When the police arrived at Haiti’s Camp Django this summer, they started negotiations by offering money to anyone willing to relocate. It went downhill from there.
When earthquake refugees told the police that $125 each was not enough to find new shelter, the police grew more forceful. A man was knocked to the ground, a woman beaten. Panic set in.
“Everyone started running, so I did too, until I was out of the camp. I later called home and learned that the police broke into my shelter and kicked out my seven-year-old son,” one camp resident described.
Her account is one of many documented in videos and testimony collected by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a U.S.-based advocacy group, and its partners.
When dealing with people struggling to find their next meal, the idea that these same people are frustrating someone else’s land rights is probably the last thing on the mind of an outside observer.
However, the eviction of refugees from camps is an ongoing problem a year after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures which obligated the temporary government to put a moratorium on evictions until the transition to a new government. The evictions are partly a product of property owners and opportunists who want to make use of the land and also a result of government efforts to move the country out of its post-natural disaster state.
Since the Commission’s decision, a new administration has indeed come to power, expressing criticism of evictions. Instead, President Mitchel Martelly pledged to close camps and move people into rehabilitated neighborhoods. A few camps, including one in the National Stadium, have closed so far (more from the AP), but the second part of the president’s pledge has yet to be fully realized. IJDH says the people evicted are not receiving promised support and are not being involved in the planning of resettlement.
The latest estimate from the International Organization for Migration is that roughly 550,560 Haitians live in camps, with about 60 percent of them in 61 large camps of more than 500 households each. These people do not want to live in camps, but most have nowhere else to go, according to surveys by IJDH.
Principles on resettlement
There are two documents that are particularly helpful in establishing the international standard for the treatment of displaced people: the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (annotated) and the Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (commonly called the Pinheiro Principles).
Although not binding treaties themselves, the documents’ stated purpose is to synthesize international human rights law as it relates to displaced persons on behalf of the United Nations. The Handbook for the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement further distills the ideas with information on their practical application. The most basic articulation of the international law on point is that the local national government is responsible for the protection of displaced persons and that being displaced does not deny someone access to any of their basic human rights.
The section of the Handbook on the principles of return and resettlement says:
“Internally displaced persons have the right to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. This right is the logical extension of the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose one’s residence . . . Similarly, internally displaced persons should not be forced to return home against their will.” Referencing Guiding Principle 28.1.
Pinheiro also warns the government against forced displacement in Principle 5.4.
“States shall take steps to ensure that no one is subjected to displacement by either State or non-State actors. States shall also ensure that individuals, corporations, and other entities within their legal jurisdiction or effective control refrain from carrying out or otherwise participating in displacement.”
Although this part of the text refers to displacement, not resettlement, forced resettlement is simply a second round of displacement to what is hopefully a more permanent home. As noted in other sections, resettlement should be voluntary and people should have the freedom to choose where they resettle. The principles do stress the importance of government-facilitated reintegration, but that requires creating resettlement options that actually appeal to people. Generally speaking, displaced people want to move on, just not into a worse situation.
|flikr, Lee Cohen|
Also, the principles emphasize that any resettlement should be done with input from the people to be resettled (Principle 28.2), something that IJDH said has not happened sufficiently in Haiti. Only about a third of the people interviewed said they had heard their camp was closing, and about half of those informed said they had found out through rumors. The vast majority stated they had not been asked for their opinions on the plans.
Asking for an international remedy
In its initial petition to the Inter-American Commission, IJDH cited the principles and also said evictions violated the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition alleged the government endangered children (Article 19), allowed attacks on privacy and dignity (Article 11), literally crushed property rights (Article 21) with bulldozers, and denied due process and judicial protection (Articles 8 and 25). It also said the government did not treat refugees in a humane manner (Article 5) and generally failed to respect the lives of the displaced persons (Article 4).
Due process is a particularly troublesome issue with evictions taking place without court orders. In theory, the Haitian law on eviction is similar to that in the United States. Notice must be given, court dates set, and proof of ownership presented.
Part of the problem is that land ownership was poorly documented even before the earthquake. But IJDH says the difficulty in proving who is the rightful owner is all the more reason that purported landowners should be required to file an eviction lawsuit in court.
One purported landowner locked the gates around a camp and ringed it with barbed wire and broken glass, blocking access to food and water instead of obtaining a court order, according to IJDH’s petition. Residents of another camp, in a park in the middle of a traffic roundabout, claimed they were harassed by men with “guns, machetes, stones, bottles, and other items.” Camp residents suspect the bandits were hired to clear the land for a music group that wanted to host a concert in the park.
In addition to due process and other rights from the American Convention, the petition also invoked the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women. The media has well-documented the threat of rape and abuse in camps because of a lack of security provided.
It is a compelling case for intervention. The trouble is how to intervene.
Where to now?
Based on the petition, the commission granted the precautionary measures barring evictions in 2010, but it has not been able to get permission from the government to make an in-country visit.
The Inter-American Commission called IJDH and the Haitian government together for a working session in Washington, D.C., in October at IJDH’s request, but the Haitian government did not show up. At another working session on a different issue, Haitian representatives told the commission they could not attend the eviction session because Haiti had just finished swearing in new officials the previous day (see video on the situation of the judiciary in Haiti).
Commission members have said they remain optimistic, especially with the new Haitian administration at least trying to put a plan in place. The Haitian government, after all, has a lot on its plate in sorting out how to salvage a country that was fraught with corruption and poverty even before the earthquake pulled its capital city to the ground.
IJDH, meanwhile, is still trying to find a way forward. The organization had scored a big win – a treaty body issued an order based on its petition. But now they are contemplating what has been accomplished if there are no concrete changes or enforcement measures.
The organization also has sent letters to United Nations officials with limited response. However, the UN has said it is trying to discourage evictions.
|flikr, Lee Cohen|
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people are living in fear that they will be forced from what little left they have to call home.