCHR training will be able to reach larger numbers of individuals, particularly when those who have already participated in a NCHR course can use the materials to train other members of their organizations and local communities. Finally, videotaping is a powerful training tool. NCHR stresses skills such as interviewing and how to present findings to government officials. Videotaping these exercises and then showing them to the participants for their reactions and critiques would add a vital methodological element to the training process.

5. Creating and maintaining a Haiti-wide network. Another critical follow-up program will be instituting a network of these trained grassroots human rights advocates. Given the dearth of advanced communications systems in the areas represented by the trainees, maintaining regular contact with them by either telephone or post will be unlikely. Instead, NCHR has developed a plan for NCHR staff to make quarterly reconnaissance visits to various regions, so that each of the organizations reached through the training program receives a visit from an NCHR representative at least twice each year. We anticipate that these ongoing personal contacts will help assure fulfillment of two of NCHR's primary objectives for the training -- that those trained are empowered to return to their homes and pass on what they have learned to other members of their organizations and others in the vicinity, and second, that NCHR is committed to a continual reassessment of its training with the most important critiques coming from course participants.

III. Setting the Stage for Judicial Reform

It was clear from the moment that Aristide returned to Port-au-Prince in 1994 that the reconstruction of a tattered, corrupt judicial system, debilitated by decades of dictatorial rule, would be the top priority for the consolidation of democratic government. NCHR played a prominent role in working with the new Haitian government to reform the administration of justice in the country. Our efforts in this area, led by William O'Neill, former legal director of the OAS/UN International Civilian Mission in Haiti, began with the 1995 publication of No Greater Priority: Judicial Reform in Haiti, a special bilingual report outlining recommendations for bringing the country's justice system into line with both the Haitian Constitution and international human rights standards.

NCHR's advocacy on justice issues had a discernible impact, and No Greater Priority itself meaningfully informed the national and international dialogue on bringing Haiti's judicial administration into line with its Constitution. The document, for example, helped shape the proceedings of a March meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee, held at UN headquarters in New York, where the Government of Haiti presented a report to the Committee on the country's implementation of the guarantees found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Our findings were also highlighted extensively in Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali's November 1995 report to the UN General Assembly on Haiti's human rights situation. The report was widely discussed and cited to by key actors in Haiti's Justice Ministry and legal community.

NCHR Monitoring and Intervention

Concurrently with NCHR's analysis of the needs of the judicial sector, the United States government launched its judicial reform program in 1995 through USAID. We determined to closely follow the development and implementation of this program and to advocate in Washington for appropriate policies. USAID contracted with the Checchi Corporation to implement an $18 million multi-year legal project in Haiti. NCHR met with Checchi and AID officials in October and November 1995 when the project was just beginning and urged them to consult with Haitian NGOs and Haitian lawyers and to tap the extensive experience and expertise of the MICIVIH human rights monitors. That advice was ignored. Continued NCHR monitoring of the program's development into 1996 revealed grave design and management problems, particularly the narrow and overly-technical approach to legal reform adopted by Checchi and USAID. The lack of reform results was made evident in late July 1996 when, in a trial that garnered international coverage, two men charged with the murder of Justice Minister Guy Malary were acquitted on all counts by a jury. This case showed the sheer incompetence of the main prosecutor's office and underscored all the weaknesses in the Haitian justice system that persist two years after the end of military rule.

In the first three months of 1996, NCHR joined with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights to present a series of memoranda and letters to, followed by meetings and conference calls with, senior US officials detailing our concerns about floundering reform program. As a result of these interventions, USAID and the US Department of Justice sent a three-person assessment team to Haiti in April 1996 to investigate the US administration of justice project. After the visit, this team reported that it agreed entirely with NCHR's analysis of the USAID/Checchi project. Its members acknowledged the gravity of the problems we had identified and promised that appropriate changes would be made. A number of crucial personnel changes have already been implemented and Checchi's program is being revised under a new in-country Mission director. USAID's Port-au-Prince office also changed the staff on its judicial reform team. It is estimated that a heavily revised program will be launched in late Fall 1996. And, finally, NCHR was informed in late September 1996 that the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) will oversee all training at the judicial academy as part of the revised program.

Monitoring the Revised USAID/Checchi Program

With USAID's recent promise to modify its administration of justice program, it is crucial that NCHR verify that necessary changes are being made to the Checchi project, and to evaluate the new role of the USDOJ.

Specifically, in coordination with a Haiti-based legal advocate, NCHR will monitor the programs developed first and foremost by USAID, but also by the European Union, France and Canada, the United Nations, the World Bank and the GOH to reform the judiciary and institutionalize such reforms. We will systematically compile information on these initiatives, analyze them in accordance with human rights standards, the needs of the country and other comparable situations. NCHR will conduct its own investigations of the impact of reform measures on the courts, behavior of judges, lawyers and prosecutors as they carry out their responsibilities. William O'Neill who has headed our efforts in this domain since 1994 will be making periodic visits to Haiti to assess our efforts, guide our programs and bring his prestige and authority to bear on the USAID/Checchi representatives in Washington, DC and others involved in the implementation of judicial reforms.

NCHR plans to intensify its efforts to educate and inform US policymakers, US and Haitian lawmakers, the Haitian public, international donors and NGOs through briefings and published reports. Such activities would be carried out on a consistent basis both in Haiti and in the United States, and in other international arenas as funds permit. Reports should be published in French and English. In the United States, NCHR would seek to coordinate its efforts with other human rights NGOs to maximize the impact of its efforts.

Most importantly, NCHR would actively advocate for meaningful reforms wherever necessary and seek modification of reform plans through policy changes and other necessary initiatives. NCHR would seek to promote its analysis of the progress made in implementing reforms and obtain commitments to change from the sponsors of the reforms as indicated above. The advocacy would be carried out in public forums as well as through private channels.

IV. Conclusion

The next 12 months will be crucial in determining whether Haiti has truly jettisoned its dictatorial past and has begun to create institutions capable of protecting rights and installing the rule of law. The transition to democracy remains incomplete and the impending withdrawal of UN troops and civilian human rights monitors reinforces the need for NCHR and others to redouble their efforts to make any gains irreversible.

For more information, please contact Merrie Archer.



NCHR's Strategy

  See also:
  Judicial Reform in Haiti
  La réforme judiciaire en Haïti
  Human Rights News
  Archived Human Rights News
  Overview: Mass Expulsions and Deportations
  IACHR Decision of Sep 14, 2000
  CEJIL: Comunicado de prensa
  Related Links
  Campaign Overview
  How You Can Help
   Restavèk: Four-year-old Servants in Haiti - Haiti Insight Dec '96 / Jan '97
  Contact Information
  Open Letter to the Haitian National Police
  Open Letter to the Haitian Minister of Justice
  December 2001 Report
  NCHR Calls on Haiti's President to Ensure Safety of Human Rights Advocates
  NCHR Pays Tribute to Jean Léopold Dominique
  Event Photos
  The Sound of Silence
  more on . . .
    Jean L. Dominique
    Michèle Montas
    Michael S. Hooper

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti (1994)


Peacebuilding in Haiti: Findings of the International Peace Academy regarding challenges to peacebuilding in Haiti.

  Peace Brigades International, Haiti: Reports from the PBI contingent in Haiti on conflict resolution and political challenges.
  Situation of Human Rights in Haiti: Report of the UN Commission on Human Rights, 1996.
  MICIVIH OEA/ONU: La police nationale d'Haiti et les droits de l'homme
  State Department 1997 Haiti Report
  Haiti Held Hostage
Report of the Watson Institute
  Amnesty International Report
HAITI Steps Forward, Steps Back: Human Rights 10 Years After the Coup (27/09/2001)


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