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Haiti conference: reconstruction will fail if rights are ignored, warns UN expert

30 March 2010
 

GENEVA – If donors focus exclusively on Haiti’s physical and institutional reconstruction, without paying equal attention to ensuring the future rights of all its citizens, they risk recreating the conditions that made January’s earthquake so devastating, UN Haiti expert Michel Forst said Tuesday, on the eve of a key international donor conference in New York.

“The loss of an estimated 230,000 lives in the 12 January earthquake, cannot be solely attributed to an act of nature,” said Forst, who is the UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti. “The hand of man played a major role in this disaster, most obviously in the policies and poor governance that had led to so many Haitians living for so long in a state of poverty in inadequate housing. This clearly amplified the deadly impact of the earthquake, as well as of the hurricanes that periodically test Haiti’s preparedness and the strength of its infrastructure.”

Forst said that the course charted at the Haiti donors conference, which is being held in New York on Wednesday 31 March, would be of great significance to the country’s future ability to handle such disasters, as well as to the well-being of its citizens in normal times.

“Those responsible for the country’s reconstruction, at the national and international levels, must guard against recreating the same factors that helped perpetuate rampant inequality and poverty, as well as widespread violence,” Forst said. “Generous assistance from the international community is clearly indispensible. However, the plans and strategies that are developed need to be driven by the needs and rights of ordinary Haitians all across the country, rather than imposed according to some external model. Donors need to promote the access of Haitians to social, cultural and economic rights, as well as civil and political rights. These two sets of rights go hand in hand, and if one aspect is neglected the others also suffer.”

Forst said that the future shape of Haiti’s legal system was of vital importance. “By this, I don’t simply mean rebuilding judicial and penal institutions, the police, and tackling impunity and corruption. It is also necessary to ensure that public services and institutions go beyond catering for the physical security of citizens and their property to ensure that they benefit from the full range of human rights to which they are entitled. It will be a formidable but essential challenge for the international community to integrate these imperatives into their reconstruction and development plans.”

The Independent Expert on Haiti stressed the importance of wealthier areas not being privileged over the many poorer parts of the country, since this would quickly recreate the vicious circle that existed prior to the earthquake, whereby poorer areas were neglected and could no longer sustain their inhabitants, leading to overcrowding and a range of associated problems in urban areas, especially in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Particular attention also needs to be paid to vulnerable groups and to their direct participation in decisions affecting them. “These include the hundreds of thousands of displaced people dispersed into temporary camps, or living on the charity of rural relatives who were themselves barely able to get by before the earthquake struck,” Forst said, adding that that detailed guidelines for the treatment of internally displaced people* have been elaborated and should be adhered to.

He also said donors need to pay special attention to ensuring the rights of groups with special protection needs, such as women, children, the elderly, disabled persons and people living with HIV/AIDS.

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* See: the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and the recommendations contained in the report entitled Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Situations of Natural Disaster produced by the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.

For more information on the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti, go to http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/LACRegion/Pages/HTIndex.aspx