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Human Rights is Not Just Charity in Haiti

JURIST Special Guest Columnist Monika Kalra Varma of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights says that on International Human Rights Day we need to expand our understanding of rights to include working through - as opposed to around or against - government because in places like Haiti, the old way of thinking is only enabling abuses...

Human Rights Day is not only a day to commemorate the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but a day to look towards what challenges lie ahead for realizing human rights in even the world’s most difficult of situations. There is perhaps no greater challenge in the Western Hemisphere than Haiti, nor a greater opportunity.

Haiti as a country has a tremendous commitment to human rights, one that we in the United States have a difficult time even recognizing. This includes the right to health, “the right of every citizen to decent housing, education, food and social security.” Haiti, the most impoverished nation in our hemisphere, accepts these greater responsibilities despite not yet having the resources to fulfill its obligations.

So what does a government that takes on such responsibilities do when it has no resources? It reaches out to its friends in the international community to help it grow and provide for its people. In 2004, countries around the world did just that – they pledged just over $1 billion to Haiti through the Interim Cooperation Framework, a plan to help the Haitian state develop the sustainable institutions and infrastructure necessary to provide access to health care, education and other human rights. The framework called for funds to be used in a way that empowers the government with the capacity to do its job better over time.

Donors met again last week to check on their progress. The Haitian government was commended for “sound fiscal policies” by international leaders including the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

The international community’s performance report was less than positive. Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis said that 99% of this money had not actually been disbursed. He expressed his hopes for funds to be channeled to Haitian ministries so they could strengthen their own systems to successfully carrying such work on into the future – exactly as the plan had called for.

For years, money has flowed directly through NGOs to carry out projects in Haiti, bypassing the government. Although some NGOs like Zamni Lasante, run by 2002 RFK Human Rights Award winner Loune Viaud, do work with the Haitian government, most do not. In many cases, the international community acts as an enabler, offering a quick fix instead of partnering with the Haitian government to build long term solutions. This approach takes an already weak public infrastructure and brings it to near collapse. Without the resources and infrastructure to implement its plans, the government has no ability to improve the public health situation. It is easy to point to concerns of corruption or the government’s inabilities as reasons not to fulfill pledges or to sidestep the government, but the consequences of not improving the government’s capability to eventually sustain itself infringes on Haitians’ human rights.

Although there is no obligation to assist Haiti, many countries did come together to pledge their support after many years of questionable intervention in Haiti. Once a country does choose to intervene, it bears a responsibility to the Haitian people. This line of thinking breaks from human rights’ traditional focus on a country’s obligations only extending to its own people. That paradigm fails to explain situations where wealthy donor countries have a greater impact on human rights situations than the government of a weaker host country, yet enact policies to the detriment of individual rights. There is a legal basis for obligations applying outside of one’s own borders that must be more closely examined and adhered to.

The $1 billion that the international community patted itself on the back for giving is not charity. Once a nation makes this kind of a pledge, it must actually follow through with its commitments and use the funds in a way that, at minimum, does not undermine the Haitian government’s ability to do its own job and help its own people. Under the current system, Haiti can not fully develop its own capacity and the country and its people are forced to rely on international donors and NGOs who may or may not deliver on their promises on into the future to meet Haiti’s human rights commitments.

The Interim Cooperation Framework could empower Haiti to develop internally and fulfill its responsibilities, though donor states have all but ignored it. The Haitian government is currently finalizing its Poverty Reduction Strategy, a new framework utilizing the same sustainable philosophy for donor support that intends to do just that – reduce poverty. The government developed a carefully thought out strategy to move forward. The difficulty is in getting the international community to support its plans.

Bypassing the government completely is at best wholly patronizing and at worst a direct violation of donor countries’ human rights obligations. As we celebrate human rights today, we should begin expanding our understanding of rights because in places like Haiti, the old way of thinking in only enabling further rights abuses.

Monika Kalra Varma is the Acting Director of the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights and has worked extensively on advocacy and legal actions related to the United Nations, the Organization of American States and other donor states’ obligations to human rights within Haiti.

December 10, 2006

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Perhaps if one thinks of New Orleans' residents trying to manage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with only government assistance (in a developed country,) one can begin to visualize the plight of the majority of Haitians each and every day. I do not believe that most small NGOs set out to undermine government infrastructure and enable substandard conditions to exist. Rather, they attempt to fill a void today, not tomorrow, not in FY 2008 or on some other essentially intangible timetable. NGO involvement does not carry a political agenda, in most cases, and is not bogged down by bureaucracy. While the larger problems in Haiti will only be fixed through political stability with both foreign aid and commitment, there are needs that cannot be ignored while we await such events. It has been more than two hundred years, as I understand it, and yet the larger solutions are not available to the people of Haiti. Humanitarian and faith-based organizations are not the perpetrators of poverty and ought not to be vilified while Haitians struggle to find other, more systematic and sustainable solutions.

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