On February 24th, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, along with the African Law Association (ALA), Coalition for Legal Recruiting (CoLR), Latino Law Student Association (LaLSA), Law Students for Economic Justice (LawSEJ), Law Students for Human Rights (LSHR), and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), hosted “Rebuilding Haiti,” featuring William O’Neill, Program Director for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council. O’Neill was senior advisor on human rights in the United Nations' mission in Kosovo, chief of the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, and also led the legal department of the U.N./OAS Mission in Haiti. He recently spent several weeks in Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake as a consultant with the U.N.

O’Neill began his talk by describing the severe humanitarian crisis that existed in Haiti before the earthquake struck. He noted the Haitian government’s ineffectiveness and the privatization of basic services over the past several years had resulted in systemic violations of the right to food, water, health, and education. The earthquake in January multiplied these pre-existing issues to an unimaginable degree, resulting in what he called the worst conditions he has ever witnessed throughout his career anywhere in the world. 

O’Neill focused his talk on three broad categories of challenges that Haiti is facing at the moment: humanitarian assistance, security, and the political situation. He described how the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) has developed what’s called a “cluster approach” to its humanitarian aid, grouping NGOs dealing with the same subject matter (such as food, shelter, etc.), in order to prevent duplication and to ensure maximum efficacy of its aid delivery. Although the delivery of food and shelter has been somewhat effective, he noted that OCHA’s performance has been severely inadequate with respect to the shelter and sanitation clusters and that this could have dramatic consequences for thousands of people in the coming months. 

Most people sleep under tents and there are few, if any, toilets or latrines available. In a few short weeks the rainy season will begin and the housing and sanitation situation will likely lead to another wave of health issues, such as waterborne illnesses and exposure. Of the approximately 1.1 million who have been left homeless in Port-Au-Prince, approximately 500,000 have fled to the homes of family members in rural areas. Before the earthquake most rural Haitians earned less than $2 per day and many earned less than $1 per day, so the massive influx of displaced people from Port-Au-Prince has resulted in a great humanitarian crisis in areas far beyond those directly affected by the earthquake. Furthermore, these rural areas have received almost no aid from the relief efforts, even though almost half of those affected are currently living there. 

O’Neill summed up his talk by saying that in spite of the institutional challenges with the Haitian government and international agencies, the Haitian people have reacted with their characteristic resilience and compassion. He shared several stories during the Q & A period about how Haitians have organized themselves and their communities, by setting up make-shift hospitals in public parks, taking turns teaching children their school lessons the streets, and helping one another clear debris and rebuild where structures were damaged.

Posted on March 8, 2010