By Sam Bojarski
Throughout 2020, human rights groups have raised the alarm about the rise in kidnappings and gang violence in Haiti.
“Insecurity, for me, brings me trauma, it brings me stress,” Sophonie, 16, of Thomassin, said in a phone interview. The Haitian Times has withheld Sophonie’s last name due to ongoing insecurity concerns.
“It’s not normal, because everybody’s afraid. We are afraid of each other,” said Sophonie.
Human rights groups have drawn a link between insecurity and human rights violations, some of which they say are committed by state-connected actors.
On Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), will hold a virtual hearing on impunity for ongoing human rights violations and lack of judicial independence in Haiti. IACHR, an organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), is allowing the public to register for a Zoom broadcast.
With elections likely this winter, observers have cited the rise in politically motivated violence as a major obstacle to a fair electoral process.
Alexandra Filippova, senior staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which requested the hearing, said IACHR has deep expertise in identifying and addressing impunity as well as judicial sector challenges.
IACHR examines human rights violations in the Western hemisphere. As a division of the OAS, it works with member states to resolve human rights issues and raise public awareness. IACHR holds accessible hearing sessions multiple times each year, Filippova said, with the last hearing on Haiti occurring in September 2019.
“We thought a thematic hearing before the commission at this time would help to advance the fight against impunity,” Filippova said. “[IACHR] can support constructive engagement and generate needed national and international attention for these issues.”
The hearing will build a collective understanding of victims’ desire for justice and awareness of past and ongoing human rights violations, Filippova added.
Both Filippova and Mario Joseph, managing director of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the Haitian affiliate of IJDH, will present during the hearing. Other presenters include Sonel Jean-Francois, director of judicial inspection for the Haitian government, and Lionel Constant Bourgoin, former director of Haiti’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
IACHR has invited representatives of the Haitian government to attend the hearing, according to a Dec. 7 press release from IJDH. The names of government representatives attending the hearing will not be released in advance, IJDH confirmed.
Rising violence and attacks on judiciary
International and local observers alike have voiced concern over the worsening security situation and climate of impunity this year.
During the first half of 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General reported a 200% increase in kidnappings compared to the prior year. In November, Haitian civil society groups reported 161 kidnappings during 2020, including 21 in October alone.
Gang violence in Port-au-Prince displaced at least 298 households through September, the UN reported.
High-profile incidents include an August massacre in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince that claimed 12 lives. Residents raised concerns about potential government complicity in the attack. A separate gang-related attack in the Pont Rouge neighborhood this May left six people dead.
In October, Gregory Saint-Hilaire, a student at the State University of Haiti, was killed during a protest. Other students on site alleged that law enforcement was responsible for his death.
The November kidnapping and murder of high school student Evelyn Sincere provoked widespread protests from students demanding accountability for the killing.
Amid the climate of fear caused by the rising violence comes a disruption of daily life. “People are afraid of going outside,” said Sophonie, the Thomassin resident. “Younger people are afraid of going out to walk on the street, to enjoy themselves.”
The August assassination of Monferrier Dorval, head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, highlights the persistent threat to the independence of Haiti’s judicial system, IJDH has reported.
Dorval was killed hours after giving a radio interview, during which he addressed controversial topics like constitutional reform, which President Jovenel Moise has advocated for.
The month following Dorval’s assassination, Judge Wendelle Coq, who serves on Haiti’s highest appeals court received death threats, which Haiti’s legal community condemned as an undermining of Haiti’s democratic standards.
Addressing human rights abuses
In June, two Port-au-Prince human rights organizations – Fondasyon Je Klere and the National Human Rights Defense Network – issued reports that spotlighted collusion between Haiti’s gangs and government actors, in an alleged attempt to control the outcome of next year’s elections.
The lack of accountability for human rights violations by state agents “remains concerning, because of the chronic absence of progress on judicial proceedings against alleged perpetrators, including those within the national police,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote in a September report.
A failure to prosecute those responsible for high-profile killings like the 2018 La Saline massacre, the report also noted, has perpetuated the climate of impunity. The government has an obligation to ensure that individuals with alleged implication in armed attacks do not remain at large, the report said.
The report also called for the government to allocate budgetary resources to its National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission.
Filippova said she hopes the Dec. 10 hearing will help identify concrete steps for addressing instances of impunity, as well as improving the independence and capacity of the Haitian judiciary.
“Since we think there is a clear and direct link between pervasive impunity and judicial dysfunction and current violence and human rights abuses, we also believe this is a path to broader human rights improvements in Haiti,” Filippova said.