As turmoil grows, Haiti’s rights record goes under review at the UN

A woman at the procession of the Immaculate Conception, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 8 December 2021, in which God was asked for the "liberation" of Haiti from the evils that afflict the country. (Credit: Keystone/EFE/Johnson Sabin)

Haiti’s human rights record was placed under the spotlight this week at a UN event in Geneva that focused on the country’s protracted political crisis, deadly gang violence and recurring natural disasters. 

The process, known as a universal periodic review (UPR), comes six months after the assassination of its president Jovenel Moïse, which plunged the country, already suffering from years of unrest, into further turmoil.

It was the first time the Caribbean nation’s human rights situation was scrutinised by any UN human rights body in five years, with the exception of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ evaluation in 2018.

A crisis off the radar

Since Haiti’s last review by the Human Rights Council (HRC)  in 2016, the country has progressively disappeared from the council’s radar despite a deteriorating economy, social and political instability and rising insecurity exacerbated under Jovenel Moïse’s four-year leadership.

Combined with a series of devastating natural disasters, Haiti has turned it into one of the ten humanitarian crises to watch in 2022, according to The New Humanitarian, along with Afghanistan and Myanmar.

While the evolution of Haiti’s political and humanitarian context is regularly discussed at the UN Security Council in New York, its broader human rights situation has been relatively sidelined over the years.

This wasn’t always the case. The HRC was regularly updated on the situation by the independent expert on Haiti, Gustavo Gallón. But the mandate was controversially cut short in 2017 following a request by Jovenel Moïse, freshly instated as the new head of state.

Since then, Haiti has not allowed any HRC-mandated expert to visit the country despite repeated requests. With no experts to report on Haiti, the country has fallen off Geneva’s radar.

A state in suspension

On Monday afternoon, more than 80 states including Switzerland, the UK, Germany as well as Barbados, Bahamas and neighbouring Dominican Republic took to the floor to assess Haiti’s progress on its human rights obligations and commitments, and to formulate new recommendations that could help the country address some of its most pressing issues.

Haiti’s increasingly volatile political climate and alarming insecurity, culminating with President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July last year, was at the heart of many states’ interventions.

Over a dozen countries pressed Haiti to urgently allocate sufficient means to its police to help tackle the spread of criminal armed gangs whose territorial control, according to some  civil society reports, covers  more than 60 per cent of the country, and whose activities have forcibly displaced tens of thousands only in the capital district in recent months.

Haiti has become the country with the highest rate of kidnapping per capita in the world, with 950 cases in 2021 alone, according to Centre d’Analyse et de Recherche en Droits de l’Homme, a Haitian human rights NGO which presented a report  to the UPR.

Echoing many civil society and UN concerns, most delegations also addressed the country’s dysfunctional judiciary system and generalised impunity. States including Australia, Switzerland, France and Mexico called on Haiti to urgently allocate human and budgetary resources for institutions to operate properly and to ensure that the judiciary is able to function, free from political interference, especially from the executive branch.

The justice system has been almost completely paralysed since 2018, leading to disastrous consequences on detention conditions; over 80 per cent of Haiti’s overcrowded prison population is in preventive detention and serious human rights violations, including a number of massacres in which members of the police allegedly took part, have yet to be investigated.

Journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers are also at risk. Five journalists have been killed since 2019 and in 2020 the president of Port-au-Prince’s Bar Association was murdered, Haiti’s minister of justice and public security, Me. Berto Docé, said in his opening statement at the UPR. These cases have yet to be prosecuted, creating an increasingly dangerous environment for these sectors to carry out their work.

Unrelenting natural disasters

Haiti has been battered by a string of earthquakes, hurricanes and floods over the last decade. Its geographical location makes the small island nation, already weakened by poverty and infighting, extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and to climate change.

The deadly earthquake of August 2021, which killed more than 2,000, displaced tens of thousands and devastated the southern parts of the country, was repeatedly brought up in Monday’s review, with many speakers expressing concerns over the prolonged negative repercussions of these catastrophes on Haitians human rights and the general instability of the country.

Last week, the country was hit by a 5.3-magnitude earthquake in the south of the country, killing at least two people. Heavy rains in the north over the past two days have displaced thousands from their homes.

Many recommendations of the review, including a fair number from fellow small island developing states like the Maldives and Fiji called on Haiti to implement adaptation and risk-reduction strategies, policies and frameworks to mitigate climate change’s impact.

Similar recommendations were also made by a growing number of other nations facing acute climate-change related challenges such as Nepal and Bangladesh.

While similar recommendations had been made in Haiti’s previous UPR, the rising number of interventions on this matter show the urgency of the issue as well as the growing consensus that climate change and human rights are one of the Council’s priorities.

A new OHCHR office?

Montenegro, Paraguay and Panama urged Haiti to support the establishment of a stand-alone Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the country. The recommendations echoed those already made by the secretary-general in September 2021.

Initial discussions had gone underway in 2019 between the government and the OHCHR, which is present in the country as part of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, however, no progress has been made since.

The recommending states and the secretary general argue that an independent office  would help guarantee a sustained collaboration between Haiti and the OHCHR on long-standing human rights issues while also continuing to support and strengthen civil society.

As a diplomatic source based in Geneva explained, a stand-alone OHCHR could also make the human rights situation in Haiti a lot more visible.

What can the UPR do?

One of the core strengths of the UPR is that it is virtually impossible for a state to avoid this evaluation, and no one is “above the rule”, the source said.

This unique state-driven process through which each UN member state’s human rights record is examined by its peers in a five-year cycle does not require the ratification of a treaty, and, with the exception of the postponement of a UPR session in March 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic, the evaluation calendar is relatively smooth.

The UPR process also offers a privileged space for civil society to engage at least in one review of their country’s human rights record within the UN human rights system and directly with diplomatic stakeholders in Geneva. In cases like Haiti, where no special rapporteur has been in the country and UN treaty bodies’ evaluations are delayed, these spaces are all the more important.

With Haiti’s review this week – along with other states such as Iceland, Uganda as well as Syria, Sudan and Venezuela – the UPR will conclude its third cycle, meaning that all 193 UN member states’ human rights record will have been evaluated three times since its creation in 2008.

As with any system, the UPR does have its flaws. Ultimately, it is up to the reviewed state to accept - and more importantly to implement - the recommendations it has received during its UPR. However, it can be a powerful tool to achieve meaningful progress in the field of human rights, says a diplomatic source, by creating momentum and mobilising national and international support for reaching certain targets accepted during the review.

Following the review, Haiti will now have to decide on what recommendations it will accept or reject. The adoption of the final outcome will take place at the HRC’s 50th session in June in an interactive dialogue during which civil society organisations will also be allowed to participate along with member-states.